HART members slam Latvala/Brandes bill on transit merger

Commissioner Murman blasted how the legislation has been handled in Tallahassee, noting that the respective House and Senate bills have yet to be vetted publicly even though the Legislature will soon break for the year. Referencing the influence of Senator Latvala, she decried the lack of any comparable clout in Tallahassee for Hillsborough County. "Our voice has not been heard on this amendment," she bemoaned.

HART board member Dr. Steven Polzin reiterated that "nobody's seen any evidence of any savings" from such a merger, saying it would cost a "whole bunch" of money to make such a transition. He added, "I hope folks don't buy the lines that some of the advocates are selling this with."

The board voted unanimously to send another letter to the Hillsborough County legislative delegation to urge them to veto the bills in their respective chambers.

HART members had already received less than welcome news when their Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Seward, presented an overview of the fiscal year budget five years out. He said essentially that HART is looking at further diminished revenues in the coming years — at a time when demand for its services has never been greater.

Because of diminishing property taxes, revenue for HART's coffers has dropped for five years in a row.
Seward said the transit agency is supporting nearly 14 million riders annually, but with the dollars the agency has, that's simply not a sustainable model.

Because of the uncertainty of funding, agencies at HART have been asked to submit budgets with 2, 4 and 6 percent reductions.

Over the past year, HART has announced new record ridership virtually every month. When Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe asked Seward if HART was in fact operating at full capacity, HART CEO Philip Hale interjected with an emphatic "Yes!"

The discussion of funding shortfalls disturbed Temple Terrace Councilman Ron Govin, who called for a subcommittee to study funding for HART. "We cannot put ourselves in a position where we can't offer services to the residents of Hillsborough County, " he said. "We can't do that." As he looked at a couple of the new board members on the panel to see if they would like to participate in such a committee, he said, not altogether jokingly, "No pressure, except we're going broke."

Govin said at some point the agency won't have either the employees or the equipment to provide the type of service that it's required to give. "We’re not going to be able to buy capital equipment and that’s the end of the game if we get there."

Last Friday St. Petersburg House Republican Jeff Brandes offered a substitute amendment to a bill (HB 1399) that would back a study analyzing the pros and cons of merging the transit agencies of Hillsborough & Pinellas Counties.

A day earlier, his bill would have required that the agencies merge. But the change hardly mollified members of the Hillsborough County Regional Transit Agency (HART) board Monday morning, who are still denouncing the bill's original intent, as sponsored in the Senate by Clearwater's Jack Latvala (SB 1866).

"This is one of the most underhanded, despicable things I've ever seen," charged Hillsborough County Commissioner and HART board member Sandy Murman. Most upsetting to her and her colleagues on the board is that the legislation calls for both HART and Pinellas' transit agency, PSTA, to contribute $50,000 each to TBARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority) to prepare a study analyzing such a merger.

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