Florida Senate bill could be catalyst for HART & PSTA merger

10/24/11 Josh Holton
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Some board members the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority started planning their strategy to address new state legislation that could either dissolve the organization, or merge it with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or PSTA. HART attorney Chip Fletcher discussed the implications of Florida Senate Bill 192 during this morning’s Major Projects Committee.

HART and PSTA have similar operating budgets and numbers of buses, and there has been talk about merging the two transit authorities into one entity. HART board member Fran Davin said most members of the board favor the regional approach.

PSTA recently decided to switch their revenue source from property taxes to sales taxes through a referendum, but HART still relies on property taxes to fund its service. SB 192 would allow the state to merge the two authorities without their approval, if they are independent special districts. Chip Fletcher also said that PSTA would be classified as an independent special district, but it is still unclear whether that could apply to HART.

There is also concern that HART would need to get approval through a ballot referendum if they wanted to use sales tax instead of property taxes. State Senator Jack Latvala proposed the bill in front of the HART board last month, but Fran Davin and others are still wary about supporting a bill that would supersede all the local processes that the HART board would currently need approval from before pursuing a merger.

Board member Sandra Murman was concerned about Latvala’s power to push the legislation through without local approval, although he said that he would not move forward without consensus from both HART and PSTA. With politics at play both locally and in the state, Murman said that an independent cost-benefits analysis of the bill needs to be done.

The HART board will meet in full at the County Center on November 7th, at which point the board will consider whether to support or oppose Senate Bill 192, along with a long list of proposed state legislation that could affect local transit.

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Judging books by covers

People keep assuming that merging agencies will improve regional transit. Truth is they both already work together to coordinate routes/transfers as well as monthly passes. The ONLY thing that will improve transit in our region at this point is more funding for operations. PSTA and HART are both cutting service this year due to falling tax revenues. Until there is more money for operations, regional transit service won't increase. Plus, when you factor in the money needed for rebranding/painting of buses and to bring the various employee union pay and benefits packages in line with one another, a merger could end up costing far more than it saves, while not providing any significant improvement in service.