With the Florida Legislature already powering through a third of their nine-week regular legislative session, board members with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency (HART) expressed concerns on Monday regarding their chief legislative budget request for 2016.
That would be a regional fare box system and smart card system — which would provide a uniform bus payment system for Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Citrus and Hernando counties.
The Florida House unveiled their budget late last week, and the fare box system was not included among the list of appropriations from Hillsborough County lawmakers.
HART Government Affairs Specialist Cesar Hernandez assured board members that Tampa Republican Dana Young submitted an appropriation request for the project. He also said that when he returned to Tallahassee later this week, he was scheduled to meet with Tampa Democratic lawmakers Arthenia Joyner and Janet Cruz, and hoped to get some face time with House Budget Chairman Richard Corcoran.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said that was fine, but the most critical local lawmaker to meet up with is Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala.
“Senator Latvala is going to hold the key to this appropriation,” she said. “Bottom line. I don’t care who else you have, but he is the key.”
Architect and board member Mickey Jacobs said he met with Latvala last week, and described the Pinellas lawmaker’s thoughts on the fare box funding as “lukewarm.”
That then opened the floodgates for other board members to weigh in on Latvala, the influential GOP lawmaker who will become even more so next year when he takes over as Senate Appropriations Chairman.
A few years ago, Latvala led the charge to study a potential merger between HART and its sister public transit agency across the Bay, PSTA. Most HART board members opposed the idea outright. Both agencies later agreed to work as partners and collaborate more often.
However, one board member said Latvala’s muted enthusiasm for a fare box system would appear to contradict his previous stance on regionalizing the Tampa Bay area’s transportation agencies.
“What does Senator Latvala have against this regional fare program?” HART board member Bryan Crino asked. “It would seem to fit extremely well into his agenda that he was pushing.”
“We can’t get into mind reading – definitely not in a public forum,” quipped HART Chairman Mike Suarez.
Murman then asked what if anything is going on in terms of the coordination of PSTA and HART. “I think that’s the issue. If he could see actionable points and items being discussed, or strategies being developed, I think he would move from being lukewarm,” she said.
Currently, the two agencies are meeting on a quarterly basis, Suarez responded.
The issue was folded into a discussion where board members complained that HART members aren’t updating them sufficiently on priorities in the state Capitol. Murman and board member Kathleen Shanahan have said for over a year that they have extensive contacts in Tallahassee who could advocate for HART, but not if they’re not aware of the agency’s requests.
The two also said that all was not lost regarding the fare box system.
“Lukewarm is more positive than it was a year ago,” said Shanahan. “So, we’re making progress.”
Murman wanted to clear the air before the meeting ended that she held Latvala in high regard, and everyone else should, too.
“He is concerned about our community,” she assured board members. “He’s a very collaborative, regional, communicative person. And if we don’t fill that gap with him, that’s where the lukewarm comes in. Because there are other people that are engaging. He is an excellent legislator, and he’s going into a very powerful position.” She said it would behoove HART to know more about what his concerns were about the fare box program, and answer them.
FloridaPolitics.com contacted Senator Latvala for comment. He was in a committee meeting at the time. If and when he responds, we will update this story.