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Published Nov. 20, 2012

County officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough are being too quick to dismiss the potential upside of merging the two counties' mass transit agencies. A preliminary consultant report delivered last week found that a merger could save $2.4 million a year - money the bay area could pour back into its cash-strapped bus systems to meet the rising demand for passenger service. The idea is not without problems. But the potential savings and improved service are substantial. The matter deserves more serious consideration.

The Legislature called for the study of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority this year after Pinellas state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater said the two agencies might operate more efficiently by combining under one umbrella.

The agencies serve distinct populations, yet their missions, size and budget pressures are similar. As the study makes clear, most of the costs in operating a bus system are tied up in drivers and mechanics. But there are opportunities to wring some efficiencies. Consultants said the two agencies could save $2.4 million a year by flattening the senior management ranks of two separate bureaucracies. A combined operation would need only one director of marketing, human resources and so on.

The report singled out other potential cost benefits, too, from saving on warehousing and office space to employee training. And over time, a single agency could save money and serve customers better by picking and choosing between what PSTA and HART each do best. That could involve fielding a more efficient bus fleet or installing more convenient fare options. And it would put local officials in a more regional mind-set as they address transit throughout Tampa Bay.

Of course, the two agencies could collaborate in a host of ways short of consolidating. And a merger raises political and legal hurdles, too, requiring approval by the Legislature, the agencies and local voters. But the debate should not revolve around what the employee unions want or what an administrative hassle a merger would be. The structure is not as important as the ideal approach for improving transit long term.

The bay area already takes a regional view in managing its highways, water resources, job development efforts and other assets that provide this area's quality of life. The two transit agencies need to look at what works best for customers and taxpayers - not for managers and boards that are protecting their own turf. The consultants should focus the benefits and drawbacks in the coming weeks, and the two transit agencies should welcome a full and honest discussion of how to move ahead.