Monday, February 6, 2012

HART director fears federal funding cut could damage agency's future

Posted By on Mon, Feb 6, 2012 at 2:05 PM

HART CEO David Hale
  • HART CEO Philip Hale
A proposal by the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee to divert $25 billion in dedicated gas taxes could be a serious threat to the future existence of HART, the Hillsborough County transit agency.

That was the message conveyed Monday morning by HART's CEO Philip Hale at the agency's board meeting in downtown Tampa. The $25 billion represents nearly half of the amount that the federal government spends on public transit, potentially putting public transportation projects across the country in a paralyzed state.

"It is a great concern to me relative to the sustainability of HART in the near future," Hale said, alarming his colleagues.

HART board member and Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez said the transit agency has already been contending with diminished funding because of the reduction in property taxes over the past five years (which is how HART is funded). Calling this news "a bomb," Suarez asked Hale if he had any idea about the possibility of such a cut actually happening.

Hale said he did not know that answer, but said if HART did not receive at least the current level of federal funding, "it will really put us in a bind to maintain our current level of service."

In response, the board agreed to send a letter to their congressional representatives in Washington about asking for "predictability" in federal funding, saying there will be serious consequences to bus service in Hillsborough County if dedicated funds don't come their way.

Board member Karen Jaroch said as a donor state, Florida never gets as much back in revenues to Washington as it sends out, and says that's why she supports a movement that gas taxes produced by Florida stay in Florida. But the board declined to touch that issue.

The HART board also discussed an issue that has troubled them for months — a provision in a bill in the Legislature sponsored by Clearwater Senate Republican Jack Latvala that would have HART merge with its counterpart in Pinellas County, PSTA.

The provision, which members said needed to be stricken from the bill, was a proposal that HART and PSTA contribute $50,000 apiece to have the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) study a possible merger between the two agencies, a merger that HART members have shown no interest in.

Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Sandy Murman said it was crucial that HART inform its representatives in Tallahassee that the agency simply couldn't afford to pay such an amount. Board member David Mechanik agreed. "This agency is already facing difficulties financially. How on earth do they think we can go out of pocket to the tune of $50,000?"

Incidentally, this was Mechanik's last meeting as a representative of Tampa on HART's board. His colleagues voted to have him be the HART representative on the Tampa Historic Streetcar board.

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