The region’s transit planning agency could face derailment in Tallahassee after state Sen. Jeff Brandes said he will again propose legislation in 2022 to dismantle it.
“If there is another more useless entity in government in the Tampa Bay area, I don’t know what it is,” said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, referring to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.
His comments to the Tampa Bay Times came after the authority’s governing board, known commonly by the acronym TBARTA, failed to attract an in-person quorum for its meeting on Friday, July 16.
Executive Director David Green defended his agency’s performance.
“No other agency provides such an opportunity to bring much-needed state and federal transit funding to Tampa Bay. We produced Envision 2030, Tampa Bay’s first regional transit development plan, a task no local organization could do,” Green said, noting the authority also launched a regional ride service for transportation disadvantaged that provided more than 4,000 rides over seven months.
But the governing board has met officially twice this year, in February and in April, when Brandes’ initial bill to do away with the agency was pending in the Legislature. That bill died in the Senate.
This year, the authority’s meetings in January, May and last week failed to gain a quorum. Meetings were not scheduled in March and June.
“I think this just highlights the fact that this is an entity that no longer needs to exist,” said Brandes.
The agency, covering Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties, is charged with developing a regional transit system. The state created the agency in 2007 with a broader focus on transportation issues, but winnowed its mission exclusively to transit in 2017.
The inability of the agency’s board to act has delayed progress on a proposed 41-mile bus rapid transit line from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg. The board has yet to settle on a preferred alternative for how the service would operate amid dissent from Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp. She has argued bus rapid transit would duplicate local service from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency.
Last week, the authority acknowledged its dawdling pace.
“We’ve been trying to get a vote on the (locally preferred alternative) since January. The study is now six months behind schedule. We actually were supposed to be finished by now,” said Brian Pessaro, the agency’s principal planner.
Though Brandes’ proposed legislation didn’t muster widespread support in Tallahassee, the agency’s finances did draw gubernatorial scrutiny. For the second consecutive year, Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed the authority’s $1.5 million appropriation from the Legislature’s approved budget.
The veto, “I think, caught a lot of us flat-footed. We were pretty surprised by that,” said the agency’s lobbyist, Ron Pierce.
But Brandes wasn’t. He said he relayed his concern’s about the authority to the governor’s office.
“I think they very well understood where I stood on that issue,” he said.
The authority’s 13-member governing board has two vacancies, both reserved for gubernatorial appointments. Each county currently has an elected commissioner assigned as a member, along with the mayors of St. Petersburg and Tampa, representatives of the transit agencies serving Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and two other gubernatorial appointees.
To try to bolster in-person attendance, the directors said they will consider amending their bylaws so that the mayors can assign proxies to fill in when they are unable to attend.
That maneuver, however, does have one challenge to overcome.
To vote on amending its bylaws, the board needs a quorum.