Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Roads First, Buses Second

First we were told we are in a transportation armagedden. Now there appears to be this frantic attitude of we've got “to do something” to expand mass transit simply for the sake of doing something. The Tribune reported Monday that Commissioner Sharpe is shifting his focus “to do something” to buses.

The Eye agrees that's better than focusing on costly light rail boondoggles. But this hysteria about mass transit may be misguided and the confusion – buses, rail, transit - oh my - continues as the Tribune reports
Sharpe said he still favors a “demonstration” rail line, perhaps from Tampa International Airport to the Westshore business district. Once ridership on the demonstration line takes off, he said, the public will support expanding the rail lines as they have in cities like Denver.
It's no longer Charlotte, now we need to emulate Denver? But Denver is part of an eight county regional transportation taxing district (RTD). This eight county RTD includes Denver and Boulder, has a population of nearly 3 million and covers a sevice area of over 2300 square miles. The Denver RTD includes 6 light rail lines with an average daily ridership of 69,300, which is about 2% of the RTD population. Even with a regional tax, RTD is having fiscal issues and had to identify what it could do to raise revenues, cut costs to cover it's huge shortfalls. Do we really want to follow Denver?

The Tribune yesterday reported on the HART board finance committee held Monday. I was there and stayed for their entire Transportation Development Plan (TDP) presentation. I listened interestingly to HART's two 10 year plan options, one that basically maintains their status quo and a “visionary” one of building out six more MetroRapid BRT's and greatly expanding services in the county. While the status quo plan can operate for the next 10 years, there is a capital deficit that hits in the next few years for vehicle replacement. If vehicles must run longer, then additional maintenance costs are incurred. Therefore, there will be a capital deficiency even with the status quo plan. The visionary items will stay separate in the budget as unfunded until funding is available for those projects. We'll save the funding issue to another day, especially as the plan is more closely scrutinized and looked at. But it is refreshing to be able to see the two options and I commend HART for this transparency.

We note there is NO light rail system mentioned at all in HART's TDP but the Tribune added
If the Pinellas light rail initiative passes, it's likely the Hillsborough rail debate would take on a new focus as Pinellas County could gain momentum in economic development opportunitites and influence over the location of a new Tampa Bay Ray's ballpark.
Really? This is speculation, of course, as we have previously questioned economic development and rail systems. We wonder why the latest rail system sold with the same economic development promises is not mentioned. Here's the latest from SunRail that will open next year in Central Florida.
One of the region's rare economic-development engines – SunRail – has spurred few new apartments, shops or offices along its route as the commuter-train system prepares to roll out nine months from now.
SunRail commuter rail 
Tying a high cost taxpayer funded rail system to a new baseball stadium also looking for your tax dollars is economic development? The rest of us may be doubtful of the economic value of taxpayer funded stadiums and also question why taxpayers should subsidize wealthy league owners.

The Tribune then quotes Kevin Thurman, Executive Director of Connect Tampa Bay and a pro rail supporter
"HART doesn't need to run a rail system. Some other organization could do that."
Now what bureaucracy would that be? There are many moving pieces to this local schizophrenic transportation issue and perhaps what's being orchestrated is to push for some RTD like regional taxing authority. TBARTA, a regional agency that currently cannot tax, is duplicative of other agencies. We would rather see that layer of bureaucracy eliminated. We did discover that our state legislature this past session passed a bill creating the Northeast Florida Regional Transportation Commission. for the purposes:
Of improving mobility and expanding multimodal transportation options for persons and freight throughout Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, Putnam, and St. Johns Counties. 
The primary provisions of the bill: 
create the Northeast Florida Regional Transportation Commission; provide for commission membership, powers and duties, and funding; provide criteria for transportation projects of regional significance; authorize the acquisition of lands and property but do not authorize the use of condemnation or eminent domain;
exempt the commission from taxation; provide for repeal of the commission unless certain conditions are met; and provide that the commission is exempt from the Administrative Procedures Act.
The commission may facilitate efforts to secure funding commitments from federal and state sources, or from the applicable counties, for the planning, development, construction, purchase, operation and maintenance of transportation projects of regional significance or that support intercounty mobility for persons or freight.
The commission may request funding and technical assistance from DOT and from federal and local agencies. In order to operate for its first five years, the commission is also to request annual funding from each constituent county of up to 30 cents per capita per year based on the latest census.
Yes, Florida now has another bureaucracy that must be funded and another bureaucracy looking for a piece of your federal, state and local tax dollars for transportation.  Why do we need all of these regional transportation bureaucracies?  Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has regional districts and they should provide the cohesive glue for regional and cross-regional transportation projects.

Monday's Tribune article stated that the latest I-275 reconstruction costs more than $53 million a mile according to the FDOT and reported again from Thurman
Thurman said light rail is more cost-effective than a freeway like Interstate 275 through downtown Tampa.
The estimated costs for the proposed rail lines in 2010 were between $73 million per mile in the MPO's LRTP and $100 million per mile which was the original estimate from HART. Considering that on average 98% of us who travel each day use our roads, isn't there also a cost-benefit analysis that must be taken into consideration? No matter how many billions have been thrown at transit, mass transit riders are still a very small percentage of those who travel each day.
MPO post 2010 referendum survey 
What's missing in this transportation group's plan is what the business leaders stated last week, our roads are critical – both to move people and product. Voters did get it in 2010 - they did not want rail costs cannibalizing other priorities. Registered voters asked to participate in the post-referendum MPO survey showed the highest priority (96%) was roads. Somehow that detail got missed in the Tribune article. Which proves the overwhelming majority who voted against the rail referendum in 2010 were not low information voters who did not understand what they were voting on.  Remember the pro rail PAC, Moving Hillsborough Forward, spent $1.8 million promoting the rail tax.

This “mass hysteria” over mass transit is misguided. The real problem is there is no money for roads. We must address those basics first – how will we maintain and improve our existing infrastructure? We hope Sharpe and other elected officials resolve the basics before pursuing a referendum to raise taxes for proposed mass transit enhancements. 

And we'll conclude with this. The Tribune stated Sharpe said
He wants county leaders to focus on a mass transit option that doesn't need a lot of study and can be put in place fairly quickly
The Eye suggests a plan we can do NOW – time our lights. Simply timing our lights would bring the biggest bang for the buck for everyone who commutes in Hillsborough County, including those who ride the bus.

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