Monday, September 29, 2014

Boondoggles Don't Do Math but Voters Can

Websters dictionary defines boondoggle as:  an expensive and wasteful project usually paid for with public money 
The print version of yesterday's Tribune article Rail foes, fans set to collide over Greenlight Pinellas has a subtitle "Dreams and dollars are riding on the Greenlight Pinellas ballot initiative". Yes, there are lots of fairy dust dreams with billions of taxpayer dollars dancing in the heads of those who seek to benefit from Greenlight which has distorted the truth and common sense.

The map in the print version includes a link implying Greenlight will go over the Howard Frankland bridge with a false statement "Future expansion to Tampa". The Tribune did not even indicate "proposed" as if that link is reality. It is not. There is NO rail planned for Tampa. Greenlight Pinellas does NOT go over the bridge - no matter how many "dreams" PSTA, elected officials and special interests groups tout it will. There are NO plans by FDOT to build a high cost train across the Howard Frankland.  To do that will take another tax or huge pot of taxpayer dollars to come from "somewhere".  

Greenlight supporters are having a hard time selling the value of a bad product. They are relegated to shallow, anecdotal talking points, flowered with emotions, that have no real or scientific data to support the plan. Rail supporters keep throwing out "we need choices".

As we posted recently:
This fixation on mode of transportation is a fallacy. 
Choice of mode is the wrong “choice” question to ask about transportation. 
The right “choice” questions are
       When do you chose to leave?
       Where do you chose to go?
Trains, light rail, and buses limit your choice on when to leave. They (necessarily) constrain the schedule so you have to leave to catch the rail, bus, etc. when they leave... not when you chose to leave. 
Greenlight Pinellas tries to downplay the high cost light rail by calling it a "passenger rail" as if its commuter rail or something else. Using the term "Light Rail" must be toxic in Pinellas. Greenlight also misleads the public by falsely implying the train will reduce congestion.  Study after study debunks that implication.  The fact is rail cannibalizes bus service.  In 2013 Charlotte LOST 467,000 bus riders while the train gained only 27,000. We must assume the rest went back to driving.

The Tribune article reports that 20 of the 30 light rail systems were launched or expanded since 2000. This has occurred because politicians, taxpayer funded entities and special interests figured out how to collude together to get their hands on large amounts of federal dollars. The perversion has been for all these entities to go after the most expensive transportation solution as PSTA is doing - light rail. Then they all collude together using a combination of taxpayer and special interests money and resources on marketing campaigns to ram these costly initiatives through. 

We're now in a very different economic climate than 2000 with almost $18 TRILLION of federal debt. The federal dollars that have been providing the capital seed money for these light rail projects comes from general revenues which are actually debt dollars.  Who thinks the federal debt faucet will stay open to fund many more of these boondoggles?  What happens when interest rates start going up?  Who wants to put more federal debt on our children, grandchildren and future generations? 

PSTA's ridership is currently so low they cannot qualify for federal funds and may never be able to qualify for any federal grant monies.  Who then is going to pay for the almost Billion dollars PSTA is expecting from the feds for the high cost train? 

Voters in Pinellas must read Greenlight's "Preliminary Financial Feasibility Analysis" before voting. When the recession or economic downturn hit, the revenue for the Penney for Pinellas tanked. The risks to taxpayers are huge when PSTA cannot qualify for federal dollars or gets reduced federal dollars, incurs huge cost overruns which average about 40% for such projects, another economic downtown occurs and sales tax revenue dries up and PSTA runs into eminent domain issues with the light rail. Do voters ever hear much from Greenight about eminent domain?  Of course not, but eminent domain issues always adds cost and delays to any infrastructure project.

The Tribune article also states that more cars can be added to the existing trains to increase capacity.  That's only half true. More frequency can increase capacity but Light Rail trains are usually only 2 car or 3 car trains. Why?  Because they mostly run at street level like a streetcar and cannot be longer than the shortest street block where it runs or it will block an intersection. Greenlight Pinellas plan depicts a 3 car train going to a 5 car train to add capacity. That can't happen unless Greenlight plans to tie up traffic in Pinellas county. 

It's not just "dreams and dollars" riding on the Greenlight ballot initiative, reality is:
  • Greenlight does NOT go over the Howard Frankland bridge or to the Tampa airport.
  • PSTA did a bus study last year and they have a Plan B.  PSTA knows they can improve their bus service for a fraction of the cost of a high cost train without the use of federal debt dollars.
  • PSTA wants the huge $100 million plus a year tax increase only because they insist including the high cost light rail boondoggle that will benefit the special interests who have given generously to the Greenlight cause.
  • Greenlight Pinellas does not address the interest costs that must be paid back on the huge debt incurred by taxpayers to build the high cost train. Interest costs are NOT free. How will the interest be paid back?
  • Greenlight Pinellas neglects the future replacement/major rehab costs required of all rail systems every 25-30 years. Where's that money coming from? Will Pinellas need another tax or will they rob other priorities?  
  • Greenlight Pinellas has a 4th grade math problem and the numbers simply don't add up, as we've reported before:
    • $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 but voters certainly can.

Send PSTA back to the drawing board to fix their bus service.

Boondoggles don't do math
Vote NO on the Greenlight rail boondoggle in November.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

State Senator Latvala Jumps on the GreenLight Train

By: E. Eugene Webb PhD
State Senator Jack Latvala has thrown his support to the GreenLight Yes camp.

Latvala, who some view as the Golden Boy power broker of Pinellas County politics, separated himself from the Pinellas County Republicans who have announced their opposition to the GreenLight Sales Tax Referendum. 

“I like the idea of tourists paying for a transportation system that they use,” Latvala said.

I am sure our visitors will be thrilled to know the Senator doesn't mind reaching into their pockets.

You can read more in Christopher O'Donnell article in the St. Pete Tribune Sen. Latvala endorses Greenlight Pinellas.

The good Senator waxes on about how GreenLight could help keep the Rays, and how it might have been a benefit during the recent Republican Convention.

Never mind the fact that GreenLight provides no link to the airport, no link to Tampa, no link to any convention center and will most likely not be completed before the Rays are long gone.

Latvala is a pragmatic politician. It would appear to me that the Senator has spent more time reading the campaign finance reports and looking at all of those high end contributors than he has reading the Ordinance that he endorsed.

Jack, do you really think we should put a law in place (Ordinance 13- 34) and activate an Interlocal agreement that results in the highest sales tax in Florida, supports bonding and financing that could run for 90 years, to build a train that does not even serve the 2% of Pinellas County residents that actually used public transportation?

Most of the local politicians that have endorsed GreenLight would quite likely have a different view if they had to pass this referendum in their jurisdiction and be responsible for it.

Don't be mislead, get the facts and make an informed decision when you vote.

Watch My Video Green Light - It's a Bad Law before you vote.

E-mail Doc at: Or send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend request. Please comment below, and be sure to share on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosures: Contributor to
No Tax for Tracks

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Greenlight Pinellas Supporters: Preaching To the Choir AGAIN

Yesterday pro rail advocate Tampa Bay Partnership hosted a Transportation Forum that the Tribune disingenuously called a "regional transit forum". It apparently was more of a "rah rah" event for the pro Greenlight Pinellas echo chamber than anything else. According to the Tampa Tribune  today:
The conference room at the north St. Petersburg hotel appeared to be filled mostly with supporters of the Greenlight Pinellas plan and included speakers from city and county governments around the region, business owners and officials from Florida’s Department of Transportation.
But much of the energy at Wednesday’s conference focused on Pinellas County’s much-debated transit expansion plan, which would drive the county’s sales tax to the highest rate in the state — 8 percent (emphasis mine).
Mayor Buckhorn apparently realized he was "singing to the pro Greenlight Pinellas choir" because he said:
“I’m reminded all the time that when you’re preaching to the choir, you turn your back on the congregation. We need to talk to the congregation, not to each other."
And this is quite comical from St. Pete Mayor Kriseman:
Kriseman illustrated the problem with the region’s existing transit options by recounting a recent experience: Asking his mobile phone for directions from St. Petersburg to downtown Tampa, the device told him the trip would take nearly three hours.
Can someone inform St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman that at other airports such as DC and elsewhere, as soon as one lands, one can call up on their smartphone App a ride share with Uber or Lyft and the car will be there when you're ready to depart the airport. Does public transportation buses include space for your luggage, especially if there's more than one traveling? 

Shouldn't our elected officials be embracing the private sector transportation solutions people actually want? Hasn't Kriseman heard that these new innovative services are taking ridership AWAY from public transportation?  Who is stuck in the past?

At least some are embracing these services as reported by the Tampa Bay Times:
Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and state Sen. Jeff Brandes said it is not a matter of whether companies such as Uber and Lyft will be able to operate here with support from local governments, but when.
"We need to offer what most business leaders and tourists want, which are these types of options," said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who faces re-election this November. "We'll work through all these other issues, both the insurance issues and the background check issues. …I'm 100 percent confident that we can find a reasonable solution to those issues."
Mayor Kriseman must have missed that panel discussion. He must've missed the discussion also about autonomous vehicles which Congressional House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster recently stated Driverless cars are ‘the future of transportation’.

It was interesting that Commissioner Sharpe, who has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for rail, was the only Hillsborough County commissioner to attend and he participated on the ride-sharing panel not one about transit and rail.

The problem the pro rail echo chamber has with Greenlight Pinellas is simple.  It's a bad plan! 

It's becoming more apparent that voters and taxpayers in Pinellas do NOT see the value of paying more taxes, including having the highest sales tax in the state, for something that does nothing for them.  

The Greenlight Pinellas "rah rah" supporters, preaching to their choir again at this event, could only provide anecdotal evidence in support of the Greenlight plan. Why? Because there is no real data to support it. Anecdotes can't sell a bad product. 

Why is Greenlight Pinellas a bad plan?  Here's are a few reasons (there are more):

  • Greenlight Pinellas train does NOT go over the Howard Frankland bridge no matter how many times the pro rail echo chamber claims it will.  To do that will take another huge bucket of tax dollars from "somewhere".
  • Pinellas County will have the highest sales tax in the state to pay for a multi-billion dollar train few will ride.  Most of the money goes to the train, not to buses, and that's why PSTA needs the $100 million a year tax increase.
  • Greenlight Pinellas financials do not include the interest that must be paid back on the huge debt Pinellas taxpayers will be incurring to build and operate the train nor the replacement/major rehab costs that all rail systems require 25 years down the road.  Where is the money coming from to pay the interest on the loans and where is the money to pay for the replacement costs down the road? How come Ernst and Young who reviewed the financials did not catch that these costs were missing?  Makes one wonder what else they may have missed....
  • PSTA's ridership is so low they do not qualify for federal dollars.  Greenlight Pinellas requires over 36% of the train's capital costs to come from the feds and those federal dollars are dwindling. Who will pay when PSTA can't get federal dollars to build the train? There's a good chance that PSTA will be collecting hundreds of millions of tax dollars for a rail system that will NEVER be built. Those tax dollars will have come directly out of the Pinellas County economy and Pinellas County taxpayers pockets that could have been spent on something else.
  • PSTA can fix their bus service at a fraction of the cost of building a train from downtown St. Pete to downtown Clearwater few will ride. The train will do nothing to actually reduce congestion as PSTA CEO Brad Miller admitted last year when asked why the train was included in Greenlight - he said it was included for "economic development". So the truth is - Greenlight Pinellas high cost train is NOT about mobility.  
  • The bottom line, as we previously posted here, is that Greenlight Pinellas has a 4th grade math problem. The numbers simply don't add up.
Websters Dictionary defines Boondoggle as an
expensive and wasteful project usually paid
for with public money.
Boondoggles don't do math and neither do the special interests and elected officials who are the boondoggle supporters.

Is it beginning to look like "2010 ALL OVER AGAIN"?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Let's Not be Taken for a Ride and Taint the Public Outreach Process

The Hillsborough County Transportation Policy Leadership Group (PLG) voted on August 12 to hire a transportation expert to perform public outreach. The Eye was at the August 12 PLG meeting. Not one commissioner or mayor asked how much this public outreach would cost and who would pay for it. Are the three city municipalities sharing the cost or is the county footing the entire bill?  Where's the money coming from to pay for this activity?

There was no discussion about what the outreach activities would consist of or what the expected work product is that would result. Those questions must not have been important. The PLG simply voted to hire a transportation expert (at least it's not a PR firm) to do public outreach and expected us to just "move along" and leave it all to county staffers.

But we can't just "move along". The Eye has found out that the County intends to hire Parsons Brinckerhoff to do the public outreach for the PLG. Parsons Brinkerhoff is also being awarded a contract to review and validate the cost estimates of the proposed transportation laundry list that is currently estimated to be between $12 and $15 Billion. That enables Parsons Brinckerhoff to work the estimates and then work the outreach which they could then benefit from - very cozy. And the county is awarding this work to Parsons Brinckerhoff without going through any bid or RFQ process.  

Who is Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB)?  They were previously known as PB Americas and have been most famously associated with Boston's "Big Dig".  PB and partner Bechtel were awarded the contract to supervise that project due to its enormous size (to begin with).  Cost overruns and delay issues turned into a fatality due to construction deficiencies when ceiling panels and debris fell on a car killing the passenger and injuring the driver of the car.  A settlement was made by PB and Bechtel of $458 million in 2008.

According to this 7News investigative report May 10, 2007 regarding the multibillion- dollar Regional Transportation District project design to bring light rail and commuter train service to nearly every corner of the Denver metro area:
Using public records, 7NEWS Investigators analyzed the $3.6 million dollars raised to support the FasTracks campaign. 
7NEWS analysis shows 28 companies that donated to FasTracks received contracts to do work. 
Parsons Brinkerhoff Quade's donation to the campaign was nearly $100,000 dollars. It's cashed RTD contract checks for more than $1.2 million dollars in the last two years.
Former RTD Board Chairman Jon Caldara told 7NEWS, "There is nothing illegal about what they've done, but there sure is something they should be ashamed of. It's not a contribution. It was an investment and it is paying off."
This April 16, 2013 article from Charlotte blog, Pundit House, titled Consultants, Consultants, Everywhere
...consultants advising the public sector have very little at risk, but they can have a huge influence on how decisions get made due to their “expertise” 
One company, Parsons Brinckerhoff, comes up repeatedly on local projects, but they are hardly alone. 
our local politicians keep going back to the same people even though the record is less than stellar
Parsons Brinckerhoff’s involvement in CharMeck transportation planning goes back to at least 1998. That year, the company was involved in creating the 2025 Integrated Transit/Land Use Plan for CharlotteMecklenburg.
When transit costs began soaring in Charlotte and a referendum was placed on the ballot to repeal the transit sales tax, PB contributed $30K to the "Save the Transit Tax" effort. The article connects the dots showing how PB connections in Charlotte frequently came into play to benefit them.

According to this 2003 Creative Loafing article titled Taken for a Ride (emphasis mine):
The main consultants for Mecklenburg's light rail system are big, powerful companies. They also have a notorious history of scandal, massive cost overruns, engineering snafus and deceiving the public. 
The two design, construction and engineering firms, Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, Parsons Transportation Corp., and their smaller business units are directly responsible for projects widely regarded as the biggest transit debacles in the nation's history. Both have stark histories of deceiving the public and government officials about the true costs of transit projects, and then benefiting directly from project cost overruns. 
Over time, the companies appear to have grown to be adept at two things: manipulating the boards that oversee them and negotiating ambiguous, open-ended contracts that make it difficult to fire them or hold them responsible for anything that goes wrong on the project. 
Perhaps the most powerful asset these companies have in their court is their political pull. Over time, the companies developed powerful federal political connections they continue to nurture every year by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to national politicians and the two political parties. Those connections in turn can be used to help municipalities looking to win money in the highly competitive battle for the federal transportation dollars without which most rail projects, including ours, won't happen.
Guess who's a sponsor (and has attendees) of an event coming up in Minneapolis called "Rail-volution - Building Liveable Communities with Transit"? Parsons-Brinckerhoff.

Let's look at PB closer to home in Tampa Bay. According to the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections website, PB has donated $50K to the pro rail PAC Friends of Greenlight, two contributions of $25K each on 6/6/2014 and 8/15/2014.
Parsons Brinckerhoff donates $25K to pro rail PAC
Friends of Greenlight on 8/15/2014 (click to enlarge)
Parsons Brinckerhoff donates $25K to pro rail PAC
Friends of Greenlight on 6/6/2014 (click to enlarge)
According to the Hillsborough County Supervisors of Elections website, PB gave $25K to the pro rail PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010 and recently (conveniently right after the August 12 PLG meeting) have given donations to county commission candidates.  Hmmm.......
PB donation to Moving Hillsborough Forward in 2010 (click to enlarge)

Recently, on September 10th, PB hosted a " Vote YES on Greenlight Pinellas -- Reception and Informational Session" at their office on Westshore in Tampa that included Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, Alex Glenn, Duke Energy, Stuart Rogel, Tampa Bay Partnership and Friends of Greenlight. It's the same rail cartel cronies.

We get it - PB is a big rail supporter.

In June, pro rail TBARTA's Executive Director Bob Clifford resigned and took a position with Parsons Brinckerhoff. Clifford was at the August 12 Transportation Policy Leadership Group meeting. Did he know then that PB was going to be awarded the contract to do public outreach and more?

Does all this pass the smell test? NO! 

There are other qualified transportation experts who are not associated with the local crony pro rail cartel and who have not donated large sums of money to local rail efforts. There are transportation experts who could have performed the public outreach activity who are not  blatantly seeking to benefit from whatever plan results.

The county, who appears to be paying for it all, wants to give PB, a big rail supporter, the contract to do public outreach for projects they may benefit from. Is that why no one on the PLG questioned the cost of the outreach because they already knew that work was going to PB?  

Throughout the last year, we have seen some on the PLG, county staff and the MPO continue to try to pound a square peg down a round hole to push a high cost rail agenda Hillsborough already defeated, is not needed and we cannot afford. It appears that since the county is unable to get the rail answer some on the PLG want, they will now enable a third party, PB, who has donated large sums of money to local efforts for rail to get it.

Doling out the public outreach activity to PB through a no bid process appears to taint the public outreach effort. Perception does become reality. Why does it continue to appear the county administrator and county staffers are running the PLG? Where are our county commissioners? This crony nonsense needs to stop.

The county commissioners and the county administrator need to reconsider handing the public outreach work to PB. If the county is paying for this effort, the county commissioners should be more involved and at least request the county go through a clean bid process.

Hillsborough County does not want to be "taken for a ride" by Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday September 21, 2014 My GreenLight Obsession

By: E. Eugene Webb PhD
Someone asked me this week, "Why are you so obsessed with GreenLight?" 

I guess it is an easy conclusion to reach if you read my Posts on Patch, Bay Post Internet, and Eye on Tampa Bay that I am focused on the defeat of the GreenLight sales tax referendum.

The reason I have focused on this issue for the last few months is primarily the lack of mainstream media attention and the type of media attention given to those who oppose the Sales Tax referendum.

The citizens of Pinellas County have been lied to by a PSTA Administration that misused public funds, stonewalled public information requests and publicly denigrated media and citizens who have called them to question.

Social media, primarily Dr. David McKalip, his Blog Sunbeam Times and my Posts are the only places where the Opposition to the GreenLight plan has a consistent voice.

Both local news papers have endorsed the GreenLight plan, but neither has really considered the issue of how GreenLight addresses public transportation for those who need it; nor how the issuing of bonds that could run as long as 90 years will affect this County's economy.

I think their endorsements are more about being on the business side of this issue than the people's side. Probably helps explain why the newspaper business is in such trouble these days.



But we are talking about a Sales Tax referendum that will take hundreds of millions of dollars out of this County's economy for the next 90 years. If you want to see who the real beneficiaries of this plan are there is a list of them at Friends of GreenLight Campaign Reports.

Thank you for almost 20,000 page views in the last few months. You keep reading, Tweeting, Liking and e-mailing these Posts to your friends. I'll keep writing them.

Watch My Video Green Light - It's a Bad Law before you vote.

E-mail Doc at: Or send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend request. Please comment below, and be sure to share on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosures: Contributor to
No Tax for Tracks.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The PSTA, Hand Shake Deals and GreenLight Yes

A recent Article in the Tampa Bay Tines by Sharon Taylor Martin, PSTA gaffe leaves agency on hook in cleanup of old bus depot got caught my attention.

At issue was the environmental cleanup of a site in South St. Pete PSTA used for bus maintenance.

PSTA had an agreement with the sites owner to clean up the site but did not get the agreement in writing according to Times article. It was a "verbal" deal.

PSTA Board Chair Ken Welch said, "Why the legal staff thought we had an agreement back in January that we thought covered the entire parcel, I can't answer that."

Since when did local governments an authorities starting doing serious business with "verbal" agreements?

The problem is these verbal agreements only become record when something goes wrong.

An even more pressing question is how many other "verbal" agreements does PSTA have and how many "verbal" agreements have been made with the 26 high profile donors who have contributed three quarters of a million dollars to YES-GreenLight?

The PSTA under Brad Miller's Administration and Ken Welch's Board leadership have been skating on the thin edge of propriety for some time now.  Just about every time someone kicks over a rock at PSTA what they find smells funny.

Perhaps if the PSTA counsel spent more time actually writing and getting legal agreements in place instead of stonewalling public records requests and providing campaign advice, PSTA could stay on a truer course.

It becomes clearer every day that PSTA cannot be trusted to run a project anywhere near the size and scope of the GreenLight Plan. Given the current practices at PSTA, the amount of opportunities for back door deals, verbal agreements, graft and corruption that will go on boggles the imagination.

Take a look at some of the potential beneficiaries of the GreenLight Plan in my Post, The GreenLight Quid Pro Quo - Or Your Tax Dollars Being Bought and see what they are willing to pay to get in on the train.

Pinellas County voters need to consider this sales tax referendum carefully. Public transportation is the red herring being used to convince you to vote for a 90 year sales tax.

Watch My Video Green Light - It's a Bad Law before you vote.

E-mail Doc at: Or send me a Facebook (Gene Webb) Friend request. Please comment below, and be sure to share on Facebook and Twitter.
Disclosures: Contributor to
No Tax for Tracks.