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.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.
"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."
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.