Thursday, March 21, 2013

First play in a long game

The much anticipated Hillsborough County BOCC had their transportation meeting on March 20 to a full house, and we were there.  

Lets be honest. Surely this meeting would not have occurred without re-opening the fixed rail mode of transit for consideration.  If we were talking about more buses for HART, there would be little interest. Yes, there were discussions about "no preconceived ideas" and all that.  But no one be there about more buses.

Commission has transit discussion back on track
Providing support for the commission's action was a crowd of 30 to 40 pro-transit activists, who outnumbered conservative, anti-rail speakers by 10 to 1. The pro-transit group applauded after the unanimous vote.
No doubt.  Clearly the Connect Tampa Bay and their allies were extremely well organize.  We on the fixed rail skeptic side of the argument were vastly outnumbered.  We don't have any skin in the game.  We work real jobs.  We don't have any sponsorships, funding, or alliances.  We're just citizens.  And Taxpayers.
Many of the pro-transit group were in their 30s or younger. They told commissioners young, educated professionals have a host of choices when they decide where to live. One of the deciding points, they argued, is a well-oiled transit system that gives residents choices on how they get around.
I noticed that as well.  In fact, there was no speaker that appeared to be blue collar, working class, elderly, current bus dependent  speakers, at least when I was there, which was for the entire transportation topic most of the morning.  Definitely dominated by Gen Y and most seemed to be from downtown Tampa or nearby.

Fixed-rail in Phoenix
Fixed rail in Phoenix construction cost was over $1.4B.  It is capturing less than 1/4 of the operating costs from passenger fares.  Will fixed rail proponents in Tampa be willing to pay their fair (fare?) share, or will we end up like Phoenix, a metro area of 4M people, about 20,000 daily take the fixed rail.

We also heard many stories from the speakers and audience how bad traffic is in Tampa, how bad it was this weekend, and so on.  There was little mention of the mess that is currently underway on I-275 which no doubt is making traffic worse before it gets better.  Nor was their any mention that traffic is a symptom to some extent of a vibrant economy.  The more traffic, the more jobs, the more things to do, the better the economy.  And its an indicator of poor traffic planning.

Well, traffic is like the weather.  Everyone talks about, it's never perfect, and it can be bad elsewhere as well.  My commute into the meeting was no joy for sure, as I hit rain, backed up traffic, and CSX freight train that blocked traffic for about 15 minutes.  Consider that when we have more fixed rail intersections in Tampa.

As someone who travels to several cities regularly, I can attest that Tampa's traffic certainly is not worse the Miami, Atlanta, or D.C.  It is similar to Jacksonville.

Yes, let's work to reduce congestion.  Yes, lets understand the best options for transit, and seek to improve transit.

But this discussion would not be happening without renewed interests behind re-incarnating fixed rail transit in Tampa.

Local ABC News report, with resident skeptic interviewed towards the end.

Another underlying theme was economic development, as if it can only occur from fixed rail developments.  Sure, if you have bad traffic, that cuts into quality of life and all that, but all the discussions from the speakers and the Commissioners on economic development was based on the unstated assumption that more fixed rail development is required to drive this development.

What is this development?  It will undoubtedly be mixed use development at select transit stops.  Retail, restaurants, tiki bars, high density apartments (and high cost), and of course, parking lots.  Don't we have all this already?

These developments they are counting on will likely get some type of favorable tax benefits as commonly occurs in transit oriented development.  These often add more risk to the taxpayers as more long term debt burden is a typical funding model.

Downtown Tampa has independent plans to build over 2,000 new high-rise apartments, with rents up to $2,500 per month.  They're not waiting for transit.

It does beg the question about the 30 somethings, living downtown, paying $2,500 a month.  Perhaps they can't afford a car.

At least some of fixed rail skeptics did turn out, and try to add some dimension of reality and costs into the discussion, which was otherwise missing from the "pro-transit" speakers, and the Commissioners discussions.  To be sure, we are not anti-transit, we are cost effective and flexible solutions, which rarely includes fixed rail if costs are properly accounted for.
Several tea party activists who spoke during the meeting said they agreed the county's transportation system is deficient but said voters proved in the 2010 referendum that most residents don't want to raise taxes to fund a costly light-rail system. They said the county should concentrate money and time on fixing failed roads.

"We don't believe light rail is the answer to any of our issues," said Mark Calvert. "We have to prioritize on preserving and sustaining our existing infrastructure. We should improve and extend HART bus services … rather than more building and digging."
Well, that's part of what I said.  I did get quoted pretty accurately(!).   I also quickly mentioned several other ideas that can improve transportation and new options at much lower costs than fixed rail, so we are trying to be constructive, not just critics.

Of course, its hard to make any compelling argument based on reality and costs and accounting in a 2 minute speech to the BOCC.

It is much easier to make an emotional appeal in 2 minutes.

The Commissioners voted 7-0 to proceed with more studies.  It seemed rather scripted.  Commissioner Murman read her proposal, and everyone only had positive comments.

Here we go again.  The economics of fixed rail have not changed since 2010.

This was just the first play of a long game.


  1. Mark, i applaud your constructive ideas and enjoyed our discussion yesterday about how we agree more than we disagree. How you are happy to have a discussion and are ready to bring your ideas you've posted here -- and then you go home and attack the motives of your fellow citizens. Accuse them of hiding their true intent and being "sponsored" by corporations.

    You can continue to question the motives of people that want more transportation options, but I would like to as you a few things about this post.

    You say: " Yes, there were discussions about "no preconceived ideas" and all that. But no one be there about more buses."

    When in fact the ABC article you posted below interviews someone specifically talking about more frequent bus service. In fact of the 16 non COST speakers that were allowed to speak of the 40+ that signed up 13 talked about economic development in relation to all forms of transportation and 12 mentioned buses as a critical need.


    You state "In fact, there was no speaker that appeared to be blue collar, working class, elderly, current bus dependent speakers, at least when I was there, which was for the entire transportation topic most of the morning. Definitely dominated by Gen Y and most seemed to be from downtown Tampa or nearby."

    The locations of the signup speakers not from COST included -- Riverview, Brandon, Valrico, New Tampa, USF area, South Tampa, Carrollwood, East Tampa, Seminole Heights, and -- yes -- Downtown Tampa to name a few. In contrast -- none of the COST speakers hailed from most of these areas.

    At least 14 people that were there (but weren't able to speak) were of the
    bus dependent and even more where blue collar as you discuss. The people that spoke in favor of having the discussion and stood in favor of transit included people in their 60s and kids still in school. Look at the video you posted on your page and you can see that in plain sight.

    But lastly -- why would that be a bad thing? Why is it bad that younger people are getting in involved in their community and want to stay here?


    You say "To be sure, we are not anti-transit, we are cost effective and flexible solutions, which rarely includes fixed rail if costs are properly accounted for."

    Why did you not stand up when Jason Eames asked people who support transit to stand? Why did the HART board member you sat with not stand up? Would that not have shown a serious agreement in this county at the need for a better transit service, better technology for roads, and leave the ideological battle over technology to another day?

    This is the part that concerns me.

    Fundamentally you seem to question the demographics, motives, and of over 50 of your fellow citizens that showed up today and over 2,000 citizens that have joined Connect Tampa Bay. Why attack them personally? Is this the way to participate in a discussion? I hope you consider listening to the wide array of opinions of people and leaders that will be part of this discussion.

    You say: "We don't have any skin in the game. We work real jobs. We don't have any sponsorships, funding, or alliances. We're just citizens. And Taxpayers."

    Are you implying that the people who stood up yesterday don't have "real jobs" -- please say that out loud in the room next time to let them respond. Say that to the entrepreneurs, builders, drivers, teachers, store clerks, waitresses, nurses, and retired workers that stood up to support transit yesterday.

    You do skin in the game same as everyone else today -- as you you're a citizen and a taxpayer like all of us. That is a good thing. That is why this discussion is so important -- and it's vital that we don't spend our time attacking each other -- but focusing on making our community a better place to live.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for reading Eye on Tampa Bay. I could question some of your ConnectTB email today as well, but that won't be productive.

    I have researched municipalities that have gone down the rail path have often 2 or 3 referendums before it passes. I understand the pattern, the persistence, and the money behind it. I really don't think 2 years after the it was overwhelmingly voted down, or despite the well spun MPO survey results indicate the citizens are ready for rail solutions.

    There clearly is money to be made by laying rail and developing around it. We just don't believe that is the best way to prosperity, particularly when many of the developments historically have favorable tax treatments, and often are bonded out only to put the vast majority of the county taxpayers at risk, the vast majority of whom will not benefit or utilize rail or the planned development around it.

    I really don't know how you are funded, but you are clearly more funded and more organized. Congratulations, you've done a very effective job. I state that honestly. My colleagues and I are obviously not funded, and in fact are spending our personal time and money on our efforts. But I know how this goes. In 2010, $1.8M was spent by the pro-rail side, with big development and banks providing most of the funding. NoTaxForTracks raised about $20K. I know what we are up against. I see no reason why it will be much different this time.

    I don't want to be against you or ConnectTB. But if you don't consider the facts and issues we bring to the table, we will be bringing them out regardless.

    Regarding the demographics, I was reflecting on the reporting Mike Salinero, stating that I had a similar observation. The speakers may be wide ranging demographically that I did not capture, so thank you for your observations. I do find there was still a gap. I don't question why younger generation want to work, play and live here. I hope more do. I wish my daughters did (but their decisions had nothing to do with transportation). I was one of the young professionals 30 years ago starting my career in Tampa, and made decisions over the years to stay (and got on a lot of airplanes to stay here rather than move).

    Perhaps we should have stood up on the pro-transit stand, but several of the speakers did state some preferences for rail solutions. It was a snap judgment, we were out numbered, in 5 seconds it was over. You guys made the point.

    I don't think I "attack"ed anyone with my comments. I'm making some observations on the participants, and connecting some of the themes that underlie fixed rail, transit oriented development, and downtown rejuvenation. Not all are bad. Downtown Tampa is much better than it used to be (although with more federal grants than I personally prefer, I do like the improvements). I favor market driven development, even market driven transit related development. I want to minimize the risks to the taxpayers funding development activities with an unproven track record. Its really not much different argument than a pro sports team wanting a new stadium. At least I can't see the difference, and there are lots of data, studies and references that attempt to bring light on rail transit.

    Please don't over read and imply intent that is not there in my writing. We may disagree, but I really try not to be disrespectful, if imperfectly. I'm not trying to question motives, I am sympathetic to the needs of those who are less fortunate and dependent on transit.

    However, I do question the outcomes, and I am vigilant on where I think this may lead.

    You won the first point, so take some time to celebrate.

    I enjoyed our brief discussion yesterday, and with Phil Compton as well. Perhaps we can discuss further over a beverage of you choice. I think its important to keep dialogue, even if we don't agree, so we at least understand each others motivations and aspirations, and perhaps we can learn from each other. Just let me know when.

  3. Oh you are TOO nice. This guy is just going to make you buy him some beers and go back to his LOBBYIST & POLITICIAN friends.

    These people are RIDICULOUS. They don't have real jobs. I looked up thei "COST" group after watching them on TV it consists of

    2 Political candidates (Terry Kemple & Sharon Calvert) that just want taxpayer funded jobs.
    2 Paid lobbyists (Karen Jaroch & Ken Roberts
    and it seems like there are actually 2 citizens

    Thank god for the guy who writes this who actually seems to be one of the citizens have what you call "a job" . It's sad 2/3rd of the people in COST you work with are either lobbyists paid by big corporations or are just looking for the taxpayer to pay your you way as a politician. Its ridiculous -- Karen is paid by the KOCH brothers & who knows who pays Ken!

    They are all just CONSPIRACY THEORISTS that consider this all massive UN conspiracy called Agenda 21. They had a MEETING about this as recently as a few months ago! It's not worth debating people like this. They CLAIM to support buses but don't STAND UP to support them. how can the paid LOBBYIST by OUT-OF-STATE MONEY KAREN JAROCH sit on the board of the bus system and not support buses!!!

    Stop WASTING your time!

  4. Actually, most of us do work real jobs, and on both sides. No one is a paid lobbyist. Is there anything wrong with running for office, or speaking to your representatives?

    Please back up you statements with facts, and be constructive, as we attempt to be. You don't have to agree, but please be respectful of diversity of opinions.