Is Anybody Listening?

By Jim Bleyer

Timothy Leary would have riffed, “Drop in, turn off, tune out.”

The three citizen activists most instrumental in defeating Greenlight Pinellas and Go Hillsborough, the most recent ill-fated local transit proposals calling for higher sales taxes, spoke Friday morning to an SRO, mostly pro-transit crowd at Cafe con Tampa.

From the audience response, a portion of the room wasn’t paying close attention to the trio, or lacked the desire to absorb information.  Adam Smith, the Tampa Bay Times political writer who staffed the weekly community forum at the Oxford Exchange, fell into that category.

Smith asked what transportation options the guests would prefer for the Tampa Bay area. Tom Rask, a key player who opposed both light rail proposals, said the first priority is to ensure that current tax dollars are well spent. He added he would not oppose an increased gas tax if the proceeds were earmarked for roads.

Well-known Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert  noted it is a “time of disruption” as innovation and technology are changing the way people use their vehicles as well as traditional transit.  She cautioned that because of the fast-paced evolution in transportation,  it would be unwise to commit beyond a 10-year horizon.

Barb Haselden, who spearheaded the 62-38 defeat of Greenlight Pinellas, rounded out the triumverate.  She said the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) should concentrate on targeting bus service to those who really need it and advocated widening congested thoroughfares. She and Calvert supported the Department of Transportation’s Tampa Bay Express managed toll lane proposal.

Smith, whose employer, has for years promoted a light rail system in both counties financed by an increased sales tax, became contentious, accusing the activists of not offering solutions.  Two ironies: two weeks after the event there has been no reportage in the online edition of the Times (we will periodically update); and none of the pro-sales tax/light rail audience members–who were not shy about their views-offered anything new or different as to a mass transit plan that has been rejected three times in the past six years.

Mitch Perry, writing for SaintPetersBlog, penned an even-handed account.  It was published online two hours after Cafe con Tampa adjourned.

Despite offering no new substance regarding mass transit specifics, the audience had plenty to say about the process.

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik observed there was bipartisan opposition to the ill-fated Go Hillsborough plan and that the public, business groups, and the Sierra Club did not trust the process that produced the foggy, amorphous proposal.

Mike Suarez, Tampa City Council Chairman, urged the speakers to support legislation that would empower municipalities to hold their own referendums. After the meeting, Suarez acknowledged to Tampa Bay Beat there is virtually no chance the Florida Legislature would enact such a law in the near future.  He suggested Mayor Bob Buckhorn should be the point man in any such lobbying effort.

Dr. Jim Davison said that with the public mistrusting government, an independent group, such as a blue ribbon panel of academicians, could restart mapping a plan and engaging the public.

During the meeting, the some 100 people present were asked if they rode the bus to the meeting on the outskirts of downtown Tampa. No one raised their hand. Not Smith. Not Turanchik. Not Suarez. Not Davison.

The Times pre-empted the well-publicized Cafe con Tampa forum with a Friday morning online article that cherry-picked data, ignored the corrupt process that plagued Go Hillsborough and Greenlight Pinellas, and omitted important facts and independent research relating to light rail problems across the country.

The average cost overrun for a light rail project is 45 percent with a quarter exceeding 60 percent and ridership never reaches projected levels.  Politicians who favored these projects were found to be taking significant campaign contributions, in a few cases outright bribes, by entities that stand to financially benefit from light rail.  With ride-sharing, telecommuting, flex bus schedules, hybrid automobiles, and dedicated toll lanes, independent research shows that light rail is no longer viable in the 21st century.

Further, neither county transportation entity is complying with the Americans for Disabilities Act.  Pinellas has one of the highest per capita visually impaired populations (19,000+) in the country. If the PSTA did its job and became compliant, the disabled would be able to use the buses and the contract cabs that have tax money already allocated.  This is what the Times should be investigating instead of obsessing with light rail and setting the Guinness World Record for the length of an orgasm.

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