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Tampa Bay transit authority ponders its own future

Three consecutive years of gubernatorial vetoes spark questions of relevancy.
A rendering from WSP Engineering shows what a potential neighborhood station could look like for a 41-mile bus rapid transit line connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
A rendering from WSP Engineering shows what a potential neighborhood station could look like for a 41-mile bus rapid transit line connecting Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. [ WSP Engineering ]
Published Jul. 18

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ veto pen has members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority wondering if the agency should continue to exist.

The state created the authority, known commonly by the acronym TBARTA, in 2007 as a seven-county transportation planning agency. The Legislature paired its members to five counties and the cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa in 2017 and refocused its mission on transit.

In June, DeSantis vetoed legislative appropriations to the authority for a third consecutive year. The Legislature’s budget had included $1.375 million for the agency for operating expenses and a commuter transportation service. State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, also made a second, unsuccessful attempt to disband the agency via proposed legislation.

“I would guess that we will not be contributing,” Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long said Friday about her county’s matching contribution to the authority. “There are too many questions coming from too many of the members about what is the relevance” of the authority.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, shown during a Feb. 8 commission meeting in Clearwater, said Friday she doesn't believe the rest of the Pinellas commission will support a continued county appropriation for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.
Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, shown during a Feb. 8 commission meeting in Clearwater, said Friday she doesn't believe the rest of the Pinellas commission will support a continued county appropriation for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Long’s comments came during a pair of committee meetings for the agency, which canceled its previously planned full board meeting. The group has not met since May and is not scheduled to convene again until Aug. 26. That, too, didn’t sit well with Long.

“We have no money from the state — again — and we don’t have any conversation scheduled for what is the future of (the authority)? I find that so irresponsible, I don’t even know where to begin,” she said.

She suggested the agency could be absorbed as part of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council or be run under a contract with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Pinellas County contributed $163,000 to the authority in its current fiscal year and is scheduled to kick in $117,000 in the next budget. The amount dropped because the city of St. Petersburg is being asked to allocate $45,000. It had not contributed financially in the past.

The city of Tampa has said it will not help finance the authority, choosing instead to allocate its resources toward more pressing transportation needs in the city. Hillsborough County has not released its proposed budget yet. Commission chairperson Kimberly Overman, a member of the transit authority, said she would support Hillsborough’s continued participation.

“It’s not the time to throw in the towel,” she said.

Her counterpart, Commissioner Pat Kemp, did not attend the committee meetings Friday, but has been critical of the authority in the past. She previously stated support for Brandes’ bill to dissolve the agency. Hillsborough is the largest local contributor to the authority. It gave it $248,000 in the current budget and is being asked to contribute $178,000 in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.

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The authority’s proposed budget for the coming year is $2.4 million, mostly from state and federal sources. Local governments are expected to contribute a combined $538,000 to finance, among other things, the $120,000 allocated for federal and state lobbyists.

Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey and Hernando Commissioner Jeff Holcomb said their counties would continue allocations to the authority. Holcomb, however, urged the agency to narrow its focus and noted the board received a recent presentation on commuter helicopter service “that seems pretty out of scope.”

“I’ve had some struggles with what’s our focus?” he said.

The authority currently has two feasibility studies underway on a regional rapid bus service from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg and on aerial gondolas in two Pinellas corridors.

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