Next week both Bay area transit agencies will convene in St. Petersburg to recommend to their staffs what they want McCollum Management Consulting to study in their proposed merger analysis, which has a formal due date of next February, just in time to hand in to the state Legislature before the 2013 session formally gets underway.
On Monday, HART COO Katherine Eagan gave a presentation to the board, and said the current work study being conducted is not a merger of a consolidation survey. She also said that the research done shows that there are just "limited opportunities" to save resources, but added that a combined agency could deliver a more effective and friendlier service.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman has been one of the most vocal HART board members to express her skepticism about a merger, but sounded like she was softening up to the idea.
"I think there is some willingness to have some more formal joint partnering between the agencies down the road," she said.
Murman is serving on aHART/PSTA Coordination Study Oversight Committee. But she still thinks a full on merger isn't appropriate.
"I think the merger is just too problematic for us and our constituents," she added, mentioning how costly it would be in terms of gas purchases to have extensive buses going from Hillsborough to Pinellas (there are actually three routes that do just that - one operated by HART and two by PSTA).
Part of the resentment some board members have had with the study of a possible merger is the top-down way it was handed to them, with the state Legislature passing a bill last year demanding that the two transit agencies pony up $50,000 a piece for a study. Latvala said he believes there could be millions in savings, though that figure has yet to be documented.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe sounded fired up, saying he has no interest in staying status quo, which is actually one of the three options the McCollum study discusses in detail in its current evaluation. The other options are a full-on merger, as well as what they call "formal partnering," in which the two agencies would collaborate through a formal agreement, with joint powers being one way to implement formal partnering.
"Does it make sense for the agencies to merge?," Sharpe asked, saying that should be the sole criteria of a possible merger. He added that he has slightly tempered his initial enthusiasm, because he doesn't believe creating large business structures are the future.
Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez said he believes HART does a great job providing bus service, but the agency is limited because of funding restrictions, which most people in transportation believe is only going to get tighter in the future as budget cuts come down from Washington.
"I'm not on the merger bandwagon, for sure," he said. "But I do think we have real opportunities to coordinate services with PSTA and HART."
The board members from PSTA and HART will meet next Monday, Dec. 10, in Pinellas County.