The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to cooperate and collobarate with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA), but only after adding additional language clarifying that it is not a move towards a potential merger or a regional sales tax increase.
That language was needed ostensibly to assuage the MOU’s critics, including HART board member Karen Jaroch.
“The MOU is very vague and I keep questioning what is the need for this? And I haven’t really gotten a satisfactory answer,” Jaroch said.
Of underlying concern to Jaroch and some others is Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long’s aspirations for the two Bay area transit agencies to form a regional council of governments. Such a group, Long told HART members last fall, could provide “better, more nimble” solutions to problems that they currently face. Long’s idea would fold PSTA, HART, and other transportation providers such as the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, ferryboat operations and others under the regional council of government. Certain functions, or entire organizations, could be consolidated within the council of governments concept.
But critics fear that it’s an underhanded move to get another transit tax proposal to go before the voters, which they vehemently oppose.
“They intend to use this MOU to go to Tallahassee to request funding for how to pay for Long’s proposal, and how to get the regional sales tax funded,” said Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert during the public comment portion of the meeting. Calvert and Jaroch have frequently cited a comment by PSTA head Brad Miller last month that he would be going to Tallahassee on Tuesday, February 7, to talk to lawmakers, a day after HART was poised to approve the MOU.
But HART board members Sandy Murman and Mike Suarez said they knew nothing about any trip to Tallahassee, saying that was perhaps being discussed across the bay, but not in Hillsborough County.
“This is an MOU. It is not a merger,” said Murman. “It is a very specific document. It is not broad. It is not general. It is very, very specific. I think to not do this today makes us more or less a ‘do-nothing’ board.”
The discussion comes as state legislators are talking more than ever about the different counties in the Tampa Bay area working together to effectuate change when it comes to moving transportation projects forward. According to a new white paper prepared by the D.C. based Enos Center for Transportation for the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional structure for transportation planning, operations and decision-making is paramount to developing a regional transportation system, and was discussed before the Bay Area Legislative Delegation meeting on transportation held last week in Clearwater.
At that meeting, Barry Shevlin, the co-chair from the transportation working group with the Tampa Bay Partnership, said HART and PSTA should have a “closer relationship,” but left it open as to how that would happen.
Board member Kathleen Shanahan said with HART constrained financially these days, a closer alliance with PSTA was an opportunity “to leverage an organization in transition,” she said referring to HART.
Suarez said that until the Legislature approves funding for a regional authority, nobody should worry that the agencies were about to merge.
After their last subcommittee meeting, HART attorney David Smith changed language in the MOU so that it now states that it must be approved annually by the HART board. The board went ahead on Monday and put in additional specific language spelling out that it has nothing to do with a potential merger and tax increase, though Shananan expressed frustration for the need to do so. “This is a redundancy over a redundancy.”