Monday, January 9, 2012

HART board votes to reject possible merger with PSTA

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 4:41 PM

HartBus.jpg
Months after the suggestion first arrived via Clearwater-area GOP state Senator Jack Latvala, the boards of the region's two biggest transit agencies, HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency) and PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority), met Monday afternoon at HART's offices in Ybor City to discuss the possibility of merging into one agency.

The members were remarkably unified — in opposing the idea.

HART members voted to send a letter to Senator Latvala saying they do not support such a bill, which Latvala had filed earlier on Monday. Pinellas transit members did not go quite as far, voting to delegate the matter to their Legislative Committee (with St. Pete City Council member Jeff Danner and Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch dissenting, saying, "Let's not go to war with the Senator").

Board members from both agencies did agree that there were plenty of areas in which they could work together for savings and efficiencies, and said they would elect members of a new joint committee to look into that.

Their discussion followed a presentation by HART Vice Chair Dr. Steven Polzin. He argued that, despite the perception that a merger would be a progressive development for the area, there was very little upside to such a move.

Polzin, a transportation engineer at USF who is considered the wisest HART board member on transportation, produced statistics showing that Hillsborough and Pinellas are very different and unique counties. Among his statistics: Hillsborough has grown over 30 percent in the past decade, while Pinellas has actually shrunk by half-a-percent, and Pinellas' millage rate was 40-50 percent higher than Hillsborough's.

After the presentation, HART board member Karen Jaroch said she considered Latvala's bill a "hostile takeover," and urged her colleagues to send a letter to the Senator rejecting the idea.

Several PSTA members who have met with Senator Latvala said Jaroch's comment was over the top, and that Latvala was simply advocating for "better connectivity" between the agencies. One PSTA official said he believed Latvala was thinking of bringing the agencies together in the same fashion that led to the formation of Tampa Bay Water in the late 1990s.

Board members also took issue with a portion of the bill that proposes that the agencies would pay TBARTA expenses "not to exceed" $100,000 for facilitating such a merger.

HART board member Ron Govin said the proposal went "way beyond what we need to look at," while acknowledging that the two agencies should have no problem collaborating to find additional savings together.

Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART member Sandy Murman said she was disturbed that the Legislature "wanted to control our transportation system," urging that with the session beginning on Tuesday, it was important to say "We're going to be in charge of our communities."

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