Pinellas transit officials stick to plans for merger study after HART flip-flops

01/14/13 Janelle Irwin
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The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s (PSTA) board is sticking to its guns about a recommendation to the Florida legislature that would further study the benefits of combining their agency with Hillsborough’s. Both boards had decided to ask the state to pay for a second merger study, but last week, leaders of the Hillsborough transit authority rescinded that request. PSTA CEO Brad Miller agreed with a board decision during a special meeting Monday to meet with HART once more before each agency files its request with state lawmakers.

“Every position PSTA has taken has been open to collaboration that might be done with HART that would benefit transit in Pinellas County and across Tampa Bay. There was a concern that if PSTA would refuse to meet even thought the HART chair asked that we still meet, that we would not be reflecting that sort of open-mindedness or interest in further collaboration.”

But HART board members may not be so keen. Their revised stance specifically condemns any effort to merge the two agencies unless it is through a voter referendum. In emails to Miller and other PSTA board members, HART officials asked for a meeting on January 28 where they plan to ask the Pinellas agency to side with them.

“That was the desire expressed by their chair. I’m not sure how successful that will be.”

An initial study paid for by both agencies found that merging could save more than $2 million mostly by weeding out duplicate positions. PSTA board members aren’t sure why HART changed its mind on asking the state pay for a second, more detailed study, but there have been concerns that the savings might be overshadowed by the cost of combining services. Miller said that might be true at first, but the long-term savings are still worth looking into.

“But again, the savings are in reduced overhead and personnel that would be reflected every year. So, over ten years that’s $24 million verses what the consultant estimated was about $2 million in up front costs.”

The two agencies hired an independent consulting firm to look into the particulars of a merger at the bidding of State Representative Jack Latvala. The PSTA officials didn’t say whether or not they favor merging, but the board’s chair, St. Pete City Council member Jeff Danner said more coordination between the agencies is needed.

“Some of the stuff we found in the initial study just really showed the breadth of how detailed and the governance and the taxing structures are so different in these two agencies in the way they’re created and the way they’re governed that in order to move forward with any kind of collaboration, we’re going to need some help with finding how you get through those hurdles. We take state and federal grants – they’re so many restrictions that if we are going to collaborate and provide better customer service and look for efficiencies, we’re going to need some help in going through that myriad of regulations and grant process and statutes and things like that.”

The first study also didn’t look into what would happen to the quality of service if Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties shared a transit agency. Combining efforts could work to PSTA’s benefit as it plans to ask voters to fund a massive transit overhaul that would include light rail. PSTA CEO Miller said the transit improvements could one day include improved connections between the two counties.

“We’ve received many requests that we look at ways that we can get over to Tampa or to the airport or across jurisdictional lines through that effort. So, we do think – or I think – that if we ignore Hillsborough County and/or HART, that would be a detriment so we’re trying not to do that. That’s why we’re open minded to working together on this.”

Dissolving one of the agencies could also mean both counties would use the same technology for their bus routes and other transit programs. Dunedin Vice Mayor and PSTA board member Julie Ward Bujalski said that would include using the same payment machines on buses.

“What that ends up meaning is that our customers can buy a bus pass over here and use it over there. It doesn’t matter and somehow it will know who it goes to. That’s convenience, you know, to the user.”

PSTA’s decision to ask the state to fund a second merger study was approved unanimously. Bujalski expects that to include a look into what would happen with customer service. She did complain that HART officials gave no reason for their sudden change of heart.

“And if they want to spend some time trying to convince us, that’s OK – we’ll probably spend some time trying to convince them.”

If the agencies submit their reports to the legislature as-is, it will be up to lawmakers to decide what to do next. The legislature would have to make changes to current laws in order for the two agencies to merge. Reports from PSTA and HART are due in Tallahassee by February 1.

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