Friday, June 12, 2015

Proposed 30 Year Sales Tax includes Light Rail

County Administrator Mike Merrill, acting in a pseudo-role as an unelected County Mayor, held a media briefing Wednesday to leak the transportation plan to the media before it was even publicly presented to the PLG. We assume Merrill or someone already screened the commissioners with this information prior to this event.

So there was disappointment but no real surprises at Thursday's Policy Leadership Group meeting. The media did their duty of "reporting what Merrill told them" before the meeting yesterday.

Why disappointment? 

Disappointing because Bob Clifford of Parsons Brinckerhoff previously told me that Parsons would present several scenarios to the PLG that they could then publicly discuss. 

Disappointing because of the questions not asked on this critical issue by our elected officials, who some instead made a scripted commentary. Remember due to our Sunshine Laws, this is the only venue for these electeds to engage publicly on the issue. Why weren't there more challenging questions asked?

Disappointing because we have four county commissioner on the HART board and nothing was said how this plan fits in with HART's current TDP, as if this plan would operate in a separate universe. This plan does tell you why Merrill wanted to restructure HART last year with all electeds. We anticipate that issue resurfacing if this plan moves forward to get control of a new boatload of money to HART. We anticipate that working as well as the CIT tax. 

Many in the PLG have stated "we need options" more times than can be counted over the last year but where were any options yesterday? Nowhere to be found. For a truly open, transparent, and "intellectually honest" discussion (which Commissioner Hagan stated they were having), Parsons should have presented the PLG with more than just ONE plan option.

What one option did the million dollar taxpayer funded GoHillsborough effort offer the PLG? The only option Parsons was tasked to provide when they were handed last September a no-bid contract for scope of work titled "Hillsborough County Transportation REFERENDUM support". A sales tax referendum. Within the ONE plan for a sales tax referendum, there was only ONE option presented: a half-cent sales tax (7% tax increase) for 30 years to be on the 2016 Presidential election year ballot.

Apparently, this ONE option presented by Parsons and Merrill basically came from a poll of 600 likely voters that reflected a whopping 52% will support a half-cent sales tax. What's missing from this poll is all the information about who they actually polled, their demographics, where they resided in the county, the exact wording of the questions, etc. Why didn't the PLG members ask for this information? Parsons did not even provide the margin of error for the poll. There could actually be NO Majority support for this half-cent sales tax.
Half-cent sales tax proposal based on ONE poll of 600 likely voters
 (no other information provided)
Click to enlarge

At least we now know why they insist we must pass another 30 year CIT-like tax because Commissioner Hagan stated almost verbatim the poll question that 30 years will provide time to increase transit ridership to pursue light rail. The problem we are told is that light rail is not seen as a viable alternative for unincorporated Hillsborough County RIGHT NOW. 

We get it the pursuit of light rail is like a cat with nine lives.  "They" will pursue it to no end no matter how many times voters vote NO. From the recommendations below, it looks like light rail is already baked in this plan for the City of Tampa. (Remember the city of Tampa took the federal funds for the streetcar which is now bankrupt and this plan gives them a way out)

A 30 year tax will provide a revenue stream to go after state/federal funding for high cost transit solutions in the future. That was actually stated as "the game is to have a revenue stream to get federal/state funding." Federal funding for transit projects is getting more and more competitive. Who thinks 10 years from now as we are now spiraling towards $19 TRILLION of federal debt that federal funding will become easier to get.

Some of the talking points presented at the PLG meeting yesterday and some commentary.

Hillsborough County is #11 for worst traffic congestion in the US  
No citation was provided for where this statement came from so we looked up US traffic congestion information at and the Texas Transportation Institute, both do traffic congestion studies and research. The cities they state having the worst congestion in the US:  NYC, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Honolulu, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Miami. In Florida, we know Ft. Lauderdale has worse traffic congestion than Hillsborough, Orlando may also. The average commute time in Hillsborough is right at the national average of about 30 minutes.

Dedicated lane BRT is supported but there are questions surrounding implementation and use. 
Remember GoHillsborough only provided cost per mile information for high cost dedicated lane BRT. They never provided the cost per mile for shared lane BRT such as HART's MetroRapid service. GoHillsborough never mentioned managed bus toll lanes as a way to add road capacity that buses could also utilize. GoHIllsborough never provided cost per trip/passenger information for anything. That is key to understanding the cost-benefit of an investment and whether that investment is being made in a highly utilized or under utilized asset. The only transit cost information that would have made sense to anyone that GoHillsborough provided were for the options "they" wanted. GoHillsborough simply lumped HART's entire 10 year plan into one big amount so no one could compare it to anything.

Half-cent sales tax preferred: no other source or amount receives majority support 
No margin of error provided so is this a true statement?

74% of "citizens" are more likely to support a referendum if developers pay more.
Supposedly this was from the same poll of 600 likely voters:
74% more likely to support referendum if developers pay more
Click to enlarge
There should be some type of impact fee assessed for new development infrastructure. Some type of mobility fee may be considered, similar to what Pasco County implemented. The impact fee monies will be complimentary and in addition to the $3.5 BILLION, not part of the $3.5 Billion tax. There should have been an estimate of what an impact/mobility fee would generate but none was provided. Also what exactly would these monies be spent on?

This is where Commissioner Stacy White passionately questioned land use far beyond just mobility fees and wanting to pursue in our county comprehensive land plan some type of "densities swap" to the urban core. Stacy wants an analysis done of exchanging density entitlements. We wondered if this is like cap and trade. This is the first time we've heard about it so we will be looking for more details.

It would have been refreshing to hear that kind of passion questioning why we must have another 30 year Cit-like tax or why does all transportation funding have to be tied to a sales tax. Commissioner Higginbotham did bring up that we have existing revenues we can leverage to start funding hopefully our roads - we don't have to wait until a referendum passes or fails in late 2016. Instead Commissioner Les Miller stated (literally) that we are DOOMED if we don't get this boatload of money in 2016. We remember PSTA's Brad Miller saying the same thing about Greenlight Pinellas. In that same vane, Commissioner Ken Hagan  stated there's "no possible way to fix the crisis". Wait a minute - Hagan's been on the county commission since 2004 and was part of the commission who blew out the CIT tax by 2008 creating this "crisis".  The fix is another 30 year tax like the one he blew out?

Regarding the CIT tax, it was sold to voters in 1996 (when it passed 53-47%) that it would be used for projects in 5 year increments. Merrill had the audacity to state how successful the CIT was at doing just that and that is how this new 30 year tax could wok. I think some folks behind me about fell off their chair because we all know what happened to the CIT.  The entire tax was spent by the county within 11 years, much of it on pet projects to help incumbents get re-elected. Today we still pay the tax until 2026 but it simply goes to paying back debt. 

Other than Miller's passion for us being Doomed, Hagan's scripted message this will end the crisis and White's land use request, we did not see a whole lot of positive passion from the rest of the PlG for this plan. If they thought this was a great plan, wouldn't the rest of the PLG members chimed in more about how much they "love" the plan  not just thanking people for the hard work and that this is simply "better than 2010". 

Interesting that the only sound that came from Mayor Buckhorn publicly at the meeting was the loud ringing of his cell phone going off. He waited until the Tribune approached him afterward to state this:
The lower apportionment for transit was made more palatable, the supporters said, because of Clifford’s recommendation that Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace use 10 percent of their share of the tax proceeds for mass transit. 
That would be enough for Tampa to start a light rail system, said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. 
“We in the city are not going to exclude rail as an option,” Buckhorn, a member of the leadership group, said after the meeting. “We think that’s what our future looks like. That’s why this flexibility looks so good.”
Transit lobbyist Kevin Thurman also weighed in:
Kevin Thurman, executive director of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, agreed that a light-rail system might be possible with the 10 percent spending option. Thurman pointed out that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency, known as HART, is getting 25 percent of the tax proceeds, about $881 million.

Combining that money with the 10 percent flexible funding for the three cities could raise the percentage of total transit funding from 36 percent to 44 percent, he said.
Below are the 15 recommendations made by Parsons Brinckerhoff:

Parsons Recommendation #1 states to "develop modernized streetcar or similar technology from downtown to TIA/Westshore/and/or USF area

Parsons Recommendation #2 states to put a 1/2 cent sales tax on the ballot in 2016 - will generate $117.5 annually ($3.5 BILLION over 30 years)

Parsons Recommendation #3 states it will be a 30 year tax to leverage SIGNIFICANT funding from other sources (federal/state funding)

Parsons Recommendation #4 breaks down the split: 

  • Maintenance - 23.8%
  • Transit - 36.1%
  • Roads - 36.1%
  • Sidewalks/Bike paths - 3.9%

Parsons Recommendation #5 breaks down the jurisdictional allocations with the addition of HART receiving 25%

  • HART - 25%
  • Hillsborough County - 55.23%
  • Plant City - 1.72%
  • Tampa - 16.82%
  • Temple Terrace - 1.23%

Parsons Recommendation #6 states Hillsborough County must ensure new growth pays itself - prepare a mobility fee ordinance to go into effect simultaneously with 1/2 cent sales tax 

Parsons Recommendation #7 states consider establishing a dedicated maintenance fund program

Parsons recommendation #8 states that the city of Tampa should consider using at least 10% of its 1/2 percent allocation towards co-funding the modernization and extension of the streetcar (to turn it into a light rail) or other premium service (light rail according to Buckhorn) within the City of Tampa.

Parsons recommendation #9 states that Hillsborough County should consider using at least 10% of their 1/2 percent allocation towards co-funding BRT (assume that is the high cost dedicated lane BRT) within Hillsborough County. 

Parsons recommendation #10 states Plant City use at least 10% of their 1/2 percent allocation towards co-funding express bus and circulator service within Plant City.

Parsons recommendation #11 states Temple Terrace use at least 10% of their 1/2 percent allocation towards co-funding BRT and express bus service within Temple Terrace.

Parsons recommendation #12 states to conduct more public engagement meetings to develop initial 10 year project list for the referendum. (Was that included in the million dollar Parsons contract or are we paying them and PR lobbyist Beth Leytham more of our tax dollars?)

Parsons recommendation #13 states to build trust, confidence and accountability by creating processes that notify, inform and update citizens on specific projects. (Is that a confidence builder to feel comfortable with them spending your $3.5 BiLLION?)

Parsons recommendation #14 states to realign projects and priorities to most efficiently and effectively improve traffic flow and transit as well as contribute towards economic prosperity. 

Parsons recommendation #15 states to develop and implement policies regarding alternate forms of transportation and new transportation technologies such as improved transit, automated control vehicles, private provision of transportation services and tolling. (Does that mean getting rid of the PTC and enabling ride sharing?)

 The packet from Parsons given to the county commissioners show these project costs:
GoHillsborough Estimated Project Costs
Something looks very strange. HART's  Vision Plan TDP which would double bus service in Hillsborough County is a 10 year plan not 30 year plan. The $1.5 Billion includes their funded existing services. The unfunded portion is about $600-$700 million over 10 years. Where are these Fixed Guideways reflected at a cost of almost $2.6 BILLION and over $4.2 BILLION? Are they dedicated lane BRT or rail? They had previously provided the cost per mile at $54 million per mile for fixed guideway BRT and $88 million per mile for rail. Do the calculations and these appear to be about 5 mile routes. Hmmm.. That's a lot of tax dollars for 5 miles.

One of the major problems I have with this entire GoHillsborough effort is that it is an opinion based effort not a data driven one. Where's the data? Parsons told me at one of their last meetings there would be data to back up their plan. Where is that data because it's not in the packet given to the county commissioners. Instead the packet provides a list of projects citizens wrote on maps with no clue of the cost or actual viability of anything. Here's one of the wish lists:
Light Rail all over Hillsborough County 
This is what you get when it's a free for all of opinions which is what GoHillsborough did.

Don't be fooled - as Mayor Buckhorn states, light rail is in this plan and when the city of Tampa partners with HART - that is county money NOT just Tampa's apportionment of a new county tax.

Next up are 12 more GoHillsborough meetings between now and July 16. We assume these will be those facilitated small groups directing you to some answer. We also assume more money will be flowing to Parsons Brinckerhoff and PR insider lobbyist  Beth Leytham.  Sweet deal huh?

They are allowing one month for these meetings and Merrill asked (really directed) the county commissioners that he wanted 2 votes on July 16.  The first vote for the PLG to approve the plan and a second vote to ask the county attorney to write the ballot language. 

We hear that won't be difficult as it's already written....

Stay tuned....


  1. Here is a free market case for cutting road building subsidies.

  2. road fix should be in gas tax's which should be changed from a fixed tax to a percentage and set to the percentage paid from the 1950s were we had no problems build and caring for roads

  3. Teco trolley is a great start and would be a great economic boon if they finish it but until they run it to our airport I say it an incomplete work in an incredibly slow progress and the city already cripples it by not including the trolley in hart transit