HART, PSTA go forward on possible merger

The bill also required the two agencies to fund a study to investigate merging that could cost as much $100,000. Mary Shavalier, HART's Senior Director of Grants Management & Planning, told the boards at today's meeting (held at PSTA's headquarters in St. Pete) that that mandate created a limitation in terms of who they could actually afford to hire.

The legislature mandated the study, but provided no funds for HART & PSTA to pay for it, something that has been mentioned referred to often over the course of the past few months by HART officials.

Shavalier emphasized that the consultant would provide findings, not recommendations. That, she said, would be done by the two respective boards.

HART board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said she wanted to alert the staffs of the two agencies that will be working with the consultant on the study to keep an open mind and "not just hunt for something."

Murman, who has been outspoken in her disdain for how Senator Latvala has gone about mandating a look at a merger, said she still questioned the legality of the process.

That prompted Pinellas County Commissioner and PSTA member Susan Latvala to crack that Murman should "call her Senator," a reference to Senator Latvala, who used to be married to Mrs. Latvala.

Pinellas County Commissioner Norm Roche said he felt the same way as Murman, asking if it was possible that the final recommendation could be one that says there shouldn't be a merger? (He was told that could be the case).

Dunedin Commissioner Julie Bujalski expressed concerns about the appearance of paying $100,000 for a consultant and yet having the staff, and not that consultant, come up with the final recommendation. She said that could present the perception that "we manipulated things," and wanted to make sure the final product would be "on the up and up."

Choosing to look at the bright side, St. Pete City Councilman Wengay Newton emphasized that the study does not call explicitly for a merger, and that there surely will be some inefficiencies found that will make both agencies better going forward.

After the meeting, Pinellas County Commissioner Neil Brickfield agreed, telling CL that he recently attended the Florida Public Transit Association show in Tampa and learned that Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties all use the same manufacturer who produces the fareboxes used on the buses.

"If nothing else, if we could fix it so that you bought a ticket or a pass in Hillsborough, you could go anywhere in those systems, that would be a victory, because right now you have to buy three as you move from county to county, "Brickfield said. "Let's face it. We pay for the bus to run, whether there's one person on it or 20 people on it, so if one of us is getting the revenue when they use it, it all will equal out in the end. But right now, if you want to go from one (bus system) to another, it's very disjointed and not very convenient for the rider."

In a rare joint meeting, the complete boards of HART and PSTA voted Monday to approve a consultant for a state-mandated report that will investigate the pros and cons of the two local transit agencies merging together.

Last winter the Florida Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala that would force both Hillsborough and Pinellas transit agencies to look at merging their services, saying that he thinks that there could be millions of dollars in savings as a result. However many board members, particularly with the Hillsborough group, remain skeptical if not outright hostile to that top down request.

Both boards approved the selection of McCollom Management Consulting to be the firm that will be used to present findings to the two boards, under an accelerated timeline.

That's because the bill passed in Tallahassee said the report needs to be completed by February 1, 2013.

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