Legislation to study merging – and dissolving – Hillsborough and Pinellas County’s transit agencies no longer mention the latter organization after undergoing committee amendments.
State officials have recently ordered the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) to shutter and approved an initiative to merge CareerSource Tampa Bay and Pinellas. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit’s (HART) board suspended CEO Adelee Le Grand Monday after hearing the results of an independent investigation into alleged mismanagement.
Meanwhile, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) and its CEO, Brad Miller, have managed to avoid the regional turmoil. Ron Pierce, the organization’s legislative consultant, provided confident messaging to board members Wednesday.
“Let me be very clear on this,” began Pierce. “Tallahassee has said very positive things from an operation standpoint and about what PSTA has done. That’s why they took PSTA out of the it at its first committee stop.
“This is more about HART, and only about HART, and not about PSTA.”
When the session began in early March, State Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills, and Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, filed companion bills that would require the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to study combining PSTA and Hart. The legislation’s goal was to discern if a merger would increase efficiency, reduce costs and bolster “regional transit service and connectivity in the Tampa Bay area.”
Senate and House committees amended the bills to exclude any mention of PSTA or a merger. If passed, the legislation would still require the FDOT to study the “transfer of governance” of HART’s operations without mentioning what organization would assume those responsibilities.
FDOT officials would have until the end of the year to report the study’s finding to lawmakers and the governor.
“I’ve talked to both the House and Senate – I don’t think their intent, ultimately, is to repeal HART,” Pierce said. “Again, it’s just a study at this point.”
He said the amended bills have one committee remaining before heading for a vote. Pierce also relayed that several lawmakers expressed support for some operational changes that could involve PSTA.
Both bills state that rapid population growth underscores the “critical” need for regional transportation planning to create “safe and efficient management, operation and development of public transit systems.” TBARTA failed to achieve that goal, HART has management issues and PSTA is the only organization that fits the description.
The jewel in the local agency’s crown is the SunRunner, Tampa Bay’s first bus rapid transit line. Its 10.3-mile route connects St. Petersburg with St. Pete Beach, and city and county officials frequently discuss expansion.
The project opened $5 million under budget in October, and nearly 95,000 riders utilized the service in March.
Pierce noted that the two transit agencies have previously held memorandums of understanding (MOU) “on a few things,” and that is “something that could come back up” in a whirlwind legislative session.
In addition, he said a potential regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is gaining momentum in Tallahassee this year. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough County officials currently operate local MPOs, which oversee transportation initiatives and serve as intermediaries for state and federally-funded projects.
A merger between the three counties could create the largest MPO in the state. While Pierce explained that is still a “concept” rather than legislation, he does believe stakeholders will “see some language at some point.”
“I’m not saying they’re going to say something that makes a merger happen immediately,” he added. “But I can tell you there’s been a lot of discussion of some key delegation members from the region.”
Pierce reiterated that the HART bills do not relate to PSTA or the MPO talks but said he would “closely monitor” proposals for any changes.
In an emailed statement, Miller said his focus remains on PSTA and ensuring the area has a “robust transit system that best serves our community.”
“I, and I know my PSTA board members, are always ready and willing to talk with anyone who wants to discuss improving regional transit services,” Miller continued. “Whether that’s in Pinellas County, the Tampa Bay region or beyond.”
In other legislative news, Pierce relayed that the Senate has appropriated $750,000 of a $1.5 million funding request for electric vehicle charging infrastructure. He said the organization is “in good shape” to receive the budgetary request, and Miller will join him in the state capitol next week.
Board Chair and St. Petersburg City Councilmember Gina Driscoll said she would also make the trip.