Friday, November 22, 2013

Pass the rail referendum, then find out what's in it

The Pinellas County Commissioners approved the ballot language for the referendum to raise Pinellas County sales taxes 14% to fund a rail boondoggle.  As the Tribune reported Wednesday:
Just what words might best convince residents to raise taxes on themselves?
The wording chosen steers clear of the somewhat politically charged term “light rail,” even though that is widely expected to be the rail component used to link Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg. Instead the ballot will use the more generic “passenger rail service.”
The Tampa Bay Times chimed in
Voters asked next November whether to approve a sales tax increase to pay for expanded bus and rail service are likely to see a ballot that doesn't mention the referendum's two most debated words: "light rail. 
Let's break this down because the hypocrisy and attempted deception is astounding.

The first deception is in the proposed title of the referendum as reported by the Tribune 
“Levy of Countywide One-Percent Sales Surtax to Fund Greenlight Pinellas Plan for Public Transit.”
In reality, this is NOT a 1% sales surtax but an increase of Pinellas County sales tax from 7% to 8% which would make Pinellas have the highest sales tax in the state.  Let's do some third grade math:  8% divided by 7% equals 1.143.  This is a sales tax increase of 14% which increases the cost by 14% of everything one buys that includes sales tax. Sales taxes are the most regressive tax that hurts the lower income the hardest. Why the deception?  Because if they actually stated this was a 14% sales tax increase in this economy, no one would vote for it.  

Why does the referendum title refer to funding "Greenlight Pinellas Plan"?  Greenlight Pinellas is a PSTA $400K taxpayer funded marketing campaign run by Tucker Hall, a Tampa based public relations firm, educating advocating for the rail referendum.  The Pinellas County commissioners appear to be trying to confuse voters and they have created a tangled web of a mess. This referendum is PSTA's plan that their own taxpayer funded Greenlight Pinellas is unethically advocating for by skirting our electioneering laws. Does including Greenlight Pinellas in the referendum title provide another way to skirt our electioneering laws? We do know that Greenlight Pinellas is all lawyered up, at taxpayer expense, of course.

This is PSTA's plan because in September the Tampa Bay Times reported:
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board approved a $270,000 contract with a Kansas City engineering company called HNTB and Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors.
Two years have passed since county officials debuted a report by Jacobs Engineering that cost $4 million to produce, and was paid for with state and federal grants.
The $4 million was one of the sustainability grants from the Obama Administration. There is one consistency in this tangled web of a mess.  PSTA knows how to spend lots of your taxpayer dollars and they want more.

The second deception in the ballot language is using the term "passenger" rail instead of light rail.  According to the Tampa Bay Times 
The idea, according to the lawyers for the county and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, was not to dodge the politics surrounding the term light rail, but to keep all options open.
Does anyone believe that?  Light rail is toxic in Pinellas and this deception proves it. Either the Pinellas County commissioners and PSTA are not being honest and transparent with voters and taxpayers, or they don't have a real plan. So what specifically is their plan? Are they acquiring right-of-way, where exactly is light rail going, are they taking out a lane of traffic anywhere? 

The sales tax revenue generated by the rail tax will go directly to the Pinellas county commissioners. Subsequently, those dollars will be transferred to PSTA through some type of inter-local agreement. If PSTA does not have a specific plan nor accountability requirements, then the public has no sure idea of what is being funded and no one can be held accountable. Why would anyone want to increase their taxes 14% to fund the unknown? 

Voters should not be asked to vote for vaguely written comprehensive referendums that no one understands, are incomprehensible, and no one can be held accountable for. Voters should demand transparent, single issue referendums that stand on their own financial merits, that include the cost and revenue generated and have strict accountability requirements. Frankly, voters and taxpayers are fatigued of failed comprehensive bills and referendums paid for at a huge cost to taxpayers.

But everyone knows this sales tax increase is for light rail as Channel 10 News reported 
In a unanimous vote Wednesday, the PSTA Board of Directors endorsed what they are calling a "transformational, countywide, transit improvement initiative".
Elements of the Greenlight Pinellas Plan include a comprehensive, countywide improvement plan and a light rail project from Clearwater to St. Petersburg via the Gateway/Carillon area. 
After the Hillsborough rail tax was defeated in 2010, we heard the drum beat from the defeated pro rail side the excuse that voters were simply confused between light rail and high speed rail. But that's not a problem in Pinellas as the Times states
"It's very clear," said Kevin Thurman, director of Connect Tampa Bay, a transit advocacy group. Confusion over the use of "passenger rail," is unlikely"
Really? There's numerous types of "passenger" rail services from Amtrak, heavy rail, high speed rail, commuter rail, light rail, street cars to trolley cars. They are all different but the Pinellas voters will "magically" understand what they are being asked to pay for. Are the Pinellas County commissioners deceptively using the term "passenger" rail to hide the light rail initiative or to confuse the voters?  Clear as mud huh?  

Who are PSTA doing business as (dba) Greenlight Pinellas and the Pinellas County commissioners trying to fool?  PSTA did an Alternatives Analysis and light rail was the Locally Preferred Alternative.  
Light Rail is PSTA's Locally Preferred Alternative
The PSTA dba Greenlight Pinellas Plan deceptively indicates light rail is going to go over the Howard Frankland Bridge to Tampa. No such plan exists so we highlighted their chart accordingly.
Light Rail is NOT part of PSTA dba Greenlight Pinellas Plan
And is this more deception? The PSTA dba Greenlight Pinellas financial plan estimates capital costs for light rail at almost $1.7 Billion, or about $71 million per  mile.  The capital cost, per the Alternatives Analysis, includes "systemwide costs for 16 stations, electricity, infrastructure including rail and structures, and professional services to design and engineer the system."  
Light Rail estimated capital costs almost $1.7 Billion
However, the funding sources for the Light Rail capital plan is expecting Federal New Starts grants, State grants and local revenue totaling almost $2.6 Billion of funding. Where is the additional $900 million of light rail capital funds going? Is it going to Right of Way acquisition? Is it going to cost-overruns which average about 40% for these types of projects? Is it going for add-ons, and if so, what are they? Specifically, where is this additional $900 million going?
Sources of Capital Funds equals almost $2.6 Billion
Instead of spending billions on a rail boondoggle that may (or may not) be in service within 10 years, Pinellas could improve their bus service at a fraction of the cost NOW. For example, Hillsborough launched their first MetroRapid bus rapid transit for 1/60 the cost of the proposed light rail. It was built in less than a year.

PSTA dba Greenlight Pinellas calls their plan "transformational". Instead it appears to be a tangled web of fraud and deception.  

That must be why the Pinellas County commissioners want voters to pass the rail referendum so then we can find out what's actually in it. Isn't that hauntingly familiar?  


  1. Great summation - everyone who reads this should forward to those they know in Pinellas County.

  2. Florida doesn't have enough people who give a damn about things such as these. I'm heading to the Northwest next year, so I'll hold off on making the effort to convince the mongoloids of Florida what is in their best interest. It's a lost cause. Stick a fork in this horrible state.