Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Taxpayers, Transit Campaigns, TBARTA and Special Interests - Oh My!

Special interests wanted to ensure a regional transit entity would be tied to the $1.5 million regional premium transit campaign that began last year. Senator Latvala obliged by using his powerful position as Senate Appropriations Chair to ram thru legislation this year creating an unnecessary 5 county regional transit agency TBARTA (Tampa Bay Area Regional TRANSIT Agency).

Taxpayers in Tampa Bay should be on the watch for what is coming next.


Because the bill that created TBARTA did not fund it or provide for any funding mechanism for this new transit agency. 

But it did provide a way for games to be played. The half-baked bill enabled the legislative analysis to disingenuously state: "The bill does not appear to have a significant fiscal impact on state or local government".

What? Google regional transit entities to find out how "significant" a fiscal impact they actually have on state and local governments. Google Tri-Rail and SunRail. The analysis left off an important word at the end "yet".

Hold on to your wallets because funding TBARTA is a multi-year effort. According to this May 4 Times article
The Tampa Bay Partnership, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft all lobbied for the [TBARTA] bill, which is the first of several steps the local business community has planned to address regional transit issues.
"This just scratches the surface," said Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans. "There's a lot more to be done."

There is already talk of putting together legislation for next year that would address how to fund TBARTA, which currently does not have a budget or taxing authority that would allow it to build or operate any future transit projects.

The repurposing of TBARTA over the next year or two coincides with an ongoing regional transit study that the Florida Department of Transportation paid for to identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will work in Tampa Bay. That study is expected to wrap-up next year, by which time Homans and others are hoping the reshaped TBARTA will be in place to oversee the development of any resulting regional projects.
It's no coincidence. Repurposing TBARTA is directly tied to the current transit campaigns and FDOT's Tampa Bay Next initiative. We suspect the special interests helped orchestrate them too.

The special interests led by the Tampa Bay Partnership kept losing at the local level so they took their transit agenda to Tallahassee. That makes it much more difficult, basically impossible, for local citizens to engage, weigh in or even keep up with all the political machinations going on in Tallahassee. Joe and Jane citizen taxpayer do not have the ability much less the access and influence to continuously roam the halls of Tallahassee during session.

On July 14, 2017, ironically the same day Jeff Vinik announced he helped to financially bail out the Tampa Bay Times, the Times published Jeff Vinik: Politicians are holding back Tampa Bay's transit future 
Jeff Vinik said Friday that it's local politicians, not the business community, who are holding Tampa Bay back when it comes to transit. 
It's up to the business community and the public to help politicians understand how critical an issue transit is for Tampa Bay, Vinik said.
Vinik on Friday announced that he belongs to a group of local investors who loaned $12 million to the Times as part of its refinancing.
That sounds quite different from the December 2014 interview with CNN Money  when Vinik, who moved from Boston to Tampa, said this:
"The quality of life down here is absolutely fantastic," he says. "How nice it is to live in good weather and live in an area without too much traffic," 
We can only speculate......Vinik is now on the Board of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a special interest organization who has been the largest supporter of tax hikes for transit boondoggles in Tampa Bay. He is now financially propping up the Tampa Bay Times who is probably the second largest supporter of tax hikes for transit boondoggles in Tampa Bay. 

To rehash reality - four transit tax hike referendums in Tampa Bay since 2010 (Hillsborough, Pinellas and two in Polk County) were overwhelmingly defeated by voters. There were county commissioners in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties who roamed all over the county as public champions for the tax hikes. Local politicians are not the problem. Continuing to push huge tax hikes for costly and unnecessary transit projects with basic math problems is the problem.

Several TBARTA board members and it's Executive Director Ray Chiarmonte met last week with Senator Galvano at his Manatee office. The TBARTA board members who attended were the Chair, Jim Holton, Policy Committee Chair Melanie Griffin and Board member Manatee County Commissioner Betsy Benac.

The Eye attended. As we speculated the meeting was about money. TBARTA has a funding issue because the half-baked TBARTA bill passed and Governor Scott veto'd their $250K appropriation. The key request was TBARTA asking the state next year for a million dollars of operating money to "achieve their goals".

While the goals were not all specified, TBARTA is statutorily required to produce a regional transit development plan (TDP). They need money to do that as a result of the half-baked bill.  

TBARTA Board members told Galvano that the Tampa Bay Partnershp and their group were identified as the "stakeholders" who are all lined up in support. [There was no mention of taxpayers lined up to support - they must not be considered "stakeholders".]

TBARTA will be asking for policy changes, not just the million dollars of operational funding. It's the policy changes that taxpayers should watch closely.

Chiarmonte told Galvano that TBARTA will be the recipient at the end of 2018 of the recommended project(s) resulting from Jacobs Engineering taxpayer funded $1.5 million Regional Premium Transit Campaign. 

But here we go again. TBARTA is asking for a million dollars from the state to produce a regional transit development plan at the same time FDOT handed $1.5 million to Jacobs Engineering to create a "Regional Transit Feasibility Plan". 

Who's on First? Who's minding the taxpayer till?

How many times will taxpayers pay to duplicate work over and over and over again? A million bucks here and a million bucks there.  

Since TBARTA has little staff, they will hire a consultant to create their TDP.  Perhaps Jacobs, who proposed Greenlight Pinellas and was a subcontractor on Go Hillsborough - will be recycled through again......they keep throwing out the same thing.....Here's the latest from their regional transit campaign. Surprise! Rail, rail and more outdated costly rail!  
Jacobs Engineering transit campaign top transit projects
Taxpayers are paying $1.6 million to do another study about expanding the nearly bankrupted Tampa Streetcar. It's only the third Streetcar study since 2014. [A streetcar  along Florida Avenue in downtown - where's the traffic impact analysis?]

But the timing of this round of taxpayer funded transit campaigns could not be worse as traditional transit is being disrupted with new technology and ridership is tanking.

The transit campaigns, no matter how untimely, had to be orchestrated. They enabled the special interests to demand a new regional transit authority be created conveniently an arms length away from local voters and taxpayers. Taking away local control empowers special interests to advance their regional agenda. According to the Tampa Bay Partnership's Regional Policy Agenda (emphasis mine):
Just as the Tampa Bay Partnership played a key role in passing legislation to repurpose TBARTA, we intend to monitor and influence its actions going forward.In the immediate future, TBARTA will require:
• a strong governing board with private and public sector advocates for regional transit;• a recurring source of funding to support the ongoing operation of regional transit service;• and the implementation of additional statutory reforms, as necessary, to further refine the organizational structure and its authority over regional transit planning.
Yep - Tampa Bay Partnership is "the stakeholder" of influence over TBARTA.

Taxpayers beware! 

Since no funding exists today for TBARTA or any proposed new transit projects, a new revenue source would have to be found to proceed. That is why it is important to watch for policy changes for how TBARTA would be funded long term. Of course, watch for more rounds of transit tax hike referendums in 2020.

South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) and TBARTA are the only regional transportation entities that are TRANSIT ONLY transportation entities created by Florida Statute 343 Regional Transportation. Each county served by SFRTA and the State of Florida must ante up money to SFRTA every year.

How has that worked out in South Florida?

After South Florida has spent billions on transit, the Sun Sentinel reported in April:
Planners may be pushing for more buses and trains, but South Florida’s commuters are no longer on board.

Even as the region’s traffic congestion worsens, significantly fewer people are taking public transportation. The reasons include lower gas prices, new ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, and an improved economy that makes it easier to afford car payments, insurance and parking costs.

The ridership decline is not what planners anticipated when they began supporting dense, high-rise housing projects. And future technology, such as riderless cars, may pull away even more commuters. 
Greg Stuart, executive director of the organization that coordinates transportation projects in Broward, said planners need to find other creative ways to solve gridlock instead of focusing only on alternatives to cars.

"We’re going to have to work on roadway capacity improvements, (emphasis mine)" he said.
Sun Sentinel reported in June:
An average of 79 percent of South Florida’s commuters drive alone, the census shows. About 3 percent use public transportation. And recent attempts to sway commuters have been ineffective. 
Tri-Rail’s average daily ridership hovers around 15,000 people. 
The population of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties is now over 6.1 million and they have spent wasted gobs of taxpayer money on failed transit projects. Tri-Rail's ridership is .24%, less than a quarter of one percent of the population in South Florida. South Florida taxpayers are stuck paying for costly transit fewer and fewer are using while they continue to grow. 

Learn from their mistakes. Taxpayers in Tampa Bay don't want to end up like South Florida, especially when traditional transit is being disrupted. No one should be trying to take Tampa Bay down such costly path. We cannot afford to keep funding failures.

Taxpayers should also beware that costly fixed guideways is about using taxpayer money for coercive land use and development. In 2013, the Obama Administration made a rule change to integrate affordable housing criteria as part of the evaluation for federal transit grant money. The TBARTA statute states:
The authority shall coordinate and consult with local governments on transit or commuter rail station area plans that provide for compact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development that will support transit investments and provide a variety of workforce housing choices, recognizing the need for housing alternatives for a variety of income ranges [aka subsidized affordable housing]
Gentrification along costly fixed guideway transit corridors requiring subsidized affordable housing is rarely mentioned or part of the discussion when pushing costly fixed guideways. In addition, transit-oriented development that forces high density development around transit stations is also often subsidized and is used to "encourage" transit ridership. Probably most taxpayers are totally unaware but the politicos and those with vested interests and those who will benefit certainly know.

The same special interests stakeholders will be back in Tallahassee next year lobbying for more TBARTA funding and policy changes to create some new long term funding source for TBARTA.

Will Tallahassee heed the reality that transit is being disrupted? 

Will Tallahassee help prevent costly and outdated transit projects or encourage them?Taxpayers should always be considered a stakeholder by those who provide accountability and oversight of the use of taxpayer money.

Or will Tallahassee again oblige the special interests lobbyists?

The future of transportation in Tampa Bay does not need TBARTA. Technology is dispersing innovation not centralizing it. 

2018 is election year providing an opportunity to ask all candidates running where they stand on TBARTA.

And tell the state legislators - instead of funding TBARTA,


No comments:

Post a Comment