PSTA, HART ask lawmakers to pay for a second merger study

Published Dec. 11, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — After debating for three hours the merits and pitfalls of combining their large, yet impoverished, transit agencies, Hillsborough and Pinellas officials finally found common ground.

On Monday, the two boards chose to postpone making a decision, deciding instead to ask Tallahassee for more money for an in-depth study.

A preliminary study of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit found that merging the two agencies could save about $2.4 million annually. But board members from both sides of the bay have challenged those figures, saying that higher salaries and new obligations could erase any savings from cutting duplicative positions.

That study also proposed a third route, a formal partnership called a joint powers authority. In this scenario, the agencies could combine their administrations, consolidating staff and equipment in one headquarters. But legally, they would remain separate entities, responsible for setting their own fares and bus routes.

Though some members of the Hillsborough board talked about the importance of regional transit, the majority of the board's distaste for a formal alliance was obvious. When Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman suggested asking the state Legislature to pass a law allowing the agencies to form a joint powers authority, her colleagues shot it down.

But the Feb. 1 deadline to make a legislative recommendation, which is required by the law mandating the merger study, is fast approaching.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, who sponsored legislation forcing the two sides to consider a merger, urged them to give it serious thought on Monday. He reminded the agencies that both are close to financial disaster, with their expenses growing and their tax rates already at, or near, their legal limit.

Latvala has said that if PSTA and HART don't find a way to ally themselves and save money, he will not support increasing their tax rate caps.

"It's a clear-cut deal here," he said. "How can we be in politics and how can we represent the taxpayers if we have an example like this of something we're shown could save a substantial amount of money, and we don't take advantage of it?"