HART's board chair, Fran Davin, followed up with a full-throated response that was published in the paper on New Year's Day:
HART's core mission is to provide transit service to the people of Hillsborough County. The consultant study concluded a merger would not (our emphasis) reduce the majority of costs associated with vehicle operations and maintenance. The consultant estimated a potential savings in personnel costs of $2.4 million per year, but estimated about $1.5 million in transition costs and an additional cost of about $10 million to establish a new governing entity. This puts no new buses on the street. We need capital to expand service and operating money to run that service. Simply changing the governance of two transit agencies gives us neither.
The Times has been harsh and unsparing in its beliefs that a merger is a no-brainer in terms of moving forward. There has been constant talk in years past that the Tampa Bay area hasn't worked strongly enough in a regional manner, and HART's seeming reluctance to partner up has been portrayed as a big negative.
The Times' stance has been clear and unequivocal. In its New Year's Day lead editorial, several subjects were touched on that the paper will pay close attention to in 2013, including transportation:
Pinellas and Hillsborough counties should merge their two separate transit agencies into one. A combined operation would be better suited to finance and manage a truly modern transportation system that connects the entire region. State and local officials also need to view mass transit as a more essential component of Florida's economic development strategy. Companies can hardly afford to move to places where their products and employees languish in traffic.
They were much harsher on Dec. 26, calling the board's position on a possible merger nothing short of "hysteria":
Hillsborough County's mass transit agency might have good reasons for objecting to a merger with its counterpart in Pinellas. But it hasn't offered any publicly. Instead, the governing board of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit has fanned unwarranted fears, misrepresented the cost savings and legalities involved and cheapened the debate over how to build a forward-looking regional transit system. Officials need to start over when they return from the holidays.
Some members of the public have directed criticism about HART's stance on this issue toward noted financial conservatives Karen Jaroch and Josh Burgin. But most of HART's board members have spoken critically against a possible merger. Part of their dissent has emanated from how it's been presented to them — as a mandate from Tallahassee in the person of Clearwater area state Sen. Jack Latvala.
Latvala spoke to the board in September of 2011 about his ideas for a merger, saying it would certainly reduce costs between the two transit agencies. The legislation he then promoted (which was passed last year) included HART and PSTA coming up with $50,000 a piece to pay for an independent study analyzing a potential partnership (that report by McCollom Management Consulting is due to be sent to the Legislature on Feb. 1).
The HART board will formally discuss the issue next Monday, Jan. 7. HART and PSTA board members will meet again on Jan. 14.