Monday, September 21, 2015

Go Hillsborough - the citizens speak, but the special interests decide

A Guest post by Thomas Rask, B.Sc., M. Sc. activist for good government 

Go Hillsborough is a county-funded "community engagement" effort aimed at finding out what transportation priorities Hillsborough County voters have, and how they want to pay for them. From the beginning, critics suspected that the Go Hillsborough process was rigged in favor of arriving at a sales tax increase as the only solution. Below, I compare statements made by Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill with outcomes to show that the public policy process has been corrupted once again.

A brief history: the county used to pay for roads out of their other tax revenue. The county historically paid for roads through general property tax revenues but stopped when the county diverted that road funding to other things during the recession. The 7th cent sales tax, the Community Investment Tax, was passed in September 1996, and then promptly spent and bonded out. Despite promises to the contrary, very little was spent on roads. Citizens pay higher taxes and county government takes a larger slice of the pie, but citizens get broken promises and worse roads.

At a Go Hillsborough public meeting on 4/9/2015, I spoke to Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill about the Go Hillsborough effort and transportation issues. Among policy priorities being expressed by the public, Mr. Merrill said that "[road] resurfacing is number one, then road expansion, and then transit is a priority. But really, when I hear people talk about transit at these meetings, then it's fixing our existing system. They aren't even talking about rail".

Since that conversation in April, the Parsons/Leytham/Merrill team proposed only one funding solution, a sales tax hike. They publicly proposed a 1/2% sales tax increase to the Policy Leadership Group and then behind closed doors and without any governing authority's approval, they unilaterally proposed a full 1% sales tax hike. Either tax hike includes rail projects. But if citizens "aren't even talking about rail", then why is rail transit in all the plans that the county is putting forth? What is causing rail transit to be put into the plans, and why do all plans involve a sales tax hike?

Mr. Merrill also said "when I go out and talk to groups, I tell them: we are not ready for rail. We need to build ridership, and you do that with rubber-tired solutions". By that, Mr. Merrill means buses, and I agree that buses are a better option. But again, we have to ask: then why is rail transit in the tax hike plan?

Mr. Merrill also expressly said that an expansion of the Tampa streetcar line "wasn't on our [the county's] priority list". So for the third time we ask: then why is rail transit in all the tax hike plans that the county has put forward? Let's find out !

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's political campaign consultant Beth Leytham is the Go Hillsborough "community engagement" effort that the county has spent $1.3 million on. Ms. Leytham is the sole employee in a company, The Leytham Group, which is a company she owns. The Leytham Group (i.e. Ms. Leytham) was hired to carry out Hillsborough County's "community engagement" effort.

As we will see, even though county funds are being used to pay Ms. Leytham, she is in fact not advancing the interests of county voters and residents.

Recent reporting by WTSP 10 News reporter Noah Pransky adds to the mounting evidence that the Go Hillsborough "community engagement" effort has been hijacked by special interests. As Mr. Pransky showed, lines of responsibility are blurred when Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's political consultant Beth Leytham does free campaign work for Mr. Buckhorn.....and then is paid out of county funds to conduct a "community engagement effort" on transportation.

Mr. Merrill also said "I know Buckhorn wants a train, but what I tell him is, look, a modern streetcar, if Vinik will help pay for part of it, and the Feds will pay for part of it, start with a streetcar. Let's see if people actually take the damn thing." That might be a reasonable approach - but why should all Hillsborough County taxpayers fund a project that can and should be funded by the City of Tampa?

Mr. Merrill also said that "the only thing I can think of that might make sense at some point is if CSX would let us use existing tracks to maybe run some light rail some day". Having CSX freight rail traffic share the tracks with light rail traffic is impossible for regulatory and technical reasons, and Mr. Merrill should know that. Therefore, the only thing Mr. Merrill's statement could have meant is buying a rail line from CSX.

However, buying a rail line is extremely expensive, and there is also no evidence that any CSX rail line in Hillsborough County would go from where people are to where they want to be. Why would it - freight rail and passenger rail are two very different animals. Setting the folly of such a rail line purchase aside, not even this "only thing that might make sense" policy choice is in the final tax hike plan.

In summary, none of the county priorities and positions that Mr. Merrill expressed are in the final plans. The inescapable conclusion is that Ms. Leytham is inappropriately shaping the final plan to benefit narrow interests. Powerful economic interests want to fill their order books with boondoggle rail transit projects at taxpayer expense, just as in 2010. Worse yet, this is being done even though Mr. Merrill himself said that no one is coming to the public meetings and asking for rail transit.

Ms. Leytham is not stupid - to understand her motivations, you just have to follow the money to the special interests she represents. When doing so, think "rail transit cartel".

The final thing Mr. Merrill said to me is "it is interesting how this thing is rolling out". Well, it sure is interesting. To understand why certain things are done around the Tampa Bay area, we need to know more about these close personal relationships among some political insiders.

I am confident we will learn more on that topic in due course.


  1. This article describes the situation well, and is a symptom the problem. The problem is that gov is too big. Instead of working to provide efficient services to their citizens, gov managers have the time and money to focus on growing the government, and their own influence. The interests of the citizens is not part of their equation.

    Why else to they disregard the rail referendums (1 in Tampa, 1 in Pinellas) that soundly defeated referendums for rail? The people have spoken twice, but these gov managers refuse to listen!

    These managers clearly are not advocates for the citizens they represent, but advocates for other groups seeking to gain influence and profits, in Tampa Bay.

  2. Perhaps it is time for a referendum to ban tax funds for any type of rail in the county.