St. Petersburg Republican wants to derail regional transit agency

A bill filed Monday would dismantle the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority, which Sen. Jeff Brandes calls a duplicate of state and local efforts.
Traffic streams toward St. Petersburg southbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021.
Traffic streams toward St. Petersburg southbound on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 11, 2021|Updated Feb. 11, 2021

Four years after the Legislature restructured the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority, Sen. Jeff Brandes is seeking to dismantle the entity altogether.

The first iteration, created in 2007, focused on transportation solutions across the Tampa Bay region. But in 2017, the Legislature narrowed the focus from seven to five counties and tasked the body to bring a region-wide transit system to the area.

But board members were still discussing the design last month on a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit line. It could be a decade before completion.

”It’s like the appendix of the legislative process,” said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. “You’ll be just fine without it, and nobody really knows what it does anyway.”

Brandes filed a bill on Monday that would dismantle the regional transit authority, leaving the individual metropolitan planning organizations that operate independently. He called it a duplicate of state and local transit agencies that isn’t “tackling the regional needs.”

Supporters of the regional authority say no multi-county transit system can be developed without a centralized entity to fight for federal dollars and coordinate the interests of multiple counties. Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, a board member on the regional transit authority, said dismantling the body “would set our region back for decades” as local officials try to bring a solution to one of the worst public transit systems in America.

“What he’s forgetting is that transportation funding has not changed in 50 years, so we’re still held to the same rigid and very tight parameters on how you get big things done,” Long said. “It’s another example of Tallahassee trying to tie the hands of folks who are trying to do good things to move our economy to move our transportation to move our issues regionally.”

At a Pinellas County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Long pointed to progress of the SunRunner, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s 10-mile bus rapid transit line that broke ground last year which will connect St. Petersburg downtown and the beaches. The regional transit agency’s proposed line would use the SunRunner’s corridor in its 41-mile route.

But Long also acknowledged some of the problems: the board has not been able to take an official vote on any activity since October because not enough of the 11 members show up to make a quorum.

In a statement, David Green, executive director of the regional transit authority, said the body acts as a regional voice to bring state and federal funding to the area.

But there is a schism on the board. Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp supports Brandes’s bill, saying the regional transit authority “has been a barrier for us to move ahead to bring real transit options to Tampa Bay.”

She said the current bus rapid transit plan, which would link Wesley Chapel to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, has overlap that would compete with existing local bus service.

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For being the main mission of the entity, “it’s an embarrassing and unserious project,” Kemp said.

She also sees the body as diverting money from local metropolitan planning organizations “to support this less than 10 member staff that operates no transit.”

Board member and Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey opposes Brandes’s bill, noting Tampa Bay is the largest metro area without a solution for regional traffic.

“Rather than dismantle it, I would ask that all counties be required to help in the solution,” Starkey said.

She said Kemp’s resistance to the bus rapid transit plan is “blocking a solution,” which Kemp said was “just nonsense.”

Representatives from the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority did not respond to questions about how the potential dismantling of the regional body would affect their local efforts.

The regional transit authority’s budget for the current fiscal year, as proposed last August, is $6.6 million, much of it from various state transportation grants. It is expected to spend $6.4 million mostly on professional services and one of its goals for this year is to increase the number of vehicles in its van pool ride-sharing program from 150 to 203.

Brandes’s measure could fare well in the Republican-led Legislature. A spokeswoman for Speaker of the Florida House Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said he is “excited about every effort to hold government and quasi-government entities accountable.”

Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, represents area business interests and lobbied for the 2017 bill that restructured the regional transit agency. He said a dismantling of a centralized body would make it more difficult for local transit agencies to collaborate on everything from planning new routes to collaborating on equipment purchases.

“The issue of regional transit is also an issue of racial equity and providing connectivity to provide equality across jobs, education and health care,” Homans said. “To build out a regional transit system, one has to have a regional transit authority.”