Wednesday, May 23, 2018

PSTA Proposes Raising Gas Tax, Using Toll Monies & Tourist Tax to Fund More Transit

All the proposed sales tax hikes for transit in Tampa Bay have gone down in flames. Now there's a new scheme in Tampa Bay for how to get new pots of money to fund more transit. 

With transit ridership continuing to decline, even on their busiest route, PSTA (transit agency in Pinellas County) is proposing new funding sources to fund more transit. 

At today's PSTA Board meeting, the agenda includes PSTA staff presenting "Funding for Transit Investments". The first source of potential new funds comes from the tourist tax. The state legislature passed HB7087 this year which expanded the use of the Tourist Development Tax aka hotel bed tax. 

With certain conditions that must be met, the tourist tax can now be used as capital funding for infrastructure projects including transportation, sewer, drainage, etc. projects that (supposedly) positively will impact tourist related businesses in the county. At last month's PSTA Board meeting we attended, this tax was brought up by PSTA's State lobbyist (yes - PSTA uses your tax dollars to hire State and Federal lobbyists) and we saw dollar signs flashing in some of the Board members eyes.

Therefore,  PSTA staff with present their "Tourism Focused Transit Projects" that includes: Clearwater Beach to the airport, Mid-County Beach to the airport, Jolley Trolley coastal route, downtown St. Pete to downtown Tampa, Central Ave BRT, Clearwater Beach busway, the proposed regional BRT from Wesley Chapel to downtown St. Pete 
PSTA's Tourism Focused Transit Projects to pursue
potential use of expanded tourist tax funding
As we posted here, PSTA has a funding gap for their proposed Central Ave BRT. City of St. Pete Beach is not a funding partner for the BRT, and may not be, so PSTA must close the funding gap or reduce the size and scope of the project. Note that PSTA's Central Avenue BRT received their medium high rating from the Feds FTA because they used procedures for "entitled" ratings implemented by the Obama Admin. These procedures which allow entitled ratings enable grant requests to be made without having to provide more detailed information about the project - a post for another day.

PSTA is proposing numerous other Central Ave BRT like services all over Pinellas County:
PSTA's Proposed BRT/Rapid Services in Pinellas County


With PSTA's farebox recovery tanking to about 16% (aka taxpayers subsidize 84% of their operating costs), where will the money come from to fund all this? 

PSTA plans to pursue more federal funding for all these new transit services and they must have more committed local funding to pursue the federal funding. 

The "Other Notes" in the presentation outline PSTA's scheme for pursuing more money:
  • New Local Option 1-5 cent Pinellas Gas Tax Revenue = $17.6M total (2018$) Proposed new Routes total $14.7M (2018$)
  • PSTA will require $130M over 10 years to replace our buses that have reached their 15-year lifespan. Our current plan for bus replacements is under-funded by $8M/year and could be supported by Penny for Pinellas, STP Funds, or gas tax revenue
  • Proposed 41-Mile Premium Regional Transit Service to be supported with the toll revenues from the TBNext lanes or tourist development funding
That is right - PSTA wants to raise your gas tax intended for roads, highways and bridges to fund more transit. PSTA wants to use toll revenues, that should be used to maintain and improve the toll roads, to fund more transit.

According to Alltransit.org, 1.76% of commuters use transit in Pinellas County. 

No worries…Transit ridership is always somewhere over the rainbow - the same place as that pot of gold…

Monday, May 21, 2018

Hillsborough MPO Gone Rogue

June 1st officially begins our Hurricane season again. Many in Florida and Tampa Bay still have last year's hurricane season in the back of our minds. Millions evacuated last September as the massive Hurricane Irma, larger than the entire state of Florida, created the largest evacuation in the history of our country. 

It's also time for the Metropolitan Planning Organization's (MPO) to start their federally mandated 2045 long range planning. MPO's are powerful federally mandated transportation decision making boards as all federal and state transportation funding must go through the MPO's approval process. The MPO entity itself is surrounded by a bureaucracy of staff and numerous committees.

To begin the latest Hillsborough MPO planning effort, the Hillsborough MPO Board met with the Planning Commission and the Hillsborough River Interlocal Planning Board at a strategic planning retreat at Stetson University on March 23rd. This "strategic planning" retreat was attended by almost all bureaucrats with just a handful of electeds in attendance. Required attendees were the bureaucrats…..The bureaucratic Swamp is alive and well in Tampa Bay.

The retreat provided input to the MPO's Unified Planning Work Program (UPWP) document. This document sets out the transportation activities the MPO will do and the products they will develop as part of the long range planning effort.

Our bureaucracies now act like PR marketing entities that use our tax dollars to create campaign slogans to sell some, often orchestrated, agenda. Previous Hillsborough UPWP documents did not have slogans but this time the transportation central planners felt compelled to include one in their latest  Work Plan document- It's Time Tampa Bay.
But time for what?

Costly rail like the failed SunRail? Subsidized Transit Oriented Development (TOD) to create densities around train stations that benefits developers? Or tearing down 10 miles of Interstate 275, that serves as a major hurricane evacuation route and that hundreds of thousands of people use daily, from downtown Tampa to Bearss Avenue? Replacing I-275 with a street level boulevard and a train? And then ask taxpayers to pay for all the costly congestion creation?

Scenario planning was not mentioned in previous Hillsborough MPO UPWP documents but their latest version has them. Below are the scenarios/projects documented in Hillsborough MPO's federally mandated UPWP document (emphasis mine).
1. Trend Plus, defined as continuing current land use policies with incremental expansion of the Urban Service Area in Hillsborough County.
2. Beltway and Boulevard, defined by the conversion of I-275 north of downtown Tampa into an at-grade boulevard, accompanied by construction of managed lanes on I-75 and I-4, as well as a new limited access highway in the SR 54 corridor.
3. Transit Oriented Development, focused on a rail transit line following the CSX corridor between downtown Tampa and the USF area.
Scenario planning for transportation is used to consider broad frameworks not specific projects - especially at the very beginning of a planning process. This makes the Hillsborough MPO's planning process appear contrived and orchestrated.

The scenarios Hillsborough MPO used in their 2040 long range planning process were broad frameworks:  Suburban Dream, Bustling Metro, New Corporate Centers. Other MPO long range planning documents we looked at also used broad frameworks.

There's reason to be skeptical of the Hillsborough MPO because we caught some graphs they included in the original draft version of their UPWP. One of the graphs they tried to include that reflects light rail as the top choice is below.
Unsubstantiated poll results MPO tried to include in updated UPWP
(Click to enlarge)


We asked the MPO where the data came from that created this chart. We obtained a copy of polling the MPO did which can be found here. These polls were taken at some FDOT TBNext meetings, where often half the attendees were staff, bureaucrats or a member of taxpayer funded bureaucracy. Of course, some of the same people attended multiple meetings and the same person could have been surveyed multiple times. The MPO also polled their own bureaucracy (no bias for sure in their own bureaucratic Swamp).

We questioned the MPO why they would include such unsubstantiated data in a formal MPO document insinuating they were valid results. Federally mandated MPO's cannot just make stuff up and manipulatively create false narratives. The MPO did remove the graphs (because they cannot substantiate the data) and replaced them with this text.
The Hillsborough MPO already has begun engaging the public, via live audience polling, on what some of the major influences or “drivers” of change should be factored into the 2045 Update, as well as strategies for accommodating this growth and where resources should be focused. While this polling was not developed as a statistically significant survey, results indicate that there are people in Hillsborough County who are interested in alternatives to current trends. The Hillsborough MPO is currently analyzing the implications of responses to the survey, like traffic congestion and infrastructure cost, which will be assessed in a broader outreach phase to determine how widely held those preferences are.
According to Hillsborough MPO's 2040 long range plan, we'll have a gridlock if we do not improve and add capacity to our entire interstate system. Below are the capacity needs from Hillsborough MPO's 2040 plan for the interstates and roads. The chart even includes costly rail lines that confirms spending millions and billions on rail does nothing to relieve congestion.
Hillsborough MPO 2040 Capacity Needs from
their 2040 LRTP
(Click to enlarge)
Now the MPO ignores their own previous capacity needs data and is considering tearing down I-275 from downtown Tampa to Bearss Avenue that hundreds of thousands use everyday in their latest planning process. 

And the Hillsborough MPO told us rail and tax hikes will be in their long range plan AGAIN.

The Hillsborough MPO ignores the will of voters in 2010. They ignore those who showed up at Go Hillsborough meetings/public hearings in 2016 opposing rail and tax hikes and "demanding" our roads and highways be fixed first.

While the public is being told to prepare now for the upcoming hurricane season, the Hillsborough MPO is considering tearing down 10 miles of a major interstate that serves as a major hurricane evacuation route.

The Hillsborough MPO has gone rogue!

Monday, May 7, 2018

Developer Wants Land Use Changes & Opposition Shows Up En Masse

Guest post from Shirley Wood, a resident of south Hillsborough County

Talk to any resident in southern Hillsborough County and they will tell you about what they deal with daily- unbelievable traffic jams, numerous accidents, and a rising crime rate- and it will soon be even worse if the developers get their way. The push now is to allow for more density in development by changing the County Land Use Code* from R-2, which allows 2 units per acre to R-3 which will allow 3 units per acre. In one planned “village” this will mean up to 13,200 houses on 4,400 acres way out by Balm, which sets a precedent for more sprawl all over the county's rural areas.

Residents showed up last Thursday evening at Riverview High School for a public meeting to listen to those representing the developers. The meeting, supposedly organized by the developers, although held in a public high school, using county A/V equipment, and with a Hillsborough sheriff deputy provided, was advertised as a chance for residents in the area to hear about the planned village and the enhancements it would bring to their area. 

The meeting was attended by well over 500 people from the areas including Balm, Wimauma, and Tropical Acres- many who had received a letter inviting them to attend. Food and beverage was provided and a short presentation was made by David Smith, an attorney for one of the developers before citizens were allowed to speak and ask questions. 

According to the developers this change will only apply to this one development- So the question asked by some residents- then why change the entire land use code?? Why not just apply for a zoning change for this one parcel of land? Of course the developers know this will set the precedent for any future developments anywhere in Hillsborough County. Among some of the claims Smith made in his presentation: 
  • In order for R-3 to apply a development must have over 160 acres with “enhancements”. 
  • R-3 is not about rezoning property- it is about changing the county’s Land Use Code 
  • At this time the only property that would be affected would be the one proposed development in southern Hillsborough County (of course no comment from him about the precedent this change would set and the fact that this code change would allow any developer to apply for this change in the future anywhere in the county.) 
  • Said this would not automatically change from R-2 to R-3, but would give the developer the “opportunity” to seek that change 
  • Claimed that the water and sewer in any development would be paid for by the developer in agreement with the county. 
Then it was time for public comments and it was obvious the residents were NOT impressed with all of the promised “enhancements” this “village” would bring to their area. Citizens lined up at the mic to take their turn asking questions. The first was a question concerning the term “public housing” in the proposal. Smith claimed that term was not in the proposal at which the citizen turned to the audience and asked how many had read the proposal with the words “public housing” and several raised their hands. Smith assured him he would reread it and get back with him on that. The follow up was a question asking if Smith could assure them there would be no zero-property line housing, to which Smith said he could not. As for the promise of more parks- one resident told them that their neighborhood already has a park, but no money to maintain it or to provide security so it can safely be used. Another said that before the developers showed up with their thousands of houses they had all the “green space” they needed. Improved roads was also mentioned by Smith as a plus that would come to southern Hillsborough and the residents jumped on this reminding him that traffic now, before this proposed development is built, is already a nightmare, and the county has said that any relief to the congestion is 10 years in the future*. Some honestly said they were afraid of what this meant to their neighborhoods and their way of life.

The questions continued for an hour and ended with the final citizen reminding everyone that the people they were addressing their comments to were not the ones who could do anything about their concerns or even cared about their concerns, and telling them that the fight must go to their county commissioners and the county planning commission. He then turned to Smith and asked, “This development has already been approved hasn’t it? The only difference is whether the density will be 2 houses to each acre or 3 houses to each acre?” To which Smith said yes. So sprawl has already been approved by our county, and the question now is only how dense these developments will be. 

Citizens must speak up now if they want to stop this change to our Land Use Code with even more density in already over-developed rural areas. Future meetings are planned and hopefully the turnout will continue to grow and citizens will continue to contact their county commissioners about this issue. Dates of scheduled meetings are:

July 12, 2018, 6:30p Public Meeting - Riverview High School, 11311 Boyette Rd. Riverview, FL 33569

July 23, 2018, 5:30p Planning Commission Hearing - 18th floor County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Downtown Tampa

August 16, 2018, 6:00p County Commission 1st Public Hearing - 2nd floor County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Downtown Tampa

October 11, 2018, 6:00p County Commission 2nd Public Hearing - 2nd floor County Center, 601 E. Kennedy Blvd., Downtown Tampa 
 
http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/en/businesses/zoning/land-development-code/land-development-code-amendments

http://www.tampabay.com/news/transportation/Road-improvements-coming-but-not-as-fast-as-growth-in-south-Hillsborough_166745239
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An Eye note: The Developer's Contact listed in the first link above includes Attorney Vincent A. Marchetti

The Times published this article about Marchetti last month.Hillsborough commissioners are concerned about sprawl … until this guy shows up

This Times article last year reported Marchetti hosted a fundraiser for Hagan after he filed to run again for a District seat he had already held.

Are county taxpayers are paying for these meetings hosted by the Developers?  If so, why?

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

PSTA Must Fix Funding Gap & Misleading Info for Central Ave BRT

We posted here recently about PSTA's proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project (CA BRT). It will use road diets and huge 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd and take out parking spaces in St. Petersburg along its route from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar.

There are issues with this project because PSTA submitted misleading financial information in their Small Starts grant application submitted to the FTA in September 2017. PSTA included St. Pete Beach as a funding partner for the CA BRT project.
PSTA financial info submitted to FTA included St. Pete Beach
as a funding partner
PSTA included this map of the BRT's route alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar in St. Pete Beach in their grant application to FTA. There is no indication in this map of different options depending on funding commitments.
Central Ave BRT alignment submitted to FTA September 2017
St. Pete Beach has never taken any action to fund or support the project.

In addition, the action taken by the PSTA Board at a January 25, 2017 Board meeting reflect the Board approved a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard on St. Pete Beach with an option to extend south to the Don Cesar Hotel pending local funding commitments. 

PSTA staff told the PSTA Board at the January 25, 2017 Board Meeting that they had to approve the alignment that day to stay on schedule to get FY2019 federal funding. This chart of the full route was presented and PSTA staff admitted there was still a St. Pete Beach funding issue but indicated it would be resolved by the summer. What alignment did all the Board members think they were approving?
Route Presented to PSTA  Board 1/25/2017
The funding issue has never been resolved and PSTA continued to move this project forward as if it had been and with the route terminating at the Don Cesar.

Who reviewed the grant application packet before it was submitted to the FTA?

As recently as April 12, 2018,  PSTA took their CA BRT presentation over to a Hillsborough MPO committee meeting. The presentation shows the route terminating at the Don Cesar and includes this chart - falsely stating St. Pete Beach is a funding partner.
PSTA presentation 4/12/2018 to Hillsborough MPO committee
Local media has reported about this project but never about the funding gap until TBBJ reported last week St. Pete Beach mayor says city won't pitch in $1.5 million for proposed bus project. The article is behind TBBJ's subscription firewall but includes this:
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is trying to identify creative funding sources to bridge a $1.5 million gap in local funding for the proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit route connecting downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. 
“To be honest, there’s no way in hell I’m going to give them $1.5 million,” said St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson. "As much as I'd like to have it, it's just not worth it to us." 
The BRT terminus at St. Pete Beach would be at the Don CeSar, but the route would not continue into the community.
How did this happen?

After Greenlight Pinellas failed miserably 68-32% in November 2014, PSTA decided to focus on incremental improvements rather than another grand transit scheme like Greenlight. PSTA sought and received $500K from FDOT for the Central Ave BRT design work in December 2015.

The project started as a 10-14 mile project at an estimate cost of about $16.5 million. By the time PSTA submitted their grant application in September 2017, the capital cost had more than doubled to over $41 million (in 2019 dollars), the route was 22 miles and the project was taking out 13 miles of general purpose lanes of traffic.

PSTA sought and received a local funding commitment from the City of St. Petersburg who voted to financially support the project.

PSTA also pursued a funding commitment from St. Pete Beach. PSTA initially went to an October 11, 2016 St. Pete Beach City Council Workshop to present an overview of the BRT project to the council members.

PSTA Executive Committee meeting was held the next day on October 12, 2016 where the funding issue with St Pete Beach was discussed.

At the meeting last week, the St. Pete Beach City Commission indicated that because of the millions in spending the city faces to repair and upgrade its leaking sewer system, there is no money left for the proposed rapid transit route. 
"It's unfortunate they are not being more cooperative," said PSTA Board Chair Darden Rice. 
"There is no free lunch," said PSTA board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, warning her board not to start the rapid transit service without St. Pete Beach paying its share.
PSTA went back to an October 25, 2016 St. Pete Beach commission meeting with their formal request. They asked for $1.5 million from St. Pete Beach for capital dollars to implement the CA BRT and also wanted St. Pete Beach to provide more dollars to operate and maintain the service.

The end result of that meeting was St. Pete Beach council stated they had other higher priorities to address and they took no action. Since then, St. Pete Beach has never voted to fund the project or vote to support the project in any way.

Since the January 25, 2017 PSTA Board meeting, we could find no mention by PSTA of the funding issue with St. Pete Beach as if it disappeared or got resolved.

Long's warning to not start the service without St. Pete Beach paying its share must have gone out the window when the schedule to pursue the federal money was more important than resolving the funding issue.

PSTA has never been back to St. Pete Beach since October 2016.

From a March 13, 2018 St. Pete Beach council meeting (go to about 2:21 in the video) it appears that PSTA had not continued any negotiations with St. Pete Beach about funding. It seems St. Pete Beach thought the project was still preliminary, that the route was not finalized and were unaware that PSTA had submitted a federal grant application that included St. Pete Beach funding the route to the Don Cesar with 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd.

There is a flaw in the FTA transit grant process. There should be a requirement that all grant applications must provide evidence of the actions taken that all funding partners and stakeholders have approved their financial commitment of the project by each governing body. FDOT should require that too.

From a conversation with FDOT, it is PSTA's responsibility to provide accurate information to the FTA regarding all local funding commitments.

PSTA must fix the funding gap asap and update their grant application because the FTA has already rated this project. No federal grant should be awarded based on erroneous information.

PSTA's Board must also get some questions answered. Why did PSTA submit misleading financial information in their FTA grant application last September? Why did PSTA include the route alignment to the Don Cesar in their FTA grant application when the St. Pete Beach funding issue had not been resolved? Was there a breakdown in oversight and communication within the entire process?

There is no excuse for PSTA submitting misleading financial information to the FTA and continuing to perpetuate the deceptive information ever since.

There is already reason for distrust as PSTA was caught misusing federal transit security funds for Greenlight Pinellas ads in 2014 and had to hand $345K back to the Feds.

When the pursuit of federal transit funding is more important than providing accurate and honest information in the process, messes like this get created.

That should be alarming to all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Self Preservation or Playing Politics with the County Charter

On the Consent Agenda (where the commissioners rubber stamp approvals) of tomorrow's BOCC meeting is this item:
Authorize the County Attorney's Office to Schedule and Advertise a Public Hearing for May 2, 2018 at 10:00 AM, for the purpose of adopting an ordinance to amend the County Charter to require that amendments to the charter be effective upon approval by a 60% vote of the electors.  Other than the cost to publish required legal notices, adoption of this Ordinance will have no impact on the FY 18 Adopted Budget.
At the last Hillsborough County BOCC meeting on April 4, 2018, Commissioner Miller put an item on the agenda asking for a draft ordinance proposing a Charter amendment that future Charter amendments require 60% super majority to pass. The original motion at that meeting by Miller excluded citizen-led initiatives which would remain at 50%. The motion was amended that ALL charter amendments require 60% super majority. That amendment passed with Kemp, Miller and Hagan voting NO and Murman, White, Crist and Higginbotham voting YES.

Miller's proposed charter amendment ordinance was coincidentally made at the same last BOCC meeting that Commissioner Higginbotham placed an item on the agenda proposing the 5 Constitutionals elected positions be changed to non-partisan.
Direct the County Attorney's Office to bring back a draft Ordinance on May 2, 2018 proposing an amendment to the Hillsborough County Charter to make the five constitutional officers elected on a non-partisan basis, and to request the Supervisor of Elections to place the referendum on the November 6, 2018 General Election ballot. (Commissioner Higginbotham)
Higginbotham's proposal was rejected 4-3 with White, Kemp, Crist and Miller voting NO and Hagan, Murman and Higginbotham voting YES. All citizens who showed up to make a public comment on this item were opposed to this proposal. No one showed up to speak in favor of it.

And coincidentally at the same last BOCC meeting, Commissioner Pat Kemp put a proposed term limit item on the agenda. She proposed a change to the Charter that county commissioner terms be limited to no more than ten consecutive years of service. Commissioner Sandy Murman subsequently tried to make an amendment to Kemp's proposal to include changing the Charter from the current 4 single and 3 countywide districts to 7 or 9 single districts. That motion died for lack of a second but Murman said she would bring it back at a future time.

Kemp's original motion asking for language for an ordinance to change the Charter for 10 year term limits was watered down to directing staff to bring back to the next Board meeting a report reviewing all possibilities, including 10, 12, and 18 year term limits; the impact on current Board member terms; and Board members serving in single-member and Countywide districts. 

Read the transcript of the commissioners discussion on this agenda item here. A lot of self preservation was on display.

Commissioner White wanted to prohibit the clock being reset so that years already served would count toward the term limit but that failed for lack of a second. (Self preservation kicked in….)

The County Attorney then said any term limit changes would reset the clock. Really? 

It is mid April with the mid term election just over 6 months away and this commission is now proposing some major changes to the County Charter for the November ballot. If all these changes are so important, where have these commissioners been - since the last election in 2016? 

The Hillsborough County Charter was approved by voters in 1983. In 35 years only a handful of charter amendments passed in 2002, 2004, 2012. That is quite different from the abuse that has occurred using Amendments to the State Constitution that should have been passed by legislation instead of being codified in the State Constitution. We all can recall the pregnant pigs amendment in 2002. The class room size amendment passed in 2002 52-48% BEFORE the 60% super majority amendment was passed 58-42% in 2006. The repeal of the classroom size amendment failed 55-45 in 2010 AFTER the 60% super majority was in place even though more voters voted to repeal it than initially approved it. Though there are these instances, we believe the 60% super majority required for State Amendments is good.

Is a 60% super majority for all county charter amendments good or necessary? Some of the County Charter changes were housekeeping items. It takes a super majority of 5 commissioners to put a Charter amendment ordinance on the ballot - unlike tax hike referendums that only need a simple majority of 4 to get on the ballot.

A question asked at the April 4th meeting is whether this charter amendment would affect any other referendum that could go before voters. The County Attorney responded that this proposal only affects amendments to the Charter not referendums that state statute has authorized. 

The problem in Hillsborough County is not with Charter amendments but with unnecessary sales tax hike referendums. Tax hike, revenue raising referendums should require a 60%. This would help reign in pursuing unnecessary sales tax hikes as the primary go to means advocated for by special interests that benefit them. This would help force more fiscal due diligence within existing budgets, especially as revenues are naturally increasing due to growth and rising property values. 

Unfortunately, it was very noticeable that almost all the county commissioners do not want super majorities required for tax hikes.

The State can fix that problem The State needs to change Florida Statute 212.055 that authorizes discretionary sales surtaxes to require approval by 60% super majority of the electors in the county.

Yes - the process to put a proposed 60% super majority for all county Charter Amendments can be met even at this late date for ballot initiatives to be approved by August to be on the November ballot. We are already anticipating the state Constitution Revision Commission putting numerous State Amendments on the November ballot that may create enough chaos and confusion.

But are all these proposals political expediency? Something smells a bit when these proposals for major charter amendments suddenly appear at the same BOCC meeting this late in an election cycle. Four county commission seats have races in November and four incumbent county commissioners have filed to run again. But the commission may change with new members after November.

If the proposed amendments are so good, are needed, or are necessary, pursue them for the 2020 ballot during a Presidential election year when the most local voters turn out. 

The county commissioners should not be playing politics or pursuing self preservation with the County Charter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Dysfunction or Deception: Road Diets & 60 Foot Buses on Gulf Blvd

Since Greenlight Pinellas failed in 2014 and Go Hillsborough failed in 2016, FDOT in Tampa Bay has been doling out millions and millions for more transit studies like it's Christmas candy.

For the moment at least, the strategy has changed to pursuing individual transit projects instead of going after some massive grand transit plan that have consistently failed in Tampa Bay. Pursuing individual projects enables projects to proceed more stealthily under the radar of public scrutiny.

It is all about getting a pot of federal transit money - at a time when transit ridership is declining, vehicle ownership is increasing, vehicle miles travelled is increasing, innovation is disrupting traditional transit and less than 2% use transit in Tampa Bay.

Only government can be so out of touch with reality. This is why the transportation issue in Tampa Bay has become so dysfunctional.

The transit project in this new scheme that is the furthest along is PSTA's Central Avenue BRT (CA BRT) in Pinellas County. This is the catalyst of the catalyst project. It is in the federal funding spigot pipeline and has been rated by the FTA. It appears this project got this far with little public scrutiny and probably not enough transparency.

We'll start shining a bright light on what the CA BRT project is and the process used to further it.

Do not forget that PSTA was caught in 2014 abusing federal transit security funds by using those funds on advertising for Greenlight Pinellas. Due to this deception, PSTA was forced to hand back $345K dollars to the Feds. Wonder if the FTA knows that?

PSTA submitted their Federal Small Starts application for the Central Avenue BRT to the FTA  September 7, 2017. Small Starts projects must have a total estimated capital cost of $300 million or less and must be seeking less than $100 million from the feds.

The name Central Avenue BRT (CA BRT) is a misnomer because the route actually runs on First Avenue North and South. The existing Central Avenue trolley route continues business as usual.

The CA BRT is a 22 mile long route from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar at St. Pete Beach. To meet the federal qualification that greater than 50% of the route must use a dedicated lane, this project uses a road diet that takes away 13 miles of general purpose lanes along First Avenue North, First Avenue South and Pasadena Avenue in Pinellas County.
PSTA CA BRT 22 mile route from downtown St. Pete to the Don Cesar
According to the Small Starts Application submitted to the FTA in September 2017 (emphasis mine):
Along the entire length of 1st Avenue North and 1st Avenue South, and along Pasadena Avenue from Central Avenue to Huffman Way, one general purpose lane will be converted to a Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane that will be used by only buses and turning vehicles. Along 1st Avenue North, the BAT lane will run on the left side of the road with island stations for boarding on the right. Along 1st Avenue South, the alignment runs on the left side of the road in a BAT lane with island stations for boarding on the right between Pasadena Avenue and 20th Street. East of 20th Street, the alignment transitions to right side running. Along Pasadena Avenue, the BAT lane will run on the right side of the road. In total, the BAT lanes will comprise 13 miles of the 22-mile alignment.
While First Avenues North and South are local roads, Pasadena Avenue aka 66th Street is a State Road. Pinellas County has responsibility over their local roads. Why is FDOT allowing a road diet  taking out a general purpose lane of traffic on a state road? When the Corey Causeway draw bridge is open, traffic gets backed up for quite some way and can take a long time to clear.  Imagine the bigger traffic backup mess created when the Corey Causeway draw bridge goes up and traffic is even worse because a general lane of traffic leading to it has been taken out.

Qualifying for federal funds requires committed local funding for both capital and a long term funding source for operating and maintenance costs. According to PSTA's CA BRT Financial Plan submitted to the FTA (page 5), the capital cost of the CA BRT is estimated at $41.36 million (in 2019 dollars) and PSTA is asking for $20.36 million (49.2%) from the Feds. The chart below is included in PSTA's submittal to the FTA last September.
PSTA CA BRT capital funding plan provided to FTA

Page 6 of the Financial Plan states:
The City is currently in negotiations with PSTA regarding financial support of the BRT project for both capital and operations.
What is so striking is the City of St. Pete Beach has never taken any action, has never voted on or approved to "plan" or "commit" $1.5 million to the capital costs or provide operational funding for the CA BRT. PSTA went to the St. Pete Beach city council in October 2016 requesting financial support for the project but no action was taken by the council. PSTA has never gone back to St. Pete Beach since October 2016. There is no evidence of ongoing negotiations between PSTA and St. Pete Beach.

This is no small mistake so why did PSTA include such misleading information in their September 2017 Small Starts application submittal to the FTA? Is PSTA being deceptive again? This question deserves an answer - especially in light of what PSTA did pursuing Greenlight.

The CA BRT project will put 60 foot buses with four stops and no bus bays on the narrow congested Gulf Blvd. This service is in addition to the existing Jolly Trolley that runs along Gulf Blvd and the Central Ave Trolley. 
PSTA 60 foot bus on narrow, congested Gulf Blvd
with 4 stops & no bus bays in addition to Jolly Trolley
The project will also eliminate 231 parking spaces in St. Petersburg.

The documentation PSTA submitted to the FTA in September 2017 for this project stated it had gone through an extensive public involvement process. The Eye has attempted to get information regarding such extensive effort and the data captured from it from PSTA. To date, we have only received this list of public involvement events.
PSTA's list of CA BRT public involvement events

Is this considered "extensive" outreach?

Of the 39 events attended by 462 attendees, most were meetings with elected officials,  the bureaucracy and special interests.

Where are the sign in sheets and the data captured from the meetings? Were surveys done? If so, where's the data captured from those surveys? Do all the residents and businesses along the route know about this project and its impact?  What were all the communication vehicles PSTA used to inform the public and capture feedback, emails, newsletters, letters, social media, from their website, etc.? Where is the information captured from that communication?

All the data and information captured from public involvement are public records The information should be either accessible by the public or easily accessible to provide to anyone who requests it.

We have talked to people in Pinellas County who are unaware of the project and certainly do not know about the road diets and putting 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd.

We can bet most, including those most directly impacted, those who live in St. Pete Beach and probably those who live in S. Pasadena, do not know about this project or what it is doing.

It is time they do.

More to come about this project and PSTA.

Stay tuned!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Bed Tax fund takes a hit, and TBARTA gets $1 million

New tax bill allows bed tax to be spent on transportation and gives TBARTA $1 million.

St. Petersburg, Fl
Opinion by: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Author:
In Search of Robin, So You Want to Blog.
In a last-minute move Senator Jeff Brandes R of St. Petersburg managed to get some transportation language added in the tax cut bill approved by the State Legislature.
You can get some addition detail in a Tampa Bay Times Editorial: Editorial: 2 smart transportation investments for Tampa Bay.
The editorial goes on to point out that the Legislature also included $1 million in the 2018-2019 that would be used by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit authority to produce a “regional transit development plan” for the Tampa Bay area.
Raiding the bed tax, which is primarily used to develop tourism, the bay area's largest income steam, is generally a bad idea. Although the language in the legislation provides some safeguards, unless there is a significant oversight, you can bet this will become a honey trough for the light-rail hogs.
The thought of getting their fingers on some of that bed tax money probably has a number of local politicians staying awake at night trying to figure out how they can divert these funds to their use.
The $1 million to TBARTA is a complete waste of money, although it does empower TBARTA to do what it does best: waste money on endless reports and bountiful consult fees.
 In over two decades of effort, TBARTA has nothing to show for its voluminous reports and numerous meetings, and it is very unlikely this new million-dollar effort will be any different.
My guess is this money will be directed at developing a series of reasons that the recently proposed inter county rapid bus service should be should be slowed down until a light-rail plan can be wrapped around it.
The $1 million from the State takes TBARTA off life support for a while, ensures the financial support of a number of consultants and longevity for a bunch of mostly useless bureaucrats that have proven themselves light rail centric and pathetically biased
The recent re-tooling of TBARTA had little effect on the overall TBARTA goal of light rail as the only transportation solution for the Bay area and suggestions from numerous TBARTA supporters and politicians that we need to “slow down” the bus rapid transit project is a harbinger of what this money will be directed at supporting.
I am not sure what motivated Senator Brandes to promote this legislation, but I seriously doubt the results will anything close to what he envisioned.
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