Under a proposed regulation coming from the U.S. Department of Transportation, regional Metropolitan Organizations should merge into one large such agency. That’s prompted officials in Hillsborough, Pinellas, and Pasco counties to have some tentative discussions about such a merger.
In that spirit, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long unveiled a proposal at a joint meeting of the transit agencies of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for a “Regional Council of Governments,” which would include having the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority sign an interlocal agreement.
“This is an idea whose time is right,” said Long, who was re-elected to another four-year term on the county commission earlier this year when she failed to draw a Republican opponent.
Under the proposal, this board would consist of mayors, county commissioners, city council members, members from the business community, and officials from the business community representing Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Pasco counties. It also would have a policy advisory committee comprised of professional staff from culled from the various MPO’s and local governments, as well as planners. It’s focus would be on building consensus; developing short -and long-range strategic plans; and providing information and leadership on a broad range of topics, including affordable housing, regional economic development, land use and redevelopment, as well as transportation.
It would also consolidate organizations like TBARTA inside this newly proposed council.
Four years ago, Pinellas County-based state legislator Jack Latvala created legislation mandating that a study be conducted about the benefits of merging HART and PSTA. Ultimately, two studies were conducted, both showing there would be some reduction of costs. Nothing’s ever happened on that front since, but Long suggested that it made sense that the agencies should make formal a closer relationship before they’re mandated to do so.
HART board member Kathleen Shanahan applauded the proposal, calling the idea of an interlocal agreement “a small step and a big statement.” Noting how significant the Tampa Bay region is to the current presidential election, she said that the region has true clout, and Long’s proposal was “an opportunity” that should be pursued.
Long did get significant pushback from HART board member Karen Jaroch, who said she didn’t like the idea of creating another layer of government. “We do have to have these discussions about regional connectivity, but you also have to have government closest to the people,” she stressed.
Jaroch then referenced SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, as a bad model to emulate. SANDAG is comprised of 18 different cities and counties in the San Diego region. “The city of San Diego went bankrupt,” Jaroch said.
Actually, San Diego never went bankrupt. It did have serious economic problems four years ago, mostly related to its outstanding pension obligations.
Long said she wasn’t calling for the creation of another big government agency, but instead was calling for a new model to bring in the various local transportation agencies to all work together to leverage the power of the region when trying to procure more federal and state funding. She also said listening to Jaroch reminded her of President Dwight Eisenhower‘s plan to create the interstate highway system in the 1950s, who, she said, undoubtedly received criticism from some states who didn’t want the federal government creating roads in their regions.
“At the end, we do have a calling to a higher standard to be leaders for our entire community,” Long said. “There are many people in Pinellas County who drive every day over to Hillsborough to work, and vice versa, and up and down Pasco County, and so, don’t we have an obligation to figure how we make that work? And how we do it in a better and more concerted way? So that we can receive the best that we can get for our kids and our grandkids? That’s what matters to me.”
PSTA executive director Brad Miller said that in theory, having an interlocal agreement signed between HART and PSTA “makes a lot of sense.”
Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman, up for re-election to her District 1 seat next week, said that she’s heard from the community, and “People want progress. They want results.” She said she wanted to take a non-binding vote to support Long’s proposal, and will do so at HART’s regular board meeting.