Saturday, January 14, 2012

HART Board Takes a Position During Joint Meeting


“Efficiency” is the latest buzz word for governments and businesses, and certainly should be with our current economic environment. One idea to improve efficiency for this region’s transit service has been possibly consolidating HART and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA).

But getting passed a cursory idea and further examining the details of consolidation now makes it a complex issue that deserves a complete breakdown to make sure it’s what makes sense for this community. Let’s take a stab here at mulling over some of the details and impacts potentially involved with consolidating transit agencies.

First, lets start with some background. The idea of consolidating HART and PSTA came to the table last year when State Sen. Jack Latvala discussed it during a HART Board meeting in September. Good or bad, this idea required fact-based analysis before moving forward with it. In that spirit and to protect local governance, fiscal responsibility, and most importantly, our transit service, the HART Board approved a Legislative Policy Statement in November to emphasize these guiding principles.

On Monday, the boards of directors for HART and PSTA held a joint meeting to provide updates, and discuss current and future opportunities for collaboration between the two agencies. That’s the thing – collaboration with PSTA or other transportation-related agencies is not a new concept for HART. Cross-county bus routes and combined purchases just to name a few. In fact, in fiscal year 2011, a fuel procurement consortium among HART, PSTA and Citrus Connection saved HART more than $1 million. And, yes, if there are additional similar savings to be had as a result of more collaboration – needless to say, we’re very open to that!

During the joint meeting, the boards also discussed Section 71 of Florida Senate Bill 1866, which had been filed earlier that day. Among other elements of the bill related to governance, it would require HART and PSTA to contribute $100,000 to Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) to assist and facilitate a study of the consolidation issue. In concurrence to the HART Legislative Policy Statement, the HART Board voted unanimously to note its opposition to this portion of the bill -- as currently presented -- citing its impact to costs and governance, as well as its constrained timeframe. HART and PSTA board members agreed to meet in the future to identify opportunities for greater efficiency and continued collaboration on all aspects of transit planning and delivery, as suggested in the bill.

HART Board Vice Chair Steve Polzin, PhD
We’re fortunate to have a transportation researcher as vice chair of the HART Board. During the joint meeting, Steve Polzin, PhD, provided many thoughtful and well-documented comments about consolidation. During his briefing, he explained in great detail why merging transit agencies is difficult and does not necessarily result in cost savings.

The fact is that transit agencies are unique to the potential cost savings of mergers, and the geographies of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties compound that. For instance, the biggest cost to a transit agency is its workforce – most are drivers and mechanics -- and the number of these employees needed by a transit agency is in direct correlation to the amount of transit service provided by that agency. A merger doesn’t mean one driver will have the superpower to be behind the wheels of two buses simultaneously. Even Superman was never seen with his alter-ego, Clark Kent.

In addition, the presence of our (beautiful) bay between Hillsborough and Pinellas counties makes it that much more costly to subsidize deadhead – non revenue – miles and paratransit trips.

The Wall Street Journal published "When Civic Mergers Don't Save Money" in August 2011 that provides a national perspective about government consolidations. Moreover, the article reports that mergers rarely save money and actually might end up raising costs.

If lean times have provided us with anything, it's been the opportunity to think creatively and efficiently to save money. Pun intended -- we've really taken efficiency to HART!

HART Flex saves us $500,000 annually!
We mentioned the procurement consortium, but it doesn’t stop there. We've improved on-time performance by prioritizing bus stops and introduced new on-demand flex van service into five different zones -- this saves HART $500,000 annually. We've also become younger with age by replacing more than 60 buses and 30 paratransit vans over the last couple of years, which reduces the high maintenance costs associated with operating older buses.

In summary, when examining the issue of consolidation between HART and PSTA, the best question to ask ourselves is, Will it address the major issues we are currently faced with? This means will it dramatically increase revenues to fund enhanced local service, more technology or perhaps a transportation alternative?

What’s Next?

Business as usual - continuing to protect the transit interests of our customers and stakeholders, and wisely investing taxpayer money into high-quality bus and van service.

You’re numero uno to us, and it's important to keep you updated. Below is a news roundup and be sure to check back with us to find the latest or to comment on any developments.

News coverage of HART/PSTA joint board meeting:

TBO (Tampa Tribune Online)
Tampa Bay Business Journal
Creative Loafing