Friday, December 6, 2013

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.

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