Sunday, March 26, 2023

Be Skeptical Of Bills Filed For A "Study" When HART Must First Be Investigated and Audited

HART transit agency is a fiscal and operational mess going insolvent next year. Before all the issues with HART can be fixed, we need to know what they all are and who caused them.

HART needs to be investigated and the last 10 years of its operations audited by Florida's Inspector General. 

We applaud the State Legislature for eliminating TBARTA. But we have concerns whether they are eliminating TBARTA to create another regional transit agency. 

HB1397 filed by State Rep Lawrence McClure, who lives in Plant City, and its Senate companion SB1532 filed by State Senator Danny Burgess, who lives in Zephyrhills, originally was to study the merging of two mismanaged transit agencies HART and PSTA. 

Interestingly, McClure resides in Plant City. Plant City is the only municipality in Hillsborough County who is NOT a member of HART. Property owners in Plant City have never paid HART's property tax. These bills might change that.

Both bills were recently amended to remove studying the merger of HART and PSTA. Added to both bills is for FDOT to study the dissolution of HART.

The bills provide some specifics to be addressed by the study including: dissolving or TRANSFERRING HARTs assets, governance, staff, responsibilities and its operations....somewhere...

The bills do not indicate where HART's assets, governance, responsibilities, etc. might be transferred to. But the bill does state it has a goal of "enhancing REGIONAL transit service and connectivity in the Tampa Bay Area."  

Senator Burgess may have let the cat out of the bag when he spoke on behalf of his SB1532 bill at a recent Senate Transportation Committee meeting.

The video of that meeting is found here. At about 3:22 into the video Burgess explains the bill was amended to specifically address how to potentially transfer HART to other agencies. 

Burgess stated the "spirit" of the amendment includes the merging of HART, PSTA and Pasco's transit services run by Pasco County. He stated such merger could be a "firm possibility" for how to dissolve HART.

First of all, FDOT funds HART. They cannot be the entity to perform a study of HART. That would be like the bank's accountant doing the banks "independent" audit. This is a "No-No" from a process, accountability, responsibility and audit perspective.

FDOT funds the 100% taxpayer subsidized Tampa streetcar that HART operates and provides "free" to the rider. FDOT continued to fund HART as HART's financial position was tanking. It is not appropriate for FDOT to be doing a study of HART.

Merging HART and PSTA has already been studied twice and rejected for numerous reasons including little to no cost savings.

Steve Polzin is a transit expert who worked at the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research and sat on the HART Board for 6.5 years. He documented his observations about a proposal for a HART-PSTA merger in 2012. Polzin noted:

  • Mergers can result in the highest-level, most expensive salaries and policies being adopted - raising the costs of the larger consolidated agency
  • Cost to execute a consolidation/merger can be very significant and must be factored into any merger considerations
  • Bigger transit agencies do not automatically translate to more efficient agencies

Attempting to do a study to fix HART before identifying all of HART's problems is the cart before the horse. 

These bills did not come from local taxpayers or constituents of McClure and Burgess. It is more likely they originated from the wealthy special interests who continually push regional rail and transit in Tampa Bay. 

The Tampa Bay Partnership (TBP) are special interests transit lobbyists who have supported every transit tax boondoggle referendum in Tampa Bay. They have been pushing regionalism for years. 

The TBP pushed the state legislature to create TBARTA in 2007 as a regional transportation authority. Then the TBP wrote the legislative language to change TBARTA to a regional transit authority in 2017. They simply handed the language to then Senator Latvala who filed the bill for them. 

According to this May 2017 Times article:

The Tampa Bay Partnership, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft all lobbied for the bill, which is the first of several steps the local business community has planned to address regional transit issues."

Regionalism empowers the special interests and lobbyists while marginalizing local taxpayers and voters. Most rail tax boondoggles in the US are pushed through regional transit agencies and regional taxing authorities who are an arms length away from the local taxpayer.

As we posted before, "The bigger the bureaucracy, the more money they want; creating a bigger food fight over a bigger pot of money, how it is spent, who gets to pay and who gets the benefit." 

In 2017, the TBP funded a white paper written by the Eno Center for Transportation that, surprise surprise, recommends regionalism:
This paper recommends that the region’s leaders seek to create a regional governance structure for the operation of transit agencies in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Urbanized Area, which includes the counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.

TBP and their wealthy special interests allies funded both unlawful and illegal All for Transportation (AFT) transit tax "HART Bailout" boondoggles. 

The TBP are 0 for 4 losers on every local rail/transit tax referendum they funded and supported in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. They should have no say in what to do with HART.

But with TBARTA being dissolved, it is reasonable to speculate these bills originated from them. 

Former FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad knows who originated these bills. In this TBBJ article Prasad said he spoke to the bills sponsors and "the folks that were behind it." 

Local taxpayers should be skeptical of these bills as they are currently written. This study will not hold those responsible for running HART's finances into the ground accountable.  

There can be no cover up for how, why and who caused HART's insolvency. We also must know if any wrong doing, malfeasance, unethical behavior or corruption occurred at HART.

Only an investigation and audit by Florida's Inspector General can provide this information. Accountability is required first before decisions can be made for how to fix, merge or dissolve HART. 

These bills look more like a request for a feasibility study... to be completed by 1/1/2024. Is that date actually possible or is this "study" to simply get to the answer that's already been decided by "the folks behind these bills". 

We agree with McClure and Burgess that HART is a big mess that must be fixed. But these bills are half baked. They need to be either rejected as currently written or amended to:
  • First require an investigation and independent audit of at least the last 10 years of HART's operations by Florida's Inspector General  
  • Any study for how or what should be done to dissolve, transfer merge, etc. HART cannot be done by FDOT. Any study of HART must be done by an independent consultant who has no association with HART or, preferably, have no association with any transit agency in Tampa Bay.

The investigation and audit of HART will identify operational and governance reforms needed to prevent another transit agency fiscal disaster. Otherwise history may repeat itself.

Then do a study...a study that includes implementing the reforms and also looks at privatizing and/or outsourcing of HART's operations to a non-governmental third party.

Because creating another government run regional transit agency may not be the "firm possibility".


1 comment:

  1. The push for regional transit is misguided. Transit riders are typically low or minimum wage workers who cannot afford a car. These type of workers don't need to cross counties for pay they could get closer to home. They need local bus service in the urban core to get to work, medical care and grocery stores. Tampa Bay Partnership is led by downtown developers and sports team owners looking to enrich their fiefdoms by taking from the poor. So-called regional "premium transit" is expensive to build and operate and will cannibalize needed local bus service. Legislators shouldn't be TBP tools.