Katharine Eagan's departure as the chief executive of Hillsborough Regional Transit to run the transit agency in Pittsburgh reflects the sorry state of transportation in Tampa Bay. While there recently has been encouraging movement on several fronts, it should be no surprise she would want to move from a region with cash-strapped bus systems and no light rail to a multi-transit provider five times bigger than HART. The region is losing a dynamic leader, and Tampa Bay has to change its perception of public transit as a last resort for poor people to one that sees it as an asset used by everyone.
Eagan will leave in January to become chief executive of the Port Authority of Allegheny, Pa., which provides public transit in the Pittsburgh area. That system includes nearly 800 buses and more than 80 light rail vehicles on a 26-mile line serving about 200,000 riders a day. Compared to Hillsborough, the Pittsburgh authority serves five times the number of riders and fields four times as many buses as HART. It spends twice as much as the bay area does on bus service alone, even though the two regions have similar populations, and its overall transit spending is four times that of Hillsborough and Pinellas combined.
Eagan understandably was attracted to the challenge and the chance to live closer to her family. But the lesson for the bay area is that a much larger market had confidence in Eagan's ability to manage what she didn't have here. Eagan previously worked at transit authorities in Baltimore and Dallas, joining HART in 2009 and rising to CEO in 2014. She is an innovator who boosted ridership and fare box proceeds and created new partnerships with private transit companies. Lately, though, she has had to consolidate bus routes to serve the busiest areas in the face of a budget crunch.
The Tampa Bay Times reported earlier this year that the bay area's transit system is one of the nation's worst, connecting fewer people to fewer jobs than systems in similar-sized communities. This is the direct result of a poor vision for transit and a lack of adequate funding across the region. Local and state leaders are working more closely together, examining whether to expand Tampa's streetcar further north downtown, exploring new regional transit corridors and taking a fresh look at expansion plans for the interstates to include bus or rail options. But those plans will be in flux for another year or more, meaning Eagan's departure comes as a critical time.
Eagan is right; the HART post would be "very attractive for the next whiz kid in transit," given the planning in progress and the new commitment by local and state transportation authorities to work together. But there needs to be a fundamental shift in how Tampa Bay thinks about public transit, which too often still is equated with public housing — something often grudgingly provided to those who cannot afford any other option.
Mass transit in other metro areas is a preferred option for those across the financial spectrum. It is the lifeline between downtowns and the suburbs, airports and major employment centers. Reducing the need for a car also can free up 25 percent or more in household incomes, putting money into the pockets of lower-wage earners, giving middle-class residents the chance to buy first homes and making older neighborhoods ripe for revitalization. A 2012 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that earnings of transit riders in Pittsburgh were about 80 percent of the median of all area commuters. None of the four Florida cities included in the survey (Tampa Bay was not represented) had ridership with anywhere near that mix of incomes.
HART will need a successor who can build on Eagan's work. And the region needs to think more seriously about how transit both brings people from all walks of life to work and brings more work of all types to the region.