Tuesday, April 24, 2018

PSTA Must Fix Funding Gap & Misleading Info for Central Ave BRT

We posted here recently about PSTA's proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit project (CA BRT). It will use road diets and huge 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd and take out parking spaces in St. Petersburg along its route from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar.

There are issues with this project because PSTA submitted misleading financial information in their Small Starts grant application submitted to the FTA in September 2017. PSTA included St. Pete Beach as a funding partner for the CA BRT project.
PSTA financial info submitted to FTA included St. Pete Beach
as a funding partner
PSTA included this map of the BRT's route alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar in St. Pete Beach in their grant application to FTA. There is no indication in this map of different options depending on funding commitments.
Central Ave BRT alignment submitted to FTA September 2017
St. Pete Beach has never taken any action to fund or support the project.

In addition, the action taken by the PSTA Board at a January 25, 2017 Board meeting reflect the Board approved a Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) alignment from downtown St. Petersburg to 75th Avenue and Gulf Boulevard on St. Pete Beach with an option to extend south to the Don Cesar Hotel pending local funding commitments. 

PSTA staff told the PSTA Board at the January 25, 2017 Board Meeting that they had to approve the alignment that day to stay on schedule to get FY2019 federal funding. This chart of the full route was presented and PSTA staff admitted there was still a St. Pete Beach funding issue but indicated it would be resolved by the summer. What alignment did all the Board members think they were approving?
Route Presented to PSTA  Board 1/25/2017
The funding issue has never been resolved and PSTA continued to move this project forward as if it had been and with the route terminating at the Don Cesar.

Who reviewed the grant application packet before it was submitted to the FTA?

As recently as April 12, 2018,  PSTA took their CA BRT presentation over to a Hillsborough MPO committee meeting. The presentation shows the route terminating at the Don Cesar and includes this chart - falsely stating St. Pete Beach is a funding partner.
PSTA presentation 4/12/2018 to Hillsborough MPO committee
Local media has reported about this project but never about the funding gap until TBBJ reported last week St. Pete Beach mayor says city won't pitch in $1.5 million for proposed bus project. The article is behind TBBJ's subscription firewall but includes this:
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is trying to identify creative funding sources to bridge a $1.5 million gap in local funding for the proposed Central Avenue Bus Rapid Transit route connecting downtown St. Petersburg to St. Pete Beach. 
“To be honest, there’s no way in hell I’m going to give them $1.5 million,” said St. Pete Beach Mayor Al Johnson. "As much as I'd like to have it, it's just not worth it to us." 
The BRT terminus at St. Pete Beach would be at the Don CeSar, but the route would not continue into the community.
How did this happen?

After Greenlight Pinellas failed miserably 68-32% in November 2014, PSTA decided to focus on incremental improvements rather than another grand transit scheme like Greenlight. PSTA sought and received $500K from FDOT for the Central Ave BRT design work in December 2015.

The project started as a 10-14 mile project at an estimate cost of about $16.5 million. By the time PSTA submitted their grant application in September 2017, the capital cost had more than doubled to over $41 million (in 2019 dollars), the route was 22 miles and the project was taking out 13 miles of general purpose lanes of traffic.

PSTA sought and received a local funding commitment from the City of St. Petersburg who voted to financially support the project.

PSTA also pursued a funding commitment from St. Pete Beach. PSTA initially went to an October 11, 2016 St. Pete Beach City Council Workshop to present an overview of the BRT project to the council members.

PSTA Executive Committee meeting was held the next day on October 12, 2016 where the funding issue with St Pete Beach was discussed.

At the meeting last week, the St. Pete Beach City Commission indicated that because of the millions in spending the city faces to repair and upgrade its leaking sewer system, there is no money left for the proposed rapid transit route. 
"It's unfortunate they are not being more cooperative," said PSTA Board Chair Darden Rice. 
"There is no free lunch," said PSTA board member and Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, warning her board not to start the rapid transit service without St. Pete Beach paying its share.
PSTA went back to an October 25, 2016 St. Pete Beach commission meeting with their formal request. They asked for $1.5 million from St. Pete Beach for capital dollars to implement the CA BRT and also wanted St. Pete Beach to provide more dollars to operate and maintain the service.

The end result of that meeting was St. Pete Beach council stated they had other higher priorities to address and they took no action. Since then, St. Pete Beach has never voted to fund the project or vote to support the project in any way.

Since the January 25, 2017 PSTA Board meeting, we could find no mention by PSTA of the funding issue with St. Pete Beach as if it disappeared or got resolved.

Long's warning to not start the service without St. Pete Beach paying its share must have gone out the window when the schedule to pursue the federal money was more important than resolving the funding issue.

PSTA has never been back to St. Pete Beach since October 2016.

From a March 13, 2018 St. Pete Beach council meeting (go to about 2:21 in the video) it appears that PSTA had not continued any negotiations with St. Pete Beach about funding. It seems St. Pete Beach thought the project was still preliminary, that the route was not finalized and were unaware that PSTA had submitted a federal grant application that included St. Pete Beach funding the route to the Don Cesar with 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd.

There is a flaw in the FTA transit grant process. There should be a requirement that all grant applications must provide evidence of the actions taken that all funding partners and stakeholders have approved their financial commitment of the project by each governing body. FDOT should require that too.

From a conversation with FDOT, it is PSTA's responsibility to provide accurate information to the FTA regarding all local funding commitments.

PSTA must fix the funding gap asap and update their grant application because the FTA has already rated this project. No federal grant should be awarded based on erroneous information.

PSTA's Board must also get some questions answered. Why did PSTA submit misleading financial information in their FTA grant application last September? Why did PSTA include the route alignment to the Don Cesar in their FTA grant application when the St. Pete Beach funding issue had not been resolved? Was there a breakdown in oversight and communication within the entire process?

There is no excuse for PSTA submitting misleading financial information to the FTA and continuing to perpetuate the deceptive information ever since.

There is already reason for distrust as PSTA was caught misusing federal transit security funds for Greenlight Pinellas ads in 2014 and had to hand $345K back to the Feds.

When the pursuit of federal transit funding is more important than providing accurate and honest information in the process, messes like this get created.

That should be alarming to all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Self Preservation or Playing Politics with the County Charter

On the Consent Agenda (where the commissioners rubber stamp approvals) of tomorrow's BOCC meeting is this item:
Authorize the County Attorney's Office to Schedule and Advertise a Public Hearing for May 2, 2018 at 10:00 AM, for the purpose of adopting an ordinance to amend the County Charter to require that amendments to the charter be effective upon approval by a 60% vote of the electors.  Other than the cost to publish required legal notices, adoption of this Ordinance will have no impact on the FY 18 Adopted Budget.
At the last Hillsborough County BOCC meeting on April 4, 2018, Commissioner Miller put an item on the agenda asking for a draft ordinance proposing a Charter amendment that future Charter amendments require 60% super majority to pass. The original motion at that meeting by Miller excluded citizen-led initiatives which would remain at 50%. The motion was amended that ALL charter amendments require 60% super majority. That amendment passed with Kemp, Miller and Hagan voting NO and Murman, White, Crist and Higginbotham voting YES.

Miller's proposed charter amendment ordinance was coincidentally made at the same last BOCC meeting that Commissioner Higginbotham placed an item on the agenda proposing the 5 Constitutionals elected positions be changed to non-partisan.
Direct the County Attorney's Office to bring back a draft Ordinance on May 2, 2018 proposing an amendment to the Hillsborough County Charter to make the five constitutional officers elected on a non-partisan basis, and to request the Supervisor of Elections to place the referendum on the November 6, 2018 General Election ballot. (Commissioner Higginbotham)
Higginbotham's proposal was rejected 4-3 with White, Kemp, Crist and Miller voting NO and Hagan, Murman and Higginbotham voting YES. All citizens who showed up to make a public comment on this item were opposed to this proposal. No one showed up to speak in favor of it.

And coincidentally at the same last BOCC meeting, Commissioner Pat Kemp put a proposed term limit item on the agenda. She proposed a change to the Charter that county commissioner terms be limited to no more than ten consecutive years of service. Commissioner Sandy Murman subsequently tried to make an amendment to Kemp's proposal to include changing the Charter from the current 4 single and 3 countywide districts to 7 or 9 single districts. That motion died for lack of a second but Murman said she would bring it back at a future time.

Kemp's original motion asking for language for an ordinance to change the Charter for 10 year term limits was watered down to directing staff to bring back to the next Board meeting a report reviewing all possibilities, including 10, 12, and 18 year term limits; the impact on current Board member terms; and Board members serving in single-member and Countywide districts. 

Read the transcript of the commissioners discussion on this agenda item here. A lot of self preservation was on display.

Commissioner White wanted to prohibit the clock being reset so that years already served would count toward the term limit but that failed for lack of a second. (Self preservation kicked in….)

The County Attorney then said any term limit changes would reset the clock. Really? 

It is mid April with the mid term election just over 6 months away and this commission is now proposing some major changes to the County Charter for the November ballot. If all these changes are so important, where have these commissioners been - since the last election in 2016? 

The Hillsborough County Charter was approved by voters in 1983. In 35 years only a handful of charter amendments passed in 2002, 2004, 2012. That is quite different from the abuse that has occurred using Amendments to the State Constitution that should have been passed by legislation instead of being codified in the State Constitution. We all can recall the pregnant pigs amendment in 2002. The class room size amendment passed in 2002 52-48% BEFORE the 60% super majority amendment was passed 58-42% in 2006. The repeal of the classroom size amendment failed 55-45 in 2010 AFTER the 60% super majority was in place even though more voters voted to repeal it than initially approved it. Though there are these instances, we believe the 60% super majority required for State Amendments is good.

Is a 60% super majority for all county charter amendments good or necessary? Some of the County Charter changes were housekeeping items. It takes a super majority of 5 commissioners to put a Charter amendment ordinance on the ballot - unlike tax hike referendums that only need a simple majority of 4 to get on the ballot.

A question asked at the April 4th meeting is whether this charter amendment would affect any other referendum that could go before voters. The County Attorney responded that this proposal only affects amendments to the Charter not referendums that state statute has authorized. 

The problem in Hillsborough County is not with Charter amendments but with unnecessary sales tax hike referendums. Tax hike, revenue raising referendums should require a 60%. This would help reign in pursuing unnecessary sales tax hikes as the primary go to means advocated for by special interests that benefit them. This would help force more fiscal due diligence within existing budgets, especially as revenues are naturally increasing due to growth and rising property values. 

Unfortunately, it was very noticeable that almost all the county commissioners do not want super majorities required for tax hikes.

The State can fix that problem The State needs to change Florida Statute 212.055 that authorizes discretionary sales surtaxes to require approval by 60% super majority of the electors in the county.

Yes - the process to put a proposed 60% super majority for all county Charter Amendments can be met even at this late date for ballot initiatives to be approved by August to be on the November ballot. We are already anticipating the state Constitution Revision Commission putting numerous State Amendments on the November ballot that may create enough chaos and confusion.

But are all these proposals political expediency? Something smells a bit when these proposals for major charter amendments suddenly appear at the same BOCC meeting this late in an election cycle. Four county commission seats have races in November and four incumbent county commissioners have filed to run again. But the commission may change with new members after November.

If the proposed amendments are so good, are needed, or are necessary, pursue them for the 2020 ballot during a Presidential election year when the most local voters turn out. 

The county commissioners should not be playing politics or pursuing self preservation with the County Charter.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Dysfunction or Deception: Road Diets & 60 Foot Buses on Gulf Blvd

Since Greenlight Pinellas failed in 2014 and Go Hillsborough failed in 2016, FDOT in Tampa Bay has been doling out millions and millions for more transit studies like it's Christmas candy.

For the moment at least, the strategy has changed to pursuing individual transit projects instead of going after some massive grand transit plan that have consistently failed in Tampa Bay. Pursuing individual projects enables projects to proceed more stealthily under the radar of public scrutiny.

It is all about getting a pot of federal transit money - at a time when transit ridership is declining, vehicle ownership is increasing, vehicle miles travelled is increasing, innovation is disrupting traditional transit and less than 2% use transit in Tampa Bay.

Only government can be so out of touch with reality. This is why the transportation issue in Tampa Bay has become so dysfunctional.

The transit project in this new scheme that is the furthest along is PSTA's Central Avenue BRT (CA BRT) in Pinellas County. This is the catalyst of the catalyst project. It is in the federal funding spigot pipeline and has been rated by the FTA. It appears this project got this far with little public scrutiny and probably not enough transparency.

We'll start shining a bright light on what the CA BRT project is and the process used to further it.

Do not forget that PSTA was caught in 2014 abusing federal transit security funds by using those funds on advertising for Greenlight Pinellas. Due to this deception, PSTA was forced to hand back $345K dollars to the Feds. Wonder if the FTA knows that?

PSTA submitted their Federal Small Starts application for the Central Avenue BRT to the FTA  September 7, 2017. Small Starts projects must have a total estimated capital cost of $300 million or less and must be seeking less than $100 million from the feds.

The name Central Avenue BRT (CA BRT) is a misnomer because the route actually runs on First Avenue North and South. The existing Central Avenue trolley route continues business as usual.

The CA BRT is a 22 mile long route from downtown St. Petersburg to the Don Cesar at St. Pete Beach. To meet the federal qualification that greater than 50% of the route must use a dedicated lane, this project uses a road diet that takes away 13 miles of general purpose lanes along First Avenue North, First Avenue South and Pasadena Avenue in Pinellas County.
PSTA CA BRT 22 mile route from downtown St. Pete to the Don Cesar
According to the Small Starts Application submitted to the FTA in September 2017 (emphasis mine):
Along the entire length of 1st Avenue North and 1st Avenue South, and along Pasadena Avenue from Central Avenue to Huffman Way, one general purpose lane will be converted to a Business Access and Transit (BAT) lane that will be used by only buses and turning vehicles. Along 1st Avenue North, the BAT lane will run on the left side of the road with island stations for boarding on the right. Along 1st Avenue South, the alignment runs on the left side of the road in a BAT lane with island stations for boarding on the right between Pasadena Avenue and 20th Street. East of 20th Street, the alignment transitions to right side running. Along Pasadena Avenue, the BAT lane will run on the right side of the road. In total, the BAT lanes will comprise 13 miles of the 22-mile alignment.
While First Avenues North and South are local roads, Pasadena Avenue aka 66th Street is a State Road. Pinellas County has responsibility over their local roads. Why is FDOT allowing a road diet  taking out a general purpose lane of traffic on a state road? When the Corey Causeway draw bridge is open, traffic gets backed up for quite some way and can take a long time to clear.  Imagine the bigger traffic backup mess created when the Corey Causeway draw bridge goes up and traffic is even worse because a general lane of traffic leading to it has been taken out.

Qualifying for federal funds requires committed local funding for both capital and a long term funding source for operating and maintenance costs. According to PSTA's CA BRT Financial Plan submitted to the FTA (page 5), the capital cost of the CA BRT is estimated at $41.36 million (in 2019 dollars) and PSTA is asking for $20.36 million (49.2%) from the Feds. The chart below is included in PSTA's submittal to the FTA last September.
PSTA CA BRT capital funding plan provided to FTA

Page 6 of the Financial Plan states:
The City is currently in negotiations with PSTA regarding financial support of the BRT project for both capital and operations.
What is so striking is the City of St. Pete Beach has never taken any action, has never voted on or approved to "plan" or "commit" $1.5 million to the capital costs or provide operational funding for the CA BRT. PSTA went to the St. Pete Beach city council in October 2016 requesting financial support for the project but no action was taken by the council. PSTA has never gone back to St. Pete Beach since October 2016. There is no evidence of ongoing negotiations between PSTA and St. Pete Beach.

This is no small mistake so why did PSTA include such misleading information in their September 2017 Small Starts application submittal to the FTA? Is PSTA being deceptive again? This question deserves an answer - especially in light of what PSTA did pursuing Greenlight.

The CA BRT project will put 60 foot buses with four stops and no bus bays on the narrow congested Gulf Blvd. This service is in addition to the existing Jolly Trolley that runs along Gulf Blvd and the Central Ave Trolley. 
PSTA 60 foot bus on narrow, congested Gulf Blvd
with 4 stops & no bus bays in addition to Jolly Trolley
The project will also eliminate 231 parking spaces in St. Petersburg.

The documentation PSTA submitted to the FTA in September 2017 for this project stated it had gone through an extensive public involvement process. The Eye has attempted to get information regarding such extensive effort and the data captured from it from PSTA. To date, we have only received this list of public involvement events.
PSTA's list of CA BRT public involvement events

Is this considered "extensive" outreach?

Of the 39 events attended by 462 attendees, most were meetings with elected officials,  the bureaucracy and special interests.

Where are the sign in sheets and the data captured from the meetings? Were surveys done? If so, where's the data captured from those surveys? Do all the residents and businesses along the route know about this project and its impact?  What were all the communication vehicles PSTA used to inform the public and capture feedback, emails, newsletters, letters, social media, from their website, etc.? Where is the information captured from that communication?

All the data and information captured from public involvement are public records The information should be either accessible by the public or easily accessible to provide to anyone who requests it.

We have talked to people in Pinellas County who are unaware of the project and certainly do not know about the road diets and putting 60 foot buses on Gulf Blvd.

We can bet most, including those most directly impacted, those who live in St. Pete Beach and probably those who live in S. Pasadena, do not know about this project or what it is doing.

It is time they do.

More to come about this project and PSTA.

Stay tuned!