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A Times Editorial

Uniting Pinellas, Hillsborough bus service is route worth considering

State Sen. Jack Latvala, whose district includes Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, has floated a plan to consolidate the public bus systems on both sides of Tampa Bay. The idea is worth exploring, even if there are few obvious similarities between serving Pinellas' dense urban population and Hillsborough's sprawling suburbs. The real potential here is to strengthen the financial picture for two bus systems that together move 26 million people a year. Latvala has the influence on both sides of the bay to bring people together and create a more regional approach to transit.

Latvala, R-Clearwater, met over the summer with transit officials in both Hillsborough and Pinellas. His idea, in the earliest stages, is to explore whether consolidation would save the agencies money while improving service. On a superficial level, the two systems share some traits. Both are $60 million operations that depend heavily on property taxes to fund their 200-vehicle fleets. Both have reduced the number of routes and pared down their expenses to balance the budget. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit increased property taxes to its maximum half mil this year; the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority increased its property tax rate to just under its three-quarter-mil cap. So it makes sense — if the agencies have exhausted their property tax base, and if the housing market is not expected to recover any time soon — for both agencies to examine their financial futures and the benefits of consolidation.

The two agencies might be able to combine some back-office operations, such as human resources, planning, marketing and finance. But the majority of employees at bus agencies are not managerial or professional, but feet on the street — drivers and mechanics. Cutting salaries and other major expenses would seem to require cutting routes. These agencies are already in that dilemma now. The goal of this effort should be to make the bus systems more sustainable, not merely to lump two troubled agencies into a single morass.

This discussion, though, could build on the progress in recent years to better integrate transit systems throughout the region. Having a single agency operate bus, rail and other mass transit could vastly expand commuter options between the downtowns, airports, colleges and beaches. PSTA and HART already run buses into each other's territory. The secret is making service as equitable for Clearwater as it would be for East Tampa. Any combined system would have to be responsive to its participating communities. That's why it is important for Latvala to bring people together to find a consensus, and he knows how to persuade interests to find common ground or risk having the ground rules set for them. Latvala, to his credit, says he's not in a rush and that any proposal should make sense to both counties. This debate has a long way to go, but it is headed in the right direction and could help unite the region in ways that would make it more economically competitive.

Uniting Pinellas, Hillsborough bus service is route worth considering 09/28/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 28, 2011 4:57pm]
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