September 24, 2010

Hillsborough to become more involved in Pinellas rail talks?

By David DeCamp, Times Staff Writer

Hillsborough and Pinellas county transit officials have begun talks about how to shift more authority to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, especially over rail service in Pinellas County.

The end result could vest the three-year-old regional board with the power to manage buses and light rail - if it's ever created - and collect fares in both counties.

"I would like to see a time, hopefully, that all transit and rail authority would lie with TBARTA," said Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, a TBARTA board member who leads a Pinellas task force studying light rail.

Top officials of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and TBARTA agreed Friday to discuss how the PSTA might come under the regional agency's umbrella.

However tentative, Seel and other officials hope other counties might give more control to TBARTA to make sure trains and other technology can run in multiple counties.

"I think that's possible in a very long-term way," PSTA chairman R.B. Johnson, mayor of Indian Rocks Beach, said of ceding control over Pinellas rail. "The problem with saying that is it's not something we can do in the next year. It's physically impossible."

The regional agency's state charter allows it to handle transit operations, and it took over Bay Area Commuter Services recently.

But TBARTA Chairman Ronnie Duncan and Johnson cautioned that talks are too early to draw conclusions. Next month, PSTA will lose director Tim Garling, who was hired to help develop rail. He resigned to run Broward County's transit system.

PSTA plans to hire a search firm for a new director - one with rail on the resume - and hire a consultant to help guide a study of possible routes in the meantime.

TBARTA officials said they will have little role in those selections, though they will take part in Pinellas' routes study.

TBARTA's ultimate role will rely on a lot variables, including the voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. A November referendum in Hillsborough will determine whether the county will use a sales tax increase to pay for a rail.

Seel expects a decision on whether Pinellas should do the same by her task force in November. If it's approved, light rail is still years away in Pinellas.

Even then, local politics could limit how much TBARTA controls. Property taxes account for a large part of PSTA's budget - though one option is to eliminate them for a sales tax increase. A PSTA board is likely to stay on, at least for a while, to manage buses, said Seel and County Commissioner Ken Welch, a PSTA member.

"The tax dollars that Pinellas County pays will be controlled in Pinellas County," said Welch, a rail advocate.

"I think we're getting way ahead of ourselves," said TBARTA director Bob Clifford. "At this point, it's nothing more than discussions to see if there's an opportunity."

David DeCamp can be reached at or (727) 893-8779.

Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times

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