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Chances for Tampa area bus system merger dwindling

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Published:   |   Updated: November 4, 2013 at 09:25 AM

TAMPA — Prospects appear to be dwindling for a merger of the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit agencies even as state Sen. Jack Latvala insists any decision await a consultant’s review of potential savings.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board and tea party members from both sides of Tampa Bay are among those opposed to a HART merger with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

In addition, Pinellas County is moving ahead on its own with a major new project, scheduling a 2014 referendum on a sales tax to replace a property tax as a way to raise money for improved bus service and a new light-rail system.

If the Pinellas tax is approved, this so-called Greenlight transit plan would elevate PSTA’s system to a higher level and different local revenue sources than HART’s, complicating merger prospects.

But Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, still wants to see financial data from a KPMG consultant’s report to determine whether a merger should be pursued. The report, ordered by the Legislature, is expected in December.

“I think if savings are considerable,” Latvala said in an interview, “why would elected officials or the tea party not want to save money funded by people’s property taxes?”

Latvala said if significant savings can be achieved, those entrusted with the stewardship of taxpayer dollars should look their constituents in the eye and explain why some preference for the current transit agency infrastructure or bureaucracy should be a determinant over a merger.

Whether the merger issue could have an impact on the Pinellas referendum and subsequent transportation issues, such as building a more expensive northbound Howard Frankland Bridge replacement span to accommodate rail, remains a divided opinion.

“We don’t see any potential impact of the (KPMG) study on the Greenlight plan,” PSTA external affairs officer Bob Lasher said.

However, Pinellas and Hillsborough tea party members, who helped defeat the 2010 Hillsborough transit initiative, believe a merged transit system could attract federal grants for light-rail, which they oppose.

“HART Board members are rejecting a strong-arm attempt by Sen. Jack Latvala and Brad Miller, (director) of PSTA, to a takeover of the Hillsborough bus system to accomplish Pinellas County goals of building light rail,” a post on the Tampa Tea Party’s website said.

“... This merger would be the Progressive’s logical step to consolidating into a regional Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority taxing authority. Regional taxing authorities enable special interests, remove local control and result in higher costs (from being) an arm’s distance from local taxpayers.”

Others believe a transit merger would not be pursued until at least after the Pinellas referendum in November 2014.

“What politician is going to stand in the way of letting people of Pinellas County decide the future of their transportation system?” asked Kevin Thurman, executive director of the Connect Tampa Bay advocacy group for transportation improvements. “I don’t think anybody will.”

“There’s going to be no merger until HART matches the ambition of the PSTA to serve its citizens,” Thurman said. “PSTA wants to double their bus system and looks to add light rail. That has to be resolved before any merger attempt.”

Latvala raised the collaboration-merger issue more than two years ago and pushed through bills requesting consultant reviews in 2012 and 2013, the former requiring accord with TBARTA regional plans and the latter under TBARTA’s direction.

TBARTA has no taxing authority to implement transportation plans, and a limited budget to devise them, although elected officials from seven counties serving on the TBARTA board believe their regional outlook is a sensible approach to transportation planning.

TBARTA found itself at the center of the volatile issue when some on HART’s board presumed TBARTA was angling for a role in running transit activities in a quest to expand beyond its planning and advisory roles.

“Some people on the HART board think TBARTA wants to run all transit,” said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of TBARTA, a focal point of tea party and HART angst along with Latvala.

“That is not our mission, nor our intent,” he said.

It would be presumptuous for TBARTA given its skill sets and expertise to reach beyond its current bounds in the near future, Duncan said, adding that should not preclude the creation of interlocal agreements at some point for transit agency collaboration.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a merger any time in the next couple years,” Duncan said.

“Initially when Sen. Latvala put language together it was perceived to be a report on a complete merger of the two organizations,” Duncan said about the 2012 McCollom Management Consulting study, which preceded the ongoing KPMG report.

That concluded a merger could save $2.4 million annually in management costs, but no operational savings would result because HART and PSTA systems do not overlap.

HART’s board disputed that cost savings finding, citing increased expertise and payroll a combined system with twice as many riders — 30 million annually would require.

The KPMG contract includes a review of the McCollom study, evaluating financial advantages, disadvantages, opportunities and challenges and financial impacts. It will not specifically address governance issues, but should identify them.

“PSTA was OK with having a discussion they knew was not a forced marriage,” Duncan said. “HART took it differently and got concerned about it being a preamble to a merger.”

But interlocal agreements, let alone merger talk, represent a red flag to tea party advocates.

“Making us regional, it really just takes government further away from us,” said Barb Haselden, an organizer with the South Pinellas 9.12 Patriots movement, who also is spearheading the Pinellas County No Tax for Tracks effort to defeat the sales tax increase.

Haselden views the KPMG report as “throwing another $200,000 into the wind” on top of the $100,000 McCollom report.

But that’s not the most strident of merger opposition that’s taken shape in the past two years.

Behind the scenes, the prospect for what some call a “nuclear option,” the city of Tampa’s possible withdrawal from supporting HART, has been circulated among elected officials.

But no one has publicly discussed that possibility.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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