Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The "Rail" Beat Goes On (and On and On)

The Hillsborough County Economic Development and Transportation Committee which consists of our county commissioners, the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, met again yesterday. According to today's Tribune six business executives were invited to discuss the county's growing transportation problems. I attended the meeting which appeared quite orchestrated as the Tribune reported:
If the county doesn't invest in mass transit, including a light rail sytsem, it will likely fall behind other major metropolitan areas econonically and won't be able to attract talented young entrepreneurs who prefer the urban lifestyle.
First let's identify who these business executives are and the companies they represented:
  • Gregory Celestan - Celestar and also Chairman of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce 
  • Bryan Crino - Skyway Capital (Investment Banking) and HART Board Member
  • Marty Lanahan - Regions Bank and member of the Florida Transportation Commission that has oversight of FDOT
  • David Pizzo - Florida Blue Cross & Blue Shield
  • Larry Richey - Cushman & Wakefield, Commercial Real Estate
  • Gary Sasso - Carlton Fields law firm and former chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership which had the symbiotic relationship to the pro-rail PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward marketing campaign.
We already knew the Tampa Chamber of Commerce were big rail supporters in 2010 but we did a quick check back to some campaign finance reports from 2010 for Moving Hillsborough Forward and found these donors:
  • Regions Bank - $25K
  • Carlton Fields - $25K
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield - $50K
  • Cushman & Wakefield - $900
So 5 of the 6 business executives were big rail supporters in 2010.  Now here at the Eye we are not surprised that the same rail groupies were brought back again because they always believe next time they'll do a better job of selling the rail product.  And as the Tribune stated
The executives also advised the political leaders to forget an unsuccessful referendum in 2010 that would have raised the sales tax by a penny to finance road improvements, new bus lines and a light rail system.
In their “we gotta have rail” minds, it's try, try, again and finally they will win. Truth is that's how many of these boondoggles finally get rammed through after numerous attempts.

It was no accident that Gary Sasso started off by saying improving our roads and bus service is important but......according to the Tribune article Sasso classified those transportation improvements as short-term solutions and stated:
You can have short-term reactions to business needs or you can have long-term planning that drives business growth. For example, probably one of the most expensive kinds of transportation is rail, but it gives you very powerful business growth in the form of transit-oriented development.
At least this time around, the power brokers and elected representatives let the cat out of the bag and admit that light rail really isn't about transportation, it's about Transit-oriented development aka TOD. Yes good old TOD, the kind of development that Obama's triumvirate of HUD, DOT & EPA has been doling out your tax dollars to subsidize – their version of stack and pack em, mass transit “livable cities”.
Along MARTA in Atlanta
I immediately picked up the “gotta have a rail” gist that all the business executives expressed, as well as many of the elected officials. According to Commissioner Murman, we're in an armegeddon and we must act now or else. Mayor Buckhorn proclaimed that we may “never have a chance like we have now, we need to be less concerned about raising taxes and more about quality of life.” But wait. Which armegeddon are we really talking about? Sharpe stated we have only $10 million for roads which means we can't even meet our short-term needs, include simply fixing our pot holes. The county has several billion dollars of unfunded road improvements. Has anyone yet figured out how to fix that problem? Because 98% of us use roads everyday.

Sharpe also stated, he's “shocked we do not have better transportation system” but he's been on the county commission since 2004. He was a member when the commissioners blew out our CIT tax in 2007. CIT was supposed to be for road improvements over the 30 year life of the tax. For decades while Florida was growing exponentially, we only received back about 70 cents of every federal gas tax dollar we sent to Washington, to help subsidize the high cost rail systems. Florida continues to be a donor state, why haven't our elected representatives been outraged about that?

I guess there is no road envy to getting our “fair share” of road money but plenty of rail envy was displayed yesterday. Comparisons were made to numerous cities we compete with, including bankrupt Detroit that is building a 3.3 mile light rail at an estimated cost of $140 million, scaled back from a proposed 9.3 mile line that would've cost at least a half billion dollars.  Does 3 miles of high cost rail make any sense to anyone,  even if your city wasn't going bankrupt?  I'm not sure any comparison with Detroit, even with some inappropriate chuckles made, is desirable.

Sasso even brought in the human interest element by reading a letter from one of his young employees in Miami that likes to ride the train perhaps insinuating that we need to be more like Miami.  However, we found this article about the train situation there that
Where There Were Once Many Lines Planned, Just One Opens in Miami
Miami’s population density of more than 12,000 people per mile is now about the same as Chicago’s. 
Thus the argument back in 2002 that something needed to be done to significantly improve the rail system. The People’s Transportation Plan, as it was known, wassupposed to have raised $17 billion over 25 years, enough to guarantee the completion of a 10.6 east-west Metrorail corridor and 9.5-mile north corridor by 2016. 
If anyone was paying attention to Miami, they might be especially skeptical of the tax’s value. There, voters passed a 1/2¢ sales tax increase in 2002 by a huge margin. They were promised an enormous expansion of rail transit service, with dozens of miles of new lines shooting out of the existing Metrorail system in virtually every direction. What they got in reality, however, was one project: The 2.4-mile, one-stop Orange Line extension to the Airport, which opened last weekend at a cost of $506 million. No other rail service is expected to be funded before 2035.
Of course, Charlotte always seems to be the gold standard light rail city that we're supposed to be living up to.   Therefore, we looked at the unemployment rates for May from the Federal Reserve of St. Louis Economics:
Hillsborough County - 6.6%
Mecklinburg County - 8.9%
Tampa-St. Petersbug-Clearwater, FL (MSA) - 6.9%
Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC (MSA) - 8.9%

So our unemployment rate in Hillsborough and the Tampa Bay area is 2 or more percentage points lower than the "gold standard light rail city of Charlotte".  Yet the rail groupies keep telling us we gotta have rail to compete with Charlotte.  Go figure that circular logic.

We'll be watching the orchestration and collaboration going on around the transportation issue between taxpayer funded agencies, special interests and elected representatives.

And we'll continue to keep an Eye on things because like the old Sonny and Cher song the "Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain as the (Rail) Beat Goes On".....

1 comment:

  1. Thought it might help to see what I found out when I did research on rail in Charlotte. Not doing too well, but then, are we surprised?