Study to merge transit systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas viewed with suspicion

Some see merger as prelude to light rail system

TAMPA - The question of whether to merge the public transit systems of Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties is back on the agenda.

Proponents say combining HART and PSTA would save taxpayers money on both sides of the bay.  But some opponents of the merger say it's about something else entirely.

A $100,000 study last year concluded that merging the operations of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and Pinellas Suncoast Transit could save some $2.4 million a year.

HART board member, Karen Jaroche doesn't buy it.

"You're assuming that there's a lot of duplication. HART went through and cut its staff to the bone a year and a half ago and made a lot of changes, so it's not going to reap those savings," said Jaroche.

Jaroche is not happy that Republican Clearwater State Senator Jack Latvala is seeking $200,000 in Tallahassee to fund another merger study.  Latvala has indicated in the past that consolidating the two agencies may be necessary to avoid financial disaster as costs go up in the future.   But some accuse him of having an ulterior motive.

Though voters in Hillsborough County voted against financing of a light rail system in 2010, there's renewed talk of light rail in Hillsborough and Pinellas.  Merging HART and PSTA into a single agency could make it easier to create a rail system that serves and connects Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties.

Jaroche, an outspoken opponent of rail, says that's what Senator Latvala really wants to accomplish.

"The reason he's after this is to get rail in Pinellas County and have Hillsborough taxpayers pay for it.

One of the first steps of a merger could be a single fare card that would be honored in both counties.

We tried to get a comment from Senator Latvala on Monday but did not hear back as of news time.

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