Sen. Ed Hooper’s transportation package received unanimous approval form the Senate Thursday — but, while the bill was safe from debate, a series of amendments addressing the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority sparked frustration among St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes.
The bill (SB 1194) altered several provisions related to transportation, like upping the maximum weight for personal delivery devices — slow-moving vehicles that are confined to sidewalks — and allowing highway work zone areas to use flashing red, green and amber lights.
While the bill appeared to be unobjectionable, the floor got heated when discussing several amendments related to TBARTA, which oversees regional transit planning in the Tampa Bay region.
Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, presented one amendment that mirrored legislation he filed earlier this year (SB 422). That measure would give mayors more flexibility as members of TBARTA by allowing them to send a designated alternate to serve as a member of the governing board, with the ability to act as a voting member.
The measure was adopted by the Senate, but not without word from Brandes, who is a vocal opponent of TBARTA.
“TBARTA is one of the most duplicative entities that we have in Tampa Bay,” Brandes said. “It is essentially the appendix of the transportation planning process, we could cut it out and nobody would miss it. We should sunset TBARTA.”
Brandes, while frustrated with the agency, voted for the amendment, with hopes to remedy some of the difficulties the agency has faced meeting quorum.
“Further messing with this appendix isn’t going to make it better,” Brandes said. “While I’ll support the amendment, I just think, ultimately, TBARTA should go away. It really adds no value.”
Rouson responded to Brandes concerns, continuing the appendix analogy.
“The sick appendix has a doctor, and it’s called this amendment,” Rouson said.
The agency was approved for a $1.5 million appropriation in this year’s budget conference, which Brandes also criticized in his debate, arguing that other local agencies had the ability to perform studies in the same space as TBARTA.
“They are effectively an entity that runs a small vanpool, but we give them $1.5 million every year to do studies, but you know what, DOT can do studies, NPOs can do studies, PSTA, HART can do studies,” he said. “It’s wild. So, we should just cut it out. Let’s sunset TBARTA and move on down the load.”
Brandes went as far as to file a bill to dissolve the agency this year, a move he presented in an amendment calling for the dissolution of the agency. But, following the passage of Rouson’s amendment, Brandes withdrew the proposal.
“I am the surgeon for this appendix, and I am seeking to cut it out — I am seeking to remove it from the patient,” Brandes said when presenting his amendment to dissolve the agency. “It does nothing, it is infected, and we should remove it from the Tampa Bay market.”
The frustration expressed by Brandes about the agency led Miami-Dade Sen. Annette Taddeo to remark, “It’s nice to see that another area outside of Miami-Dade County is debating amongst itself.”
The Legislature created TBARTA in 2007 to develop a transportation master plan for a seven-county region of West-Central Florida. The agency covers Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.
Its original name was the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and while its mission was broad, it served limited purposes including operating a regional van pool. The Florida Legislature voted to change the transportation in its name to transit and restructured its purpose to serve as a regional transit planning agency to coordinate intra-county plans.
However, that change established an unfunded mandate and every year since lawmakers have come back asking for funding to keep operations rolling. Critics saw the agency as a wasted and duplicative endeavor while supporters considered it a way to establish regionalism for transit in a system where individual county transit agencies tend to focus only within their borders.