Sunday, February 2, 2014

Transportation Chaos

The debate about transportation, rail and transit is getting hotter and hotter everyday in the Tampa Bay region. There are transit referendums on the November 2014 ballot in Pinellas and Polk.  There's a steady drum beat from the rail cartel (pro rail politicians, taxpayer funded agencies and special interests) for another rail referendum in Hillsborough. 

In 2010 there were transit referendums on the ballot in Hillsborough and Polk. Hillsborough had a comprehensive referendum that included rail and Polk had a transit only referendum to expand their bus service. Both referendums went down in flaming defeats, 58-42 in Hillsborough and 62-38 in Polk.

Now comprehensive sales tax referendums are on the November ballot in Pinellas and Polk. Pinellas wants to raise sales their tax 14% to expand bus service and build a light rail from Clearwater to St. Pete. Polk wants a 14% sales tax increase to fund roads and expand bus service.  

When the power brokers placed a stadium only sales tax on the Hillsborough ballot in the early 1990's, it was defeated.  But the local powers to be came back and gave us the Community Investment Tax (CIT) as a "something for everyone" tax that passed. That tax was supposed to fund road improvements for 30 years but now it's gone.  Our county commissioners borrowed against the future revenues of the tax by 2007.  The county moved our CIT dollars around faster than we could figure out where those funds were actually going. We're paying the CIT tax until 2026 but it's only to pay back the borrowed funds.  

Is Polk attempting something similar?  Tweaking their 2010 referendum to include roads for messaging purposes to help get their transit tax passed?  It may not be working.  According to this recent Lakeland Ledger article Is The Sales Tax Referendum In Trouble In Polk County?
Judging from comments I’ve heard and seen, the proposed Polk County sales tax referendum planned for the November ballot may be a hard sell. 
What’s proposed is a 1 cent increase in sales tax. The way it was originally proposed, half a cent would go to transit. The other half cent would go to road and bridge project’s. 
Here’s why:
Lack of support for transit is certainly part of it (my emphasis).
The referendum has created so much chaos in Polk county where citizens are distrustful that according to the Ledger article, one county commissioner recently proposed 
Then last week Commissioner George Lindsey proposed shifting money from transit to road building for the first five years of the tax’s life even though a 50-50 split is what referendum supporters have been selling for the past year.
This change to the ballot language will be discussed at the February 4 Polk county commission meeting.  What a mess.

Both Polk and Pinellas are going to wage a publicity campaign to get their respective referendums passed. When Tom Phillips, Director of the Polk transit agency spoke to the Tiger Bay club last October, the Lakeland Ledger reported 
To build support for the transportation referendum, Phillips said he has been speaking to civic and political groups all over Polk County and is working with other supporters on an advertising campaign (my emphasis) designed to sell transit to Polk's voters.
Tom Phillips, Director for transit agency in Polk County 

Yesterday the Tribune reports that Pinellas's PSTA is on another spending binge to use tax dollars to "sell" their flawed product. 
After spending $400,000 promoting the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan last year, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has earmarked another $150,000 for a new educational campaign and may spend more in the run-up to the November referendum.

The information campaign will be in addition to a privately funded advocacy campaign called Greenlight Yes, which will be launched Friday at the Pinellas Realtor’s Association. Realtors and construction firms are expected to pour up to $1 million into the push for the referendum to pass.

PSTA CEO Brad Miller said there will be coordination between the two campaigns (emphasis mine), both of which are expected to be directed by Tampa public relations firm Tucker Hall. He is scheduled to present details of the education campaign to PSTA’s board later this month, which could include increasing the budget for the campaign.
According to the The Tampa Bay Times, Ronnie Duncan, chairman of  taxpayer funded TBARTA, organized Greenlight Yes.
Organized by Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, or TBARTA, the campaign is going by the name "Greenlight YES."
Brad Miller publicly admits his taxpayer funded agency will "coordinate" with the pro rail Greenlight Yes campaign and the chairman of Taxpayer funded TBARTA is helping to organize the pro rail campaign.  As a taxpayer, are you outraged? Is this coordination even legal? At the very least, it is unethical. In 2010, we watched the blatant "skirting" of our electioneering laws in Hillsborough. This activity needs to stop. Is that the intent of our state electioneering laws? If it is, then don't we need to reform those state laws?  Our state legislators are up for re-election in 2014. Ask your legislative candidates running in your district if they would support a bill to reform our electioneering laws to reign in this collusion, coordination, corruption and cronyism.

The ballot language in Pinellas does not state PSTA's property tax will be eliminated. Taxpayers are simply asked to "trust" that will happen.  Does that sound a bit like "You can keep your healthcare"?  The existing PSTA property tax may or may not be eliminated. If it is eliminated it could be brought back at any time in the future.  Comforting huh?

In Hillsborough, the transportation issue has at times looked like a "three ring circus" (Webster's Dictionary defines three ring circus: a place with a lot of busy and confusing activity.)  The Transportation Leadership Policy group has been meeting since July of last year. This committee, consisting of the county commissioners and mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, has meandered all over the map. Why? Because a specific problem statement was never defined. 

The county website for this initiative Transportation for Economic Development provides links to the archived meetings, houses some presentations and provides a 50,000 foot level vision and strategy.  Finally at January's meeting some detailed data was presented that looks to begin to specifically define some problems. What took so long? 

Without a specific problem statement nor goal defined, there appears to be two views of the purpose of this committee. About half the members of this committee seem to believe its goal is to identify key economic spaces, then determine transportation solutions to connect them - a continuation of the previous Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee (EPSC) work tying in transportation. The other half of this committee appears to believe its goal is to identify transportation solutions (or transit solutions as some members tout) that they believe will drive economic development. At times, these two sub-groups appear to talk past themselves.

Governance was brought up at January's meeting and out of the blue Kevin Beckner proposes to restructure HART to manage county transportation projects.  The Tribune reported:
Hillsborough County leaders are drawing up plans to remake the HART bus system into an expansive agency that can oversee construction of countywide transportation projects and spur economic development.
Changes being contemplated for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority include a larger board with expertise in economic development and the authority to build roads and rail and create new bus routes (emphasis mine).
The Tribune takes liberty with including rail as if there's a plan for rail in Hillsborough. There's not!  HART manages our local bus service and their 10 year Transportation Development Plan approved late last year supports expanding bus services.  There is no rail component in it. 

Mayor Buckhorn provided insight for why HART was being nominated to manage transportation improvements - it's the agency that can accept federal rail funds. Also proposed was adding economic development as a responsibility of some restructured, super sized, super spending HART agency consisting only of elected officials. An agency consisting only of elected officials managing a huge bucket of transportation dollars should raise a red flag for potential cronyism and corruption. Economic development should not be the responsibility or our local transit agency. 

Let's be realistic.  HART deals with transit, not transportation. They operate and manage our local bus system.  They do not manage roads, bike paths, sidewalks or economic development. With managed/toll lanes coming in the future, tolls which are user fees paid by vehicle users, must go back into road improvements NOT diverted to transit. 

And the Eye just reported about some power brokers proposing  election rigging a March 2015 rail referendum to avoid county voters and stack the deck with city voters. We're sure the rail cartel would love that.

Tom Phillips, Polk county's transit agency director, wants that new transit revenue as the Ledger reports
Phillips said the proposal comes at a time when a successful transit system in Polk County could fit into a regional transportation system that includes the SunRail commuter rail system coming from the Orlando area and light rail that may be coming from the Tampa Bay area.
SunRail coming to Polk County?  Guess Polk is considering it according to this Ledger article
The prospects of expanded passenger rail service becoming part of Polk County's future transportation network will be the topic of a public forum at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Lake Eva Complex. 
Polk transportation planners and local officials have discussed investigating the feasibility of extending the Sunrail line — if it is extended to the edge of Poinciana — into Polk County to Haines City, which has not had regular rail service since the 1970s.
How will that be paid for in Polk county? Another tax increase? Light rail coming from Tampa Bay to Polk?  When will that happen?

Adding to this mess is federal dollars to fund new rail systems are dwindling at the same time older, legacy rail systems are in dire need of major rehabilitation. Greenlight Pinellas requires almost a billion dollars of federal grant money.  What happens when they don't get all those dollars?  Local taxpayers are on the hook.

What does this all mean in Tampa Bay?

Transportation chaos!  But it is orchestrated chaos.

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