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Tampa Bay transit authority approaches its final run

The state-created planning board and legislators will consider dismantling the agency formed in 2007.
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. The agency planning the project, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, is now scheduled to consider voting itself out of existence.
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. The agency planning the project, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, is now scheduled to consider voting itself out of existence. [ WSP Engineering ]
Published Jan. 17|Updated Jan. 17

Tampa Bay’s regional transit authority will consider voting itself out of existence this week and state legislators are slated to do likewise in the coming months.

The expected demise of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority would put a final exclamation point on 16 years of transportation planning futility, with only a small-scale commuter van pool program as a notable accomplishment.

State Rep. Jeff Holcomb, R-Spring Hill, filed a bill Jan. 10 to dissolve the authority and Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-St. Petersburg, followed suit three day later. DiCeglie is chairperson of the Senate Transportation Committee and Holcomb, a former Hernando County commissioner, served on the authority’s governing board in 2021-22. Former Sen. Jeff Brandes also attempted to dissolve the agency.

The proposed legislation coincides with plans for the authority’s board to consider shutting down the agency by year’s end, returning unspent federal grants and reimbursing five county governments a pro-rated share of their previous dues. The estimated refunds total $223,500 and range from just less than $12,000 for Hernando to $90,500 for Hillsborough. The board is scheduled to vote on that proposal Friday.

Related: Tampa Bay transit agency deads for derailment

The Legislature created the agency, known commonly by the acronym TBARTA, in 2007 as a seven-county planning authority. A decade later, legislators shrunk the membership to five counties and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg and refocused its mission exclusively on transit.

But the agency, which had no taxing authority, couldn’t overcome parochial concerns in attempting to plan its first major project — a 41-mile bus rapid transit project linking Wesley Chapel to Tampa and St. Petersburg along Interstates 75 and 275.

The agency, said Hillsborough Commissioner Pat Kemp, “frequently has been a distraction from doing what we all really need to do. It’s just too big, trying to do too much … and it was doing it all with little to nothing in resources.”

Kemp routinely criticized the rapid transit project as a duplication of services that could be provided by existing bus agencies if they had additional funding.

“Most of what transit is is operational, and we seem to just focus on unnecessary, overbloated capital investment,” she said.

Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey, however, pointed blame at Hillsborough.

“I’m really sad that it got to this, but when you have the main county — which all projects have to go through — not wanting to participate in regional programs, what are you going to do? We tried and tried and tried,” said Starkey.

The authority’s future has been in doubt since June 2022, when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed legislative appropriations to the authority for a third consecutive year. The Legislature had included $1.375 million for the agency’s operating expenses and the commuter transportation service.

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Some members of the authority — consisting of Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee counties and the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg — also passed on providing continued financing.

The agency previously had a $2.4 million annual budget of mostly state and federal grants and said it would become insolvent in early 2024.