Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Support for Rail Drops 8% After Costly Taxpayer Funded Advocacy Campaign

The Tampa Bay Times reported yesterday on a recent poll they sponsored with Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay of 625 registered voters regarding the Pinellas County 14% sales tax increase for light rail:
in Pinellas, where 55 percent of voters surveyed said they would back the referendum, 36 percent said they would oppose it, and 9 percent were unsure. 
In Hillsborough, where voters defeated a similar referendum in 2010, 51 percent of respondents said they would support raising the sales tax to pay for buses and rail, and 44 percent opposed the idea. Five percent were unsure. 
The survey's margin of error was 5.7 percentage points in Pinellas and 5.4 points in Hillsborough
The Times refers back to a previous poll they did in December 2012, prior to the taxpayer funded Greenlight Pinellas marketing campaign when they asked: 
"Would you be supportive of spending public or tax money to bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area?"
At least in 2012 the Times honestly used the term "light rail" which is what the Greenlight Pinellas plan proposes. The poll results in 2012:
In Hillsborough, 56 percent of those surveyed said "yes." In Pinellas, 60 percent responded affirmatively.
After PSTA's Greenlight Pinellas marketing campaign spent $750,000 of taxpayer dollars this year campaigning for $100 million a year in higher taxes for a light rail boondoggle, what's the result? Fewer voters support raising their taxes 14% for a train few will ride. The relative percentage change between the two polls reflect that support for higher taxes to fund light rail DROPPED 8.3% in Pinellas and 8.9% in Hillsborough in one year. 
Vote NO on Greenlight Pinellas light rail boondoggle

Reporting further on the recent poll, the Times apparently considers the 8% drop in support as "slight" and admits:
The slight drop in support comes as Pinellas winds down a taxpayer-financed campaign (emphasis mine) called Greenlight Pinellas to educate the public about its transit proposal.
Finally someone publicly admits that Greenlight Pinellas is a taxpayer financed campaign. Greenlight Pinellas is ethically challenged and violates, at a minimum, the intent of our electioneering laws which prohibits taxpayer funded entities from using tax dollars to advocate against taxpayers, e.g. campaigning for higher taxes.  

What is obviously missing from this Times article is the internals of the poll related to who actually was polled. The only information provided is they polled registered voters vs likely voters and a couple of age groups, 18-54 or 55 and older. What was the breakdown of these 625 registered voters - how many were from Pinellas and how many were from Hillsborough? What is the political party affiliation, how many were Democrats, Republicans, Independents, etc.? What was the age and gender demographics?  Where did they reside, was this a cross-section of voters across the entire counties? What were the actual poll questions? Inquiring voters and taxpayers want to know.

Only in the journalistic alternative universe at the Times is a poll reflecting an 8% DROP in support for light rail, after a $750,000 taxpayer funded marketing campaign, considered "strong support". This circular logic appeared in the coordinated Times editorial appearing on the same day as the poll results:
Supporters of Pinellas County's November transit referendum should be encouraged by a new poll that shows strong support for funding expanded bus service and a new rail system as part of a modern transportation system.
The results show a promising base of support for Greenlight Pinellas supporters to build on in the coming year, and they reflect the impact of a public information campaign that got an early start in presenting the transit package in clear and practical terms.
This poll at least shows that supporters will be speaking to a receptive audience (emphasis mine).
A better use of PSTA's taxpayer $750,000 could have been spent on improving their bus service almost immediately; rather than a failed advertising campaign for a rail that won't materialize for at least 10 years, if ever at all.
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Keep repeating it until you believe it

How ironic. 

Pinellas county commissioners voted Tuesday to put the light rail referendum on the 2014 ballot and the Tampa Bay Times reported that commissioner and PSTA Vice Chair Ken Welch got irked with opponents of the 14% sales tax increase who showed up to make a public comment. 
Commissioner Ken Welch said he was irked by some of the misrepresentations and accusations of corruption leveled by some of the opponents.
The issue, Welch said, is one of the most important voters will ever make and the debate should be based on facts and not misinformation.
We agree that any debate should be based on facts and not misinformation. So why isn't Commissioner Welch taking to task those who continue to falsely repeat the Pinellas rail plan includes a train going over the Howard Frankland bridge? Does he not consider that misinformation?

WFLA reported Wednesday on the Pinellas county commissioners vote:
On Tuesday night the Pinellas County Commission voted to put the Greenlight Plan on a referendum on next November's ballot
The Greenlight Plan is a complicated (emphasis ours) network of buses, trolleys and light rail connecting the entire county. The cost for building the rail, adding vehicles, and operating the network is $20 billion through 2050.
The money would greatly expand the current bus system, with new equipment, routes, and hours of operation. Later, a light rail system will be put in place to take riders from downtown Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg. There will also be a light rail connection to downtown Tampa (emphasis ours).
The Tampa Tribune also reported on the Pinellas commission vote and stated not only does the Pinellas rail plan go across the bridge, it goes to the airport.
The plan also includes a link to both Tampa and Tampa International Airport, likely through light rail across Howard Frankland Bridge.
Here's another false report from WMNF:
There are also plans to connect to Tampa when the Howard Frankland Bridge is replaced around 2025.
Whatever powerbroker collaborated handing out the talking points to the local media, they got it dead wrong on the bridge. Taxpayers should beware because even the ballot language the commissioners approved to put on the ballot is misleading and includes NO accountability requirements or financial impact information. 
Title: Levy of Countywide One Percent Sales Surtax to FundGreenlight Pinellas Plan for Public Transit. 
Summary: Shall the improvement, construction, operation, maintenance and financing of public transit benefitting Pinellas County, including an expanded bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours, local passenger rail and regional connections be funded by levying a one percent sales surtax from January 1, 2016, until repealed, with proceeds initially deposited in a dedicated trust fund?
The only regional connection falsely represented on PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas map is going over the Howard Frankland bridge. 

Commissioner Welch - Talk about misinformation - these statements are absolutely false. 

The PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas technical plan includes
Future passenger rail from St. Petersburg to Clearwater via the Gateway/Carillon area
24 miles of rail from downtown St. Petersburg through the Gateway/Carillon area to downtown Clearwater
16 stations
57 minutes travel time
The PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas financial plan includes capital costs
light rail transit costs of $1.68 Billion
PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas's own documentation cannot even consistently state what their own plan is. Passenger rail or rail or whatever rail they state, rail in this plan is light rail and we all know it. PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas's documentation as well as the referendum ballot language should clearly state that "fact". 

And nowhere in this plan are any costs associated with going over the Howard Frankland bridge.  Again PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas's own documentation is misleading but we updated their map to clearly reflect there is no train over the bridge in their plan.
No plan and no funding for rail across the bridge

The FDOT is looking at options for the Howard Frankland Bridge. They held public hearings on the bridge in early October. FDOT was looking at several options including additional capacity with high cost, under utilized rail or more cost-effective, highly utilized managed/bus toll lanes or simply replacing the existing infrastructure (no new capacity). The Tribune article at that time reported
State and federal money would be used for the new span if the bridge is replaced with one the same as today’s, but if other features are incorporated, FDOT could ask local entities to come to the table (emphasis ours), District 7 spokeswoman Kris Carson said over the summer.
Subsequent to the public hearings in early October, the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported on October 30
Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Secretary Ananth Prasad said the state is committed to building an estimated $25 million substructure to accommodate light rail on the replacement span of the Howard Frankland bridge.
Our previous post stated that at a previous transportation event a question was raised regarding the bridge because HART's current ten year plan in Hillsborough county is expanding and improving their bus service and has no rail component. The answer was:
FDOT project work plan just came out that includes strengthening the substructure to accommodate light rail or less in the future. First phase will focus on replacement and later phases on managed toll lanes and/or transition to transit/rail corridor.
But the fact is there is no current plan nor funding source for a train across the bridge. As the Eye previously reported, the numbers for the PSTA/Greenlight Pinelas plan do no begin to add up or make fiscal sense.  But rail across the bridge is fairy dust and unicorns.
Light Rai over the Howard Frankland is fairy dust and unicorns
As far as any accusations of corruption that also irked Welch, we have state electioneering laws to prevent taxpayer funded entities or agencies from using tax dollars to influence voters to approve or reject a referendum.  WFLA  reported this on December 5th when the Pinellas county commissioners approved the PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas plan 
"We just passed a resolution in support of the Greenlight Pinellas Plan," proclaimed St. Petersburg City Councilman, Jeff Danner
City leaders approved the plan which, with a one cent sales tax, will fund a future public transit rail line, among other things.
"We'll have 11 months for a campaign (emphasis ours) to go out and reach the voters and talk about this project," Danner added.
Jeff Danner is not only a city councilman, he the Chair of the PSTA Board of Directors and the Board represents PSTA. Webster's Dictionary defines the word campaign 
a series of activities designed to produce a particular result
Let's connect the dots.

Greenlight Pinellas is funded by taxpayer funded PSTA and is really PSTA's symbiotic taxpayer funded sister. In this WFLA video, taxpayer funded PSTA CEO Brad Miller is wearing a PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas campaign button.
PSTA CEO Brad Miller wears PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas campaign button
Greenlight Pinellas, associated with PR firm Tucker Hall, is PSTA's marketing campaign using your tax dollars and their time to advocate and campaign to get voters to vote for the referendum.  As the WMNF article stated
The ballot initiative will likely be promoted by a local PR firm, Tucker Hall.
What a convoluted mess to deceive taxpayers. PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas are one and the same. Wearing campaign buttons and handing them out with other campaign goodies at taxpayer expense is not education, it's advocacy. It is unethical and corrupt and taxpayers in Pinellas should demand that Greenlight Pinellas cease, desist and immediately be defunded. 

The PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas financial plan includes light rail capital funds totaling almost $2.6 Billion. The light rail capital costs as we stated above are $1.68 billion. We've asked the question before - where is that extra billion dollars of capital funds going?  To special interests? Does this plan take out lanes of traffic and require huge sums of tax dollars to pay for right of way? Does anyone know? With no accountability specified, who knows where all this money is going. 

As WFLA reported in the video, this rail boondoggle is complicated and "the biggest part of the puzzle is light rail".  Here at the Eye we agree  - the PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas plan is a complicated tangle of ambiguity, false statements and unanswered questions.

Oh the irony of Commissioner Welch -  being irked at opponents of this mess?

But someone must believe if false statements keep being repeated, then you will believe it.

Sounds hauntingly familiar….

Greenlight Pinellas trouble with 4th grade math

According to WFLA TV,
The Greenlight Plan is a complicated network of buses, trolleys and light rail connecting the entire county. The cost for building the rail, adding vehicles, and operating the network is $20 billion (YOE) through 2059.
One big selling point is that the light rail fare would be the same as the bus fare, which is only two dollars.
Yet, the Greenlight Pinellas plan (PDF - page 15) states
The Greenlight Pinellas Plan is expected to cost $2.2 billion (2014$)
over 10 years to build and $130 million to operate annually, after full
buildout is achieved in 2024.
Hmm.  Not sure about everyone in Pinellas, but there might be a difference in some numbers.  Which is it?

The Tribune recently stated
If passed, roughly $30 million in property taxes that fund Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be replaced by $130 million a year from a one-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county tax to 8 percent. The money would pay for the Greenlight Pinellas plan, which includes a 65-percent expansion of bus services, the development of light rail and traffic lanes dedicated solely for buses. The plan also includes a link to both Tampa and Tampa International Airport, likely through light rail across Howard Frankland Bridge.
There is NO PLAN for light rail across the bridge!  But I digress.

Now let's do some fourth grade math.

$20B to operate Greenlight Pinellas over 45 years.

$130M per year of sales tax revenue to support Greenlight Pinellas

$2 fares.

$20B operating expenses over 45 years is $444M per year in operating expenses.

$130M per year of sales taxes leaves $314M gap in annual operating expenses that have to be covered somehow.  Or a $14.1B shortfall of the expected $20B costs.

That's about 157,000,000 annual ridership on $2 fares to cover those expenses, or about 13.1M riders per month.

PSTA is currently running about 1.2M riders per month.

Boondoggles don't do math

Yeah, that'll work.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

PTC's Regulatory Capture on Display

The Hillsborough County PTC is a case study in regulatory capture.  

First, what is regulatory capture? It is defined by Investopedia as

Regulatory capture is a theory associated with George Stigler, a Nobel laureate economist. It is the process by which regulatory agencies eventually come to be dominated by the very industries they were charged with regulating. Regulatory capture happens when a regulatory agency, formed to act in the public's interest, eventually acts in ways that benefit the industry it is supposed to be regulating, rather than the public. 
Public interest agencies that come to be controlled by the industry they were charged with regulating are known as captured agencies. Regulatory capture is an example of gamekeeper turns poacher; in other words, the interests the agency set out to protect are ignored in favor of the regulated industry's interests.
Wikopedia explains 
Regulatory capture is a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure; it creates an opening for firms to behave in ways injurious to the public (e.g., producing negative externalisties). The agencies are called "captured agencies". 
Recent events put the PTC's regulatory capture on display.  Last week's local Hillsborough County Delegation public hearing included several local bills.  One of them was proposed by State Rep Jamie Grant and State Senator Jeff Brandes for a Hillsborough county referendum to abolish the PTC, if the referendum passed.  For transparency, I spoke in support of the bill though I preferred since the state legislature created the agency 38 years ago, they should be able to abolish it without going thru a referendum. There may be some legal reason why a referendum is necessary, but I do believe that if a referendum was held, it would pass.  And the special interests, mostly taxi cab and limo services that benefit from the PTC, must think so too because they showed up en masse to oppose the bill. 

Victor Crist, county commissioner and chairman of the PTC who opposed the bill, spoke first. He laid the groundwork for the oppositions talking points for the day to fuel a fear that bad or corrupt service would occur in Hillsborough if not for the PTC and that the PTC is required for public safety. Crist further stated that they are working an internal audit plan focused on internal staff policies and procedures. That audit plan was discussed at the PTC's November 13 meeting per the meetings transcript where Interim Director Kevin Jackson recommended the audit be done by the county's Internal Performance Auditor and the PTC unanimously voted on a motion to do that. However, when Rep. Grant asked Crist if his "reform" plan includes reforming the $50 minimum limo charge, Crist simply stated that his highest priority is what the audit is focused on, internal policies first. 

After Crist, the special interest troops who opposed the "abolish the PTC" bill and support maintaing the status quo were lined up to speak. Here's where the PTC as a "captured agency" was on full display. Public safety was their cry of the day as if the 66 other counties in Florida who do not have a PTC have no safety regulations.  

No one from either side stated there should not be safety regulations -- background checks, vehicle inspections--common sense safety regulations that can be managed by the county. But as one speaker stated who supported the bill, there are good regulations and there are bad regulations.  If 66 other counties can manage their vehicles for hire, why can't our county commission?  For goodness sakes, the entire county commission makes up our entire Environmental Protection Commission aka EPC. One of the most compelling cases against the PTC was made by Rep. Grant when he pointed out that the PTC is accountable to no one.  Apparently the only way the PTC can be held accountable for bad, anti-free market, anti-competitive regulations is thru lawsuits.

So now there is a lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice (IJ) regarding the burdensome $50 minimum charge to step your foot in a limo, whether your destination is 2 miles or 20 miles.  Yesterday IJ won their first hurdle when the judge dismissed the Motion to Dismiss" filed by the defendants as the Tribune reported
A limousine company and two limousine customers won the first round in their lawsuit challenging a $50 minimum fare rule set by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission. 
Circuit Judge Charles E. Bergmann denied a motion Monday by county lawyers to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Thomas Halsnik, owner of Black Pearl Limousines, and limousine customers Kenrick Gleckler and Daniel Faubion.
I caught the end of the hearing and an important piece of information not reported is there is a Motion to Intervene filed by Red Top Cab Company and West Coast Transportation Services doing business as West Coast Shuttle.  According to Sunbiz.org, the Florida Department of State Division of Corporations website, I did not find a West Coast Shuttle corporation registered but did find Red Top Cab and West Coast Transportation Services. Also registered is Yellow Cab Company of Tampa, Inc.  that has the same address and Registered Agent as the other two companies. Yellow Cab is one of the largest taxi cab services in Hillsborough county with exclusive access to TIA with United Cab. A hearing is scheduled with Judge Bergmann to hear this motion by the Interveners. Once again, regulatory capture was on display by the very special interests that the PTC regulates.

After the hearing, I spoke with the IJ attorney Justin Pearson. He was happy with the decision and stated, 
"It's not against the law to give customers a better deal and be able to bargain for themselves.  The PTC agrees that it is against the law, but the judge agreed with IJ and has allowed the lawsuit to move forward. There was an agreement to dismiss the PTC chairman Victor Crist from the lawsuit but other than that change, the lawsuit will move forward in its entirety."
I asked Pearson what happens next and he explained
"Next is Discovery where both sides will be able to ask questions for information each side has. The interveners representing the taxi cabs and limos confirms the entrenched interests will use their own money to hire an attorney to intervene in a lawsuit to protect their entrenched interest. After Discovery will be a Motion for Summary Judgement."
The Eyes glad to see the lawsuit moving forward and we will be watching it as it does.

Let's regress for a moment.  At the local Delegation meeting, a John Madiedo spoke opposing the proposed bill to abolish the PTC. According the PTC's November 13 minutes, Madiedo is an insurance agent for Professional Insurance Center who states that he insures 70% of the public transportation vehicles in Hillsborough County. In addition, his business is located at 2003 W. Kennedy Blvd. Tampa, FL 33606. Guess where the PTC is physically located? According to the PTC website they are located at 2007 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, FL 33606.  I found it interesting that they are located basically next to each other so searching for some additional information I found this article The Public Transportation Commission is under fire following indictment of former Commissioner Kevin White reported  by WTSP's Mike Deeson in 2011
The PTC rents its building from John Madiedo, who provides and does the insurance for the almost all of the taxicab companies the PTC regulates. 
When Kevin White had his security firm, he rented the office next door from the PTC and Madiedo. However, since White left the space, it is being rented by Michael Moses. Michael Moses is the owner of the taxicab company that caused some controversy by loaning White the money to buy his new Riverview home.
Cozy huh?

The local Delegation failed because there must be a majority of the state senators and a majority of the house representatives separately approve even if there is an overall majority that approves.  There was not a majority of house representatives who approved.  Together with Democrat House Representatives Janet Cruz, Mark Danish, Betty Reed, Darryl Rouson, Republicans Jake Raburn and Dan Raulerson voted no so the House side opposed 6-3.

We will continue monitoring reforms the PTC implements and perhaps a future state bill will stop the burdensome regulations.  According to this Times article 
Rep. Grant and Senator Brandes said they now plan to pursue a statewide law. It would not seek to eliminate the PTC, but rather would ban what they see as transportation regulations that are anticompetitive and anti consumer.

"The biggest frustration today was that the narrative was framed that public safety and a competitive market can't coexist in Hillsborough County," Grant said.

The PTC has been able to survive for 38 years because they are accountable to no one. That's why there has never been disciplined policies and procedures documented or enforced. That is indefensible after 38 years. The cronyism is deafening.  Also, it appears Hillsborough County provides much of the support structure already:
  • Three County Commissioners sit on the board with one of the commissioners as the current Chair
  • PTC meetings are held at County Center with county staff support
  • Interim Director and his staff are county staff
  • County Attorney's office provides their legal services to the PTC, including representing the PTC in the above mentioned lawsuit.
  • County's Internal Performance Auditor is to audit them (wouldn't an outside auditor be better)
  • PTC uses the county website and phone system:  http://www.hillsboroughcounty.org/index.aspx?NID=2595
So why isn't the county simply managing the entire process so there's also accountability?

The real answer to reforming this captured agency is not maintaining the existing PTC and simply making changes to internal procedures. The answer is to get rid of it. Place the PTC's vehicle for hire responsibilities in a structure where there is accountability that does not enable corruption or unethical practices. The PTC is a case study for regulatory capture, an agency that appears to be run by the entrenched interests who circle their wagons at every opportunity to maintain status quo to protect their turf. 

Let's put an end to this captured agency!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Guest Post - Why America Is Exceptional

We have a guest post from one of our Hillsborough County readers Jeff Lukens. Jeff wrote this article that was posted on the American Thinker blog yesterday. It's a must read and we wanted to share. 

Why America Is Exceptional

By Jeff Lukens
The United States is the most dynamic and powerful nation in world history.  No major issue of global peace or stability can be resolved without involvement by the United States.  This state of affairs did not occur by accident.  It is testimony of the exceptional nature of this land and its people.
To be an American is to be different from other nationalities. From colonial times through the present day, Americans have believed they were taking part in a journey that only this nation can fulfill.  It is a call to exemplary leadership and service on the world stage.  The world is always looking for a way to escape tyranny, and the American example of self-governance has provided the answer. 
As much as Oliver Stone, George Soros, Vladimir Putin, and even our own president may malign it, thankfully, belief in American exceptionalism still exists today for a great many citizens.
So what are the traits of American exceptionalism? For starters, it involves industriousness and neighborliness, and a trust in one another as responsible individuals.  We believe that problems can be solved, and that both risk and failure are necessary steps for achieving success.  Our view that we are in control of our lives is also part of it.  So is our wish for success for all citizens, and our making available opportunities to anyone who has the gumption to achieve.
Our nation's founding was a demonstration that people can be left free as individuals to live their lives as they see fit, voluntarily coming together to achieve mutual goals. A society based on these ideas, lacking in class envy, has led to a culture that has been remarkable throughout the world.
From the beginning, the settlers believed they were guided by a divine providence. They believed that their exodus from Europe was much like the biblical exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land. They wanted this new Promised Land to be exceptional for the entire human race -- a shining city on a hill. Many of those coming to our shores seeking religious freedom, particularly in New England, believed they were participating in a wonderful destiny, a manifest destiny.
This is crazy, you say? Certainly, our history has not been perfect. Yes, we had slavery and atrocities regarding the native populations, but a greater vision endures and lives in the hearts of many Americans today.

The United States was founded not by copying other nations. The Founding Fathers pursued a new and noble course, an example for all humanity. They were familiar with the writings of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, to the effect that Natural Law was God's Law and that the Creator has endowed every person with certain unalienable rights that cannot be amended, abridged, or repealed. No one can take these rights away, because they come from God.
The Declaration of Independence repeatedly refers to a Creator. The Founders understood that power flowed from the Creator to the people, and from the people would come the formation of a government. If any of these three elements -- God, the people, and government -- were out of order, trouble would be sure to follow.
We are not a theocracy, however. Our faith-based heritage does not take a direct part in government, but the Church must be regarded as the first of political institutions. Its influence on society was, and is, indispensable to the maintenance of the republic.
To have independence, the Founders knew the people needed a measure of maturity and character closely akin to what is prescribed by the Golden Rule. John Adams, for one, said we must be a virtuous people for self-government to succeed. While the colonists had a thirst for independence, there remained a haunting sense among them that they might not be good enough to make it work. Needless to say, they rose to the challenge. Perhaps we should evaluate ourselves today by this same standard.
By drafting the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the Framers had structured a government of checks and balances where individual rights would also be preserved. They knew that virtue is not a permanent quality, and they understood human nature. Virtue must be cultivated continually within the populace, and exercised day to day. Without morality, they knew that the constitutional republic they had created could not be maintained.
While some of those founding traits may now be slipping away, many today will still acknowledge that our virtuous beginnings have allowed us to live in a nation unlike any other in history. While many nations enjoy freedom today, many people throughout the world would be living hopelessly under tyranny if not for the example of liberty and self-governance set by the United States more than two centuries ago.
John Adams said he hoped they would build a foundation for freedom that would spread throughout the world, and that our destiny was to break down slavery all over the world. This vision has endured and flourished. We now are the successors who improve and perpetuate it. It is this vision that is unique among the nations of the earth. And it is why America remains exceptional.

Click here to go to Jeff's original American Thinker post as there are lots of comments you may want to read too. 

Thank you Jeff for the reminder!

Taxpayer funded agencies elephant in the room is light rail

The Eye attended an ASCE-American Society of Civil Engineers luncheon recently where the subject was regional transportation and the audience was probably largely those in the engineering industry. There were numerous local speakers who presented on the transportation issue:  TBARTA, PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas, MPO Pinellas, MPO Hillsborough.  We noted there was one transit agency glaringly missing and that was HART, Hillsborough County's transit agency. This is the second time we've noted that a regional transportation event has been held in Hillsborough County and no one from HART was invited to speak. Here's our report.

Bob Clifford, Executive Director of TBARTA, kicked it off.  Clifford stated, "transportation equates to economic vibrancy". Normally, we hear that transportation aka transit creates or enables economic development. It appears that economic vibrancy is buzzwords for power brokers to define livable, walkable, sustainable, smart growth communities in a positive sounding manner. In this press release, that includes TBARTA's support for the Greenlight Pinellas rail referendum plan, Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch states
“Greenlight Pinellas will help create and sustain a vibrant, progressive and prosperous economy,” said County Commission Chair Ken Welch. 
We do agree with Clifford when he stated that technology will be a big changer and we must embrace new technologies. Yes! The technologies are coming out of the private sector so let's reduce the burdensome regulatory inhibitors to them.

Ray Chiarmonte, Executive Director of Hillsborough MPO spoke next, and he championed that all the local central planning planner's plans are, for the first time, being updated at the same time, e.g. all the comprehensive land use plans and long range transportation plans. The MPO completed a survey recently that about 3500 participants completed. The MPO is currently analyzing the results but Chairmonte pointed out something like "we need to plan for what younger people want". That struck me as odd because if he was referring to the 18-34 age group, those folks are normally not at their peak wage earning or taxpaying years nor perhaps as concerned with family priorities. Chiarmonte stated all modes of transportation are included in their plans so we assume that includes light rail again.  Many in that "younger" age group today will be 15-20 years older if any light rail system could ever get built. We'll wait to see the final survey results and leave that for a post for another day.

Sara Ward of the Pinellas MPO then presented. She stated that Pinellas is different from other counties because it is basically all built out - that is true. She mentioned Greenlight Pinellas and said there is a lack of understanding of rail technology. She did not elaborate on what that lack of understanding was but Ward went on to say they had one on one meetings with employers and PSTA.  Wonder what was discussed in those meetings? Advocating for the rail referendum, urging employers to push their employees to take rail, offering some benefit or just what?

Cassandra Borchers, Chief Development Officer for PSTA and Jeff Danner, Chair of PSTA rounded out the presentations. Cassandra spoke first about why they want the rail referendum. She stated "it's been talked about for forty years". We're sure a gazillion taxpayer funded plans have been written, but according to Cassandra those "plans were never implemented". She then stated, "$1 invested in public transportation generates $4 in economic returns". She quoted no source to back up such a blanket statement. We found that statement came from a so-called fact sheet from the APTA aka American Public Transportation Association. The APTA is a lobbying organization paid to lobby for the transit industry as their website states:

Vision Statement

APTA is the leading force in advancing public transportation.

Mission Statement

To strengthen and improve public transportation, APTA serves and leads its diverse membership through advocacy, innovation and information sharing. APTA and its members and staff work to ensure that public transportation is available and accessible for all Americans in communities across the country.
Is that the fox watching the hen house? The 2009 study that Cassandra's statement comes from was done for APTA, funded by the Transit Cooperative Research Program that is directed by the Transit Development Corp, which is the education and research arm of APTA. So APTA did a study for APTA directed by APTA? How about that for circling the wagons for your own self-interest?  

Of course APTA wants the government to spend more money on transit because it benefits them.  Here's some links from those NOT in the transit industry that provide some different views on government spending being the answer to our economic woes. 
Why Government Spending Does Not Stimulate Economic Growth: Answering the Critics
Additional Infrastructure Spending Would Employ Few New Workers
Obama vs. the Evidence: Infrastructure Spending Is No Job Creator
Cassandra should at least provide a source for a statement such as that.  But her main point was that we are at a crossroads and either we continue BAU or we change our pattern….But her answer for changing our pattern is to spend billions of tax dollars for a train in today's still uncertain economy.

Last Jeff Danner, PSTA's Chair spoke on behalf of Greenlight Pinellas - yes on behalf of Greenlilght Pinellas. He stated PSTA adopted the Greenlight Pinellas plan as if these  two entities were unconnected. PSTA created and funded Greenlight Pinellas with almost a half billion dollars; these two entities are one and the same. For what appears to be legal reasons to skirt our electioneering laws, PSTA created Greenlight Pinellas to be able to funnel taxpayer funds to an advocacy group for the rail referendum. 

Danner said that the Pinellas County commissioners will be voting on Dec. 10th to put the rail referendum on the 2014 ballot. Danner warned that if that rail referendum doesn't pass, which swaps $30 million of property taxes for $130 million of increased sales taxes, then services will be cut 18-28% through the next decade. With technology and innovation coming in the private sector for transportation, long before a rail can ever be built, we anticipate a lot more transportation choices will become available. These new private sector services could blow a hole through taxpayer funded public transit.

So why is there a light rail (emphasis ours) component in the Pinellas referendum?  Because, according to Danner, the conclusion was that "light rail was better". Better than what? He did not say except that bus rapid transit was the second choice. But the real reason for rail is land use and their belief that rail stations create economic development. However, the reality is that economic development along light rail corridor only occurs when all kinds of tax incentives are given to land developers to build transit-oriented development (TOD) high density projects like what happened in Portland
"The Portland City Council on Thursday approved a tax incentive plan that will give tax breaks to transit-oriented housing projects near MAX light-rail stations and two other Portland eastside locations." 
Projects with 15 or more units would be required to contain at least some housing for people with low incomes."
There is no scientific evidence that subsidized economic development along a rail corridor would not have occurred elsewhere unsubsidized. A some what  bizarre remark Danner made was that these activity centers aka TOD would spring up along the rail corridors where today there are "vacant KMarts".  Like magic huh? If all this light rail TOD is so great, why doesn't the proposed ballot language that voters will be voting on specifically state they are voting for light rail?

There were some questions and answers after the presentations:
Question from Karen Jaroch, who is on the HART board, stated that HART's 10 year plan is expanding bus service and PSTA's plan does not include going across the Howard Frankland so what is going to happen with the Howard Frankland bridge?
Answer:  FDOT project work plan just came out that includes strengthening the substructure to accommodate light rail or less in the future.  First phase will focus on replacement and later phases on managed toll lanes and/or transition to transit/rail corridor. We will add that there is a huge cost difference between building and maintaining highly utilized bus/managed toll lanes and an underutilized light rail corridor over the bridge.

Barbara Haselden, who is leading the grassroots NoTaxForTracks -Pinellas effort opposed to the Pinellas referendum, took exception to all the "busy" buses reflected in PSTA's presentation. She said PSTA's own bus study last summer indicated that seven bus routes make up 60% of PSTA's bus ridership while the rest ran virtually empty. She questioned why PSTA doesn't optimize their existing bus service to run more cost-effectively, efficiently and provide service where their demand is. The response given by PSTA was that those virtually empty buses were "feeders" to those seven routes. We were left wondering what PSTA's answer will be when the multi-billion dollar train runs empty most of the time.

These comments were interesting from PSTA: "HART and PSTA are working more together than ever" but then added "merging systems do not save any money".  Remember the merger study that HART and PSTA was forced to do in 2011?  The result was they both rejected merging.  Then state senator Jack Latvala, who apparently did not like the "no merger" answer, forced another study for $200K to be done this year. Looks like that study may bite the dust too. We certainly hope so! 

Last question was about autonomous vehicles. Again, It was acknowledged that changes in technology are happening and the question is how do you deal with it? Quick Answer: don't roll your dice on 19th century rail technology. 

The presenters concluded with the rhetoric: that  finally there is the "political will" to put this referendum on the ballot in Pinellas and the infamous "let the people decide". We heard the same thing in Hillsborough.  What's different in Pinellas is that PSTA is egregiously using taxpayer funds via Greenlight Pinellas to market and promote their own rail boondoggle. The PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas presentation marketing the rail referendum actually states, "Get social, tell friends, neighbors and colleagues and wear a Greenlight pin" (see below). Isn't that blatantly advocating for the rail referendum in violation of our electioneering laws? Taxpayers should demand Greenlight Pinellas cease and desist this activity.
Demand PSTA/Greenlight Pinellas cease and desist - they are advocating for
the rail referendum with your tax dollars
We were reminded that the Pinellas plan is a comprehensive one - it includes everything from rail to expanded bus service to regional routes to trolley services…..trying to sell there's something for everyone…..But that could be this referendum's  downfall.  Too often these comprehensive plans with little or no accountability fail to deliver what was promised the taxpayers.  The end result is either the plan or services are cut or "they" come back for more of your hard earned tax dollars. Will taxpayers in Pinellas trust all these promises after seeing so many others broken?

This audience did not seem all that enthused as there was no clapping at times normally deemed appropriate. It was difficult to tell if there was support for what was presented or not, except from one woman who owned a business and perhaps wanted a piece of the business pie out of the deal. We hope this group and others, where all these taxpayer funded agencies are getting a free platform to speak, get the opportunity to also hear the opposing view.

With the high cost rail leading the Pinellas referendum, perhaps now we can speculate why HART is conveniently missing at these regional transportation events. HART's future plan is based on fiscal realities and a common sense approach to building out their bus service. PSTA's aka Greenlight Pinellas, TBARTA and MPO's plans for light rail are stuck in a fiscal fantasyland.