1. Opinion

Guide Pinellas, Hillsborough bus service talks along productive route

The bus systems in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties serve distinct populations, and it is too early to make an informed decision on whether merging them is the smartest thing to do. But neither side should fear the bill by Sen. Jack Latvala that calls for exploring the idea. The Clearwater Republican, whose district includes parts of both sides of the bay, should adjust the bill to avoid micromanaging this discussion — and to ease local concerns about his intentions. But his concept is sound and the results could benefit both sides, regardless of whether the two agencies merge or not.

Latvala included the merger language on the last two pages of SB 1866, a wide-ranging seaport and transportation bill. It calls on the two agencies — the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit — to meet over the coming year to discuss ways to improve "connectivity" across the region. But the bill stops short of forcing consolidation. It merely asks for recommendations on the idea and on a lesser proposal to share operations. That latitude of that language is significant coming from a legislator not known for his subtlety.

The two agencies share some outward similarities. Both are cash-strapped and lack the revenue base to meaningfully improve service to their 13 million riders. But the challenges are different between serving Pinellas' dense urban population and those in Hillsborough's far-flung suburbs. And the savings from reducing staff is questionable. Most bus system employees are drivers and mechanics — not high-priced administrators. Major cuts in overhead requires major cuts to routes. Then there is the issue of parity. Will Clearwater residents be as well served as those in Sun City Center or Tampa?

Latvala is smartly pushing the discussion of transit toward a regional framework. Done right, that's the ideal approach. And a serious exploration of the strengths and weaknesses of PSTA and HART could as easily make the argument against — and not for — consolidation. That's the whole purpose of the talks over the next year.

Latvala's bill should guide this process, not micromanage it. He should remove the requirement that the two agencies' governing boards meet every 45 days. The boards have schedules of their own; what matters is that they come up with recommendations on a merger by the deadline of 2013. It also is unfair to force the counties to pay the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority up to $100,000 to ride herd on this discussion. If the Legislature wants an overseer at the table, the Legislature can pay for it. The issue is not only money; the two counties will be more open to a merger if they feel the decision is still locally controlled. Latvala is moving the agencies in the right direction. They deserve an opportunity to take it from here.