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Just along for the ride

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Can anyone not on the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's payroll make a persuasive argument for keeping the county's mass transit agency? Nothing in HARTline's infamous history of ineptitude compares to the role it played in the recent collapse of a major countywide transportation plan. About the only good that comes from this lost opportunity is the chance to shake up the agency that runs the bus system, with an eye toward crafting a vision for mass transit.

So little was asked of HARTline recently that it appeared a long-range transportation plan might finally get off the ground. Before the county commission would approve new taxes and fees to pay for roadway and mass transit improvements, commissioners wanted some idea how HARTline would spend millions of additional dollars.

That agency should have had clear and specific answers. But at an emergency meeting Oct. 14, for which the staff was unprepared, HARTline confused the issue, to the point that even tax supporters had to acknowledge the agency lacked vision.

For years, HARTline has suffered from poor leadership and strategic disarray. It badly needs a new director and a new governing board. HARTline's failure to anticipate the commission's request for a plan to improve bus service is inexcusable _ this debate over transportation has gone on for months. The staff and the board failed their public duty.

Did HARTline think it could sit on the sidelines when improving bus service was a key component of the entire transit plan? Why did it bob and weave, avoid specifics and act as if it wasn't answerable for the millions of new dollars in tax revenue?

And what about those on HARTline's board who have no apparent grasp of why mass transit exists or why a countywide bus system is so important? Board member Ronda Storms ought to resign for being so dishonest throughout this debate about what the plan did and didn't call for. She did a good job of smearing the plan as a scheme to have the suburbs pay for urban transit _ where does that morning traffic on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway come from? _ and she pegged the plan as a stalking horse for urban rail. Rail was never a factor, and Storms knows it.

The three commission Republicans were never helpful in this debate, but they at least remained in character, unlike a HARTline board member who trashed _ of all things _ the logic of linking mass transit with growth management. No wonder HARTline runs an underfunded bus system. Its board is the agency's own worst advocate. Hillsborough needs a clearer idea of the role mass transit should play in this community, and a new leadership team to drive those hopes forward.