Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Transit Agencies

Remember the classic Charles Dicken's story, "A Tale of Two Cities"? Here's how Dicken's story starts out:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way..."
Do we have in the Tampa Bay area "A Tale of Two Transit Agencies"?  Let's see.

Monday the Tribune reported that apparently HART, Hillsborough's transit agency does not want to merge with PSTA, Pinellas's transit agency.  The Eye's not surprised because these two transit agencies are heading down divergent paths so the narrative surrounding transit in the Tampa Bay area gets muddier and muddier. Monday's Tribune reported
Prospects appear to be dwindling for a merger of the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit agencies even as state Sen. Jack Latvala insists any decision await a consultant’s review of potential savings.
The Tribune never cites a HART Board member but does report on quotes found on a website:
“HART Board members are rejecting a strong-arm attempt by Sen. Jack Latvala and Brad Miller, (director) of PSTA, to a takeover of the Hillsborough bus system to accomplish Pinellas County goals of building light rail,” a post on the Tampa Tea Party’s website said. 
“... This merger would be the Progressive’s logical step to consolidating into a regional Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority taxing authority. Regional taxing authorities enable special interests, remove local control and result in higher costs (from being) an arm’s distance from local taxpayers.”
We are sure that Tampa Tea Party appreciated the Tribune's hat tip for their website, but the Eye does wonder if reporting quotes from websites is standard journalistic procedures for the Tribune?  But we'll move on - so why all the transit muddiness and probably no merger?  Perhaps because of the tale of two transit agencies.

First and foremost, Hillsborough County voters decided in 2010 the future of their transportation and it was an overwhelming NO to high cost light rail that benefits so few, especially special interests.  As a result of that vote, our Hillsborough county transit agency, HART, has done the financial due diligence to focus on improving and expanding their bus services. HART successfully launched their first MetroRapid bus rapid transit (BRT) in June, basically along the same route as the proposed rail line in 2010 for 1/60th the cost of light rail.  HART's 10 year plan includes expanding and improving their bus service, including expansion of more BRT routes, of course, that is all depending on available funding. HART has balanced their budget and innovatively created a status quo plan and a visionary plan as stated in a previous post:
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. 
Light Rail is nowhere to be found in HART's ten year plan.

Second, state senator Jack Latvala decided to try to force HART and PSTA to merge. Latvala forced an initial study last year ending with the result that both agencies said no to a merger.  HART and PSTA already collaborate where it makes sense, in other words they can play in the same sand box, no merger needed.  Latvala, frustrated he did not get the results he wanted, decided to try again.  He has forced taxpayers to spend another $200K of taxpayer dollars for a do-over study.  But according to the Tribune report, that study may bite the dust too.  

In the middle of Latvala pushing a merger, Pinellas county commissioners want to put a "comprehensive" referendum on the 2014 ballot to basically build out a high cost light rail system in Pinellas.  So fearful of doing this knowing there is strong opposition to the light rail boondoggle in Pinellas, PSTA is funding their own light rail advocacy group, Greenlight Pinellas, with almost $400K of Pinellas county tax dollars.  We doubt that Florida's electioneering laws were intended to be skirted in this way.   
Florida Statute 106.113 states:
A local government or a person acting on behalf of local government may not expend or authorize the expenditure of, and a person or group may not accept, public funds for a political advertisement or electioneering communication concerning an issue, referendum, or amendment, including any state question, that is subject to a vote of the electors. This subsection does not apply to an electioneering communication from a local government or a person acting on behalf of a local government which is limited to factual information
Supposedly Greenlight Pinellas is getting away with this electioneering because the initiative is not "officially" on the ballot.  So can Greenlight Pinellas legally advocate for raising taxes in Pinellas for light rail?  We're not lawyers but ethically it is not right for taxpayer funded agencies to use hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars advocating against taxpayers. Taxpayer funded agencies should NOT be allowed to collude against the taxpayer. We saw similar skirts of the electioneering laws in Hillsborough in 2010 by numerous taxpayer funded agencies but nothing as blatant as PSTA's own Greenlight Pinellas. 

In fact, Greenlight Pinellas is partnering with pro rail Sierra Club and Connect Tampa Bay to push their rail agenda.  Brad Miller, the CEO of PSTA, speaks at their meetings, handing out Greenlight Pinellas "goodie" bags (all at taxpayer expense).  When asked why rail must be part of this referendum, Brad Miller states that rail is necessary for economic development. Now is that a fact?  No. The Tampa Bay area has led the state in job creation:  
The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater MSA led all metro areas in Florida in job gains over the year with 35,900, and also led the state in the following industries (not seasonally adjusted)
Hillsborough's had numerous announcements recently from Amazon to Health Plan Services and others - none are moving downtown or require a transit station.And here's more great news in the Tampa Tribune yesterday about USAA bringing over 1200 more jobs to Hillsborough county, though again we note they are not going downtown.  Note: no high cost light rail needed as we continue to bring jobs to the Tampa Bay area.

It's strange why the Pinellas county commissioners includes the term Greenlight Pinellas and "passenger rail" in their proposed ballot language below. Is the term light rail that toxic in Pinellas that even the Tampa Bay Times picked up on that?  
Levy of county-wide one-percent transportation sales surtax for funding of public transit (Greenlight Pinellas) 
Shall the improvement, operation and maintenance of public transit throughout Pinellas County, including without limitation an expanded bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours, future passenger rail and regional connections be funded by levying a one percent transportation sales surtax from January 1, 2016 until repealed?
Do the commissioners not want voters to know what they will be paying for? Incidentally, light rail is the most highly subsidized transportation mode.

In addition, PSTA announced recently they spent $5.1 million of federal stimulus tax dollars aka your debt dollars for an App that provides real time bus information.  If you want to use this App, it costs you 99 cents to download.  It took a three year project to get this App - sounds hauntingly familiar to our federal government (HHS) spending $687 Million for a website that now has to be redone!  We haven't heard of any issues though with PSTA's new Real Time Bus Information App.  Thank goodness!

PSTA $5.1 million App paid for by stimulus dollars
HART diligently got a similar App (One Bus Away), that was developed by University of Washington students in 2008 and refined to be used locally by USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research and Georgia Tech University, virtually free. And you can download HART's App for free.

Comprehensive referendums like what Pinellas is pursuing can be risky because the tax dollars can get blown away before ever completing what was promised taxpayers.  We have that  issue in Hillsborough where a 30 year "Community Investment Tax" (CIT) was passed and implemented in 1996.  The CIT was to provide road funding for 30 years. By 2007, almost all the future money was blown and borrowed against,  helping create today a funding issue for our roads in Hillsborough.  We're still  paying that tax until 2026 but there's no money for roads, our taxes are just paying back the loans.

If Pinellas county commissioners want light rail and more buses, then make each issue stand on their own merits. Voters and taxpayers in Pinellas should have the opportunity to vet and vote on individual referendums that each include financial impact information (cost and revenue generated) together with strict accountability and  transparency requirements.  So when the "let the voters decide" crowd crows, the voters can truly decide on what it is they are being asked to pay for, they know the financial impact and where specifically the money is going.  Hillsborough should remember that too in the event of any future referendum there.

In addition, the FDOT will be rebuilding the Howard Frankland Bridge.  There's no light rail on either side of that bridge and the cost to build a high cost, under utilized rail corridor across the Howard Frankland would be well over a BILLION dollars. Managed/bus toll lanes would be much greater utilized, much more cost-effective and greatly benefit so many more people.  Higher revenues from the tolls could recirculate back into our road funding gap because the tolls will be a user fee paid mostly by trucks and autos. Today there are less than 140 riders, and that's going both ways between Pinellas and Hillsborough, that ride the bus daily over the Howard Frankland Bridge.  We want to point out that the Pinellas proposed rail referendum does NOT include going over the bridge. Though the map of their plan tries to imply rail will go over the bridge, we clearly marked in red that their plan does not.
Pinellas proposed rail plan does NOT go over the Bridge
Last, but not least, here is PSTA CEO Brad Miller explaining how to use a Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to enable PSTA and HART to skirt our laws and merge without having to go thru a referendum.  This JPA would leave PSTA and HART in place but on paper only with no power.  Miller seems to be quite versed on how to "skirt" our laws. Go to about 1 minute 40 seconds of this video to hear  PSTA CEO Miller explain the JPA. 

So we've got a tale of two county transit agencies divergent in so many ways. They have different cost structures, different taxing, different demographics served, different geography served and different transit plans. HART has done the hard work to provide an honest, realistic, common sense, fiscally responsible cost-effective plan that will be sustainable in the future. The PSTA plan is highly suspect, which is why PSTA is spending almost $400K of taxpayer funds for Greenlight Pinellas to market it, is very expensive swapping a $30 million property tax for a $120 million sales tax to build high cost light rail, and their process for pushing the sales tax referendum appears unethical, questionable and somewhat deceptive. We'll let you to decide which plan is more skeptical but they are totally different. Therefore, attempting to merge these two agencies in this divergent, muddy environment makes no sense and would take away local control.

The result of all this?  No one else seems surprised at all this transit muddiness in the Tampa Bay area. But the real question is if it's so obvious to us, why are the politicians and power brokers continuing the masquerade? 

Are we in the the age of wisdom, or the age of foolishness?

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