FL: Report: Hillsborough transit agency ‘effective’ despite challenges

Jan. 8, 2024
The Florida Department of Transportation presented a generally positive picture of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority despite it being “hampered by fiscal constraints.”

TAMPA — The agency tasked with overseeing public transportation in Hillsborough County operates an effective daily service despite funding challenges, according to a recently released report. But inadequate building conditions continue to prompt safety concerns.

The report, which also recommended a review of the agency’s board structure, was mandated by Florida lawmakers during the 2023 legislative session in the wake of an investigation that led to the departure of former agency CEO Adelee Le Grand last year.

The Florida Department of Transportation presented a generally positive picture of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority despite it being “hampered by fiscal constraints.” Its operating budget is on par with those of Buffalo, New York, and Bridgeport, Connecticut, despite serving a larger population in one of America’s fastest-growing counties, the report said.

“There have been questions regarding HART’s operations, but available data indicate that HART has been effective in the operation of its daily transit service,” the study said, pointing to National Transit Database metrics that show ridership recovering to pre-pandemic levels.

Federal funds offered respite but are not a sustainable source of revenue long-term, the report said. It critiqued the agency’s lack of a cost allocation plan, “a clear best practice” which helps an organization estimate how it will use and charge for shared costs and services. The agency is compliant with federal operational and management guidelines, per the report.

The agency has yet to secure funding for capital projects such as its bus maintenance building, which is in poor condition and is not large enough to fit all of the agency’s buses inside of it. In administrative areas there are “known deficiencies that cause recurring safety concerns,” such as mold, prompting several rooms to be closed to protect employees.

The agency continues to be challenged by staffing shortages and turnover.

Le Grand, the former chief executive, was suspended with pay last spring shortly after the Tampa Bay Times revealed the agency’s chief customer experience officer had for months also been working for a public transit agency in New Orleans — netting more than $350,000 per year in her combined roles. Working both jobs at the same time was in violation of both agencies’ policies.

The Hillsborough agency’s board then greenlit a taxpayer-funded investigation, which found Le Grand’s behavior caused poor organizational morale, “abnormal administrative turnover” and “tremendous disruption.”

The report recommended a review of the agency board’s composition and size and “some type of minimum qualifications for appointed board members.”

The report noted that the agency’s 14-member board is unusually large compared to peer organizations and will increase in the coming years due to a growing population if no changes are made to its charter.

Rep. Linda Chaney, a Republican from St. Pete Beach, recently proposed reducing the board size of the Pinellas transit authority from 15 to 11.

The study team, consisting of the Florida Department of Transportation and consultant Michael Baker International, conducted 17 stakeholder interviews last summer with current and past CEOs, board members, legal counsel, elected officials and personnel at peer transit agencies in cities such as Orlando and Louisville.

The report also explored potential paths forward for the agency’s governance structure, including dissolution, which would be a challenge as a new taxing authority would need to be approved.

If the transit authorities of Pinellas and Hillsborough were to merge, state legislation and a referendum would have to occur to abolish the current organizations and establish a new one.

Privatization, meanwhile, is more of a “stopgap measure,” according to the report, and could lead to fare increases, reduced oversight and the axing of unproductive routes.

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