Veto cuts transit money

The new regional transportation agency will have no budget or staff in its first year.

Published May 25, 2007

The new Tampa Bay regional transportation authority suffered a major setback Thursday when Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed $1-million in startup money.

Now an agency that's expected to come up with an overarching transportation plan for a seven-county region will have no budget and no staff of its own, at least in its first year.

"We just went from a Cadillac to a Studebaker," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who sponsored a House bill to create the authority. "This has put the regional transportation issue at a disadvantage."

Backers of the new authority -- which covers Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties -- had hoped it would help build a network of toll roads, rail lines and express buses to get people around the region.

Now they're just hoping it will avoid the fate of the old Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority, a similar agency that died in the early 1990s after Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed its budget. The same thing happened to a Tampa Bay transportation authority that folded in the 1970s.

Crist was asked about the veto at a Tampa news conference Thursday, but referred questions to his staff. He had just slashed several hundred projects, about $460-million worth, from a $71.5-billion state budget.

The governor's office provided a technical explanation: It cut the $1-million for the Tampa Bay authority and $3-million for a similar one in the Panhandle because the money was to come from the state's transportation trust fund. But that fund is to be used for roads and bridges, not administrative costs.

Also, the state Transportation Department didn't recommend funding the regional agency in its budget request this year.

State legislators unanimously voted to create the new regional authority earlier this month. Crist has yet to sign the bill, but lawmakers expect him to.

While several of the agency's backers were disappointed by Thursday's veto, others downplayed the issue.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said no other regional authorities have gotten state money for startup costs. Instead, they've typically relied on local counties and cities.

"They will be fine," Fasano said. "The Department of Transportation will work with the regional authority in coming up with the dollars to help them start up along the way."

The board of the new agency is supposed to include county commissioners and big-city mayors from the seven counties, as well as business executives and gubernatorial appointees.

The $1-million in startup money was intended to pay for an executive director, a secretary, an office, and possibly staffers to do engineering and legal work.

Instead, lawmakers say the new authority's board will likely have to rely on staffers from the Transportation Department.

State officials were already planning to work with the new regional agency to develop a master plan, said department spokeswoman Kris Carson. The Tampa Bay district is engaged in a long-term study of the region's mass transit needs.

"We're going to proceed with that," Carson said.

Still, Crist's veto was reminiscent of the fate that befell the now-defunct Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority. In 1990, lawmakers created that agency to coordinate rail plans for the region. It set aside $250,000 to pay for an executive director and a staff.

But in 1991, Chiles cut that money out of the budget. The authority lingered for a few years with a volunteer executive director, borrowed transit planners and pro bono legal work.

"When the funding wasn't budgeted, we held out hopes the counties and other local governments would chip in enough money for it to go," said James Hargrett, a former state senator from Tampa who helped create the rail authority. "It became apparent later on that there was not that support."

But Hargrett said circumstances may have changed. He said the ambivalence for rail that typified the area back then has been replaced by a growing demand for better transit.

"The public is behind rail," he said. "If local officials step up, it will get done."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.