It’s time to take a closer look at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority | Editorial
Legislation calls for study to weigh pros and cons of dissolving the Hillsborough transit agency.
A state House bill calls for studying the dissolution of Hillsborough County's transit authority, shown here during a meeting March 6 in Tampa.
A state House bill calls for studying the dissolution of Hillsborough County's transit authority, shown here during a meeting March 6 in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published March 23|Updated March 23

The turmoil at Hillsborough County’s transit agency has finally raised a larger question: How have management problems at Hillsborough Area Regional Transit affected the people who depend on bus service? And would we all be better off with HART gone?

Those questions are at the heart of a House bill sponsored by state Rep. Lawrence McClure that would explore either dissolving or transferring HART’s staff, funding and operations. House Bill 1397 calls on the Florida Department of Transportation to study the potential dissolution of HART with an eye toward cost-saving efficiencies and enhancing regional transit. A report to the governor and legislative leaders would be due Jan. 1.

McClure, R-Plant City, said his goal is not to reduce or end existing bus services. “I’m not on board with that,” he told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. “Quite the contrary.” Rather, McClure said, he is concerned that HART’s ongoing management problems are undermining the agency’s effectiveness.

In November, HART’s governing board launched an outside investigation into allegations of a hostile work environment and the double-dipping of a top staffer after a series of Times reports. The agency has also been plagued by subpar route performance, churn among staff and lingering vacancies. Last month, officials announced the authority is facing a fiscal cliff in 2024 — two years sooner than previous predictions. Reversing this downward trajectory is critical to continued growth and urban renewal in Florida’s fourth-most populous county.

McClure said he wants to understand if HART is “on-mission or off,” and if the problem is leadership, explore what alternative might better serve commuters and taxpayers. The study would examine the pros and cons of dissolving HART’s governing structure and powers, a drawdown or transfer of staff and a handoff of facilities and operations. It would explore any legal or financial hurdles to restructuring and any impacts the move might have on access to state or federal grants. An earlier version of the bill called for the study to include considering a merger between HART and its counterpart across the bay, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. McClure said narrowing the focus to HART made sense, given its ongoing troubles and the prospect that more limited reforms might be appropriate.

We’re unsure where this is headed. In general, though, we support a closer look at HART, and an outside examination of its governing structure and operation could help the agency regain its feet. Its 14-member board seems large and unwieldy, and it hasn’t exercised tight control over the years. A study conducted in response to legislation in 2012 found that merging the Hillsborough and Pinellas agencies would produce only modest savings. Updating those figures would be helpful. But the point here should be about more than dollars and cents.

This study offers an opportunity to highlight HART’s operating culture. That’s the first step in correcting weaknesses in the mass transit system. But the exercise needs to be carried out carefully if the goal is improving transit across Tampa Bay.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.