Two bills studying PSTA and HART remove any mention of a potential merger
The bills only reference the possibility of dissolving HART, or the "transfer of governance" of its responsibilities, without describing where the agency's roles would be transferred.
A pair of bills initially aimed at studying a merger between Hillsborough County and Pinellas County's transit agencies have now shifted focus.
An amendment to both bills are now completely focused on the "dissolution" of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, or HART.
The two bills — filed by Sen. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills (SB1532) and House Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City (HB1397) — were recently amended to exclude any mention of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, or a potential merger with HART.
Instead, the bills only reference the possibility of dissolving HART, or the "transfer of governance" of its responsibilities, without describing where the agency's roles would be transferred.
If passed, the Florida Department of Transportation would look at aspects of the agency like its staff organization, responsibilities, and impacts to state and federal grants and funds.
During a HART committee meeting Monday, CEO Adelee Le Grand said even if HART goes away after the study, transit services would still be provided.
However, she says the bill's listed focuses for studying are not comprehensive enough for a full look at the agency and its needs.
"There's nothing in here about funding, right?” Le Grand said. “There's nothing here about providing better access. There's nothing in here about how do we respond to growth, and what does that look like?"
According to the bills’ language, the study would look at:
- The drawdown or transfer of staff
- The transfer of financial assets and obligations
- The transfer of responsibilities and administered programs
- The transfer of facilities and operations
- Impacts to federal or state grants or funds
- Any legal or financial impediments to or limitations on such dissolution
- The advantages and disadvantages of dissolution or transfer
- Any other matters deemed necessary or appropriate by the department
HART Board member Eric Johnson said he's open to the study.
"We've had plenty of things that have been out in the papers for years now,” said Johnson, speaking to controversies and issues facing the agency over the years. “Maybe this is the opportunity to be able to show Tallahassee that we are willing to work with them and want to be able to find the best way to make sure our riders are going to be taken care of."
Both bills have two more committee stops before they can be voted on by the full Florida House and Senate.
If passed, the study would be completed by Jan. 1, 2024.
The HART Strategic Plan and External Affairs Committee voted Monday to send leaders from the agency to Tallahassee to further discuss the bill with the legislators.
Board member Tyler Hudson said the fact that a vote was just taken to open the discussion with legislators, while the bills have been known in the legislature over the last two weeks, shows that there is a needed change in the structure of HART.
“That should just be like water. It just happens,” Hudson said. “We've got to figure out how to make this more nimble and reactive to the way the world actually works. Things like the branding and examining which flavor of federal or state grant we want to target, that's more deliberative. But something like this, this is really fascinating. This is bringing a horse and buggy to the Daytona 500.”
On Monday, the HART board will hold a special meeting to discuss the findings of an investigation into Le Grand following complaints of her leadership, and the discovery that one of her employees was working for another transit agency at the same time, against board policy.
In recent months, the HART board has also discussed an upcoming budget shortfall that could lead to financial issues within the next few years.