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Regional transit agency waves goodbye

Mark Parker



Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority board members voted unanimously Friday to disband the 16-year-old agency. Screengrab.

Despite the area experiencing exponential growth, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) officially rode off into the sunset today.

After years of turmoil and discussion, TBARTA’s governing board unanimously voted to disband the agency. While officials agreed there was no path forward as an organization, there was debate over the extensive shutting-down process.

Board members also noted that transportation issues remain in a region with over 3.22 million residents and millions of additional annual visitors.

“Pasco County stands ready to keep working for a regional solution,” said Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey. “It’s very sad that we’ve come to this point today, but that doesn’t mean our work is done. The way it gets done is going to change, but we owe it to our citizens to find a solution.”

The agency’s leadership approved a plan to cease all operations by Dec. 30, 2023. Many stakeholders count the agency’s Commuter Van Pool service as its only success, and that contract ends on the same date.

Following the vote to disband, board members heard a final presentation on a proposed Regional Bus Rapid Transit initiative. Screengrab.

The State Legislature created TBARTA as a seven-county planning agency in 2007. It now serves five counties and the Cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa, and there was often a disconnect among members.

The organization’s future remained in constant doubt in recent years. Former St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes sought to disband the agency in 2021 and 2022, and Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed legislative appropriations for the past three years.

Spring Hill Rep. Jeff Holcomb, a former TBARTA board member, and St. Petersburg Sen. Nick DiCeglie recently filed House and Senate bills to dismantle the agency.

“I don’t expect there to be any issues getting the bill through committee and to the Legislature,” said Ron Pierce, TBARTA’s legislative consultant. “Or to the governor’s office, for that matter.”

The plan calls for the agency to discontinue all committee meetings immediately and hold its final board meetings in May and August. While TBARTA will cease operations by the end of this year, officials will not reimburse counties until March 2024. Legislators requested that its board repeal the enabling act by June 30, 2024.

Pinellas Commissioner Janet Long, who said last year that TBARTA continuing to operate without a clear path forward was the definition of insanity, did not agree with those timeframes.

“To drag this out until June of 2024 is irresponsible,” said Long. “Because we are dragging it out on the back of our taxpayers.”

A graphic showing key details of the dissolution. Screengrab.

Pierce said legislators would also like to sunset the agency before that date. However, they thought the 17-month window would provide TBARTA officials ample time to complete financial, reporting and record-keeping aspects.

Long relayed that stakeholders from the organization’s seven districts have expressed they could conduct the work needed as part of the dismantling process. In addition, she said scheduling just two meetings between now and TBARTA’s official closure is also irresponsible.

“Because there are too many details that need to be ironed out,” she added.

Cliff Manuel Jr., board chairman and gubernatorial appointee, said he could call additional meetings throughout the year if an issue with the disbandment arises.

Executive Director David Green and Accounting Director Melonie Williams will receive 20 weeks of severance pay and benefits once the shutdown is complete. The combined cost is $146,527. Pinellas County will receive $62,395 of the estimated $223,508 in reimbursements.

Green said the Florida Department of State would take control of all physical and electronic records. Mayor Ken Welch credited the director and TBARTA’s staff for their professionalism and continued work through a lack of funding and authority needed to advance initiatives.

“Our transit needs won’t change,” said Green. “The faces and people that represent this board are Tampa Bay – and in my opinion, are the most important part of having a regional transit system implemented.”


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