No to Regionalism in Tampa Bay

By Sharon Calvert

(Reprinted from Eye on Tampa Bay)

Watch these two companion bills filed in this legislative session affecting transportation in Tampa Bay. SB1672 was filed by Senator Appropriations Chair Senator Latvala and it’s identical House companion bill HB1243 was filed by Representative Dan Raulerson who is not a member of any transportation committee.

These bills re-swizzle and reorganize the Tampa Bay Regional TRANSPORTATION Authority (TBARTA) into the Tampa Bay Regional TRANSIT Authority. No wonder they were filed very late right before the session started last week. They provide the groundwork and foundation for regionalism, for a regional transit taxing authority, pursuit of a bigger pot of money and for taking away local control.

Who supports this change? Were there any surveys conducted of the voters and taxpayers in the counties impacted? It certainly looks like this change is being pushed without consent of those actually impacted.

We posted about the push for regionalism in Tampa Bay by Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long and Senator Latvala here here and here. Special interests Tampa Bay Partnership also supports a regional transit authority according to this white paper they commissioned by the Eno Center for Transportation and this TBBJ article
The group [Tampa Bay Partnership] also recommends creating a regional transit authority with the ability to approve inter-local agreements in order to work across county lines.

Latvala’s bill creates a new Tampa Bay regional transit operating authority by reorganizing TBARTA, changing its mission and how it is governed.

But we do not suddenly have transit issues across county lines, we have transportation issues across county lines that must be addressed.

Currently TBARTA provides TRANSPORTATION planning for seven counties (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, Citrus, Hernando and Sarasota) and operates a multi-county van pool service. At TBARTA’s website, find their Regional Master Plan, their Transit-Oriented Development Resource Guide and information about their van pool and commuter services.
Latvala’s bill changes TBARTA to a four county (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, and Manatee) regional transit operating authority. The governing board will change from 15 members to 13 members. The new Board would consist of:
One county commissioner from each of the four counties
One member representing HART
One member representing PSTA
Two business community members appointed by the Senate President
Two business community members appointed by the House Speaker
Three business community members appointed by the Governor
These four counties are all very different. We can only assume Manatee was thrown in because Senator Galvano of Manatee championed the creation of TBARTA in 2007 and Latvala wants his support. Why would Pasco and Manatee’s transit agencies not be represented and why are all the appointees from the business community not “citizen” appointees?

Today TBARTA is not a regional taxing authority but that was the intent when it was created back in 2007. However, the recession hit in 2008 and no state legislator was going to vote for another taxing authority during a recession.

Statutorily TBARTA has the ability to bond for capital construction or improvements and does not have a dedicated funding source to operate anything. Today the state and participating counties have contributed funds for TBARTA to operate its commuter services and do planning.

It does not appear that Latvala’s bill specifically enables TBARTA to become a taxing authority. Therefore, how would this new transit operating entity be funded? No entity can be an operating authority without dedicated funding.

In 2010 Florida Statute 212.055 addressing the transportation surtax was suddenly changed by our state legislature to include “regional transportation system” surtax not just charter county surtax. What is highlighted is what was added to that statute in 2010:
(1) CHARTER COUNTY AND REGIONAL TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM SURTAX.—
(a) Each charter county that has adopted a charter, each county the government of which is consolidated with that of one or more municipalities, and each county that is within or under an interlocal agreement with a regional transportation or transit authority created under chapter 343 or chapter 349 may levy a discretionary sales surtax, subject to approval by a majority vote of the electorate of the county or by a charter amendment approved by a majority vote of the electorate of the county.
(b) The rate shall be up to 1 percent.

It appears this statute can be used to put a multi-county regional tax on the ballot to fund a regional transit authority.

The timing of these bills conveniently coincide with the Tampa Bay Regional Premium Transit Plan campaign we posted about here. This $1.5 million taxpayer funded effort is supposed to result in transit projects to enter the federal FTA New Starts/Small Starts transit grant programs. But there’s lots of unknowns and uncertainty about these federal funds with a new Trump Admin and a Republican Congress. In addition, the future of transportation is not costly rail systems.

The taxpayer funded public campaign to sell the transit projects will begin around September. The elephant in the room is that all the federal transit grant programs require a committed local long term funding source.

Where would the money come from?

From a multi-county regional tax to fund regional transit projects operated by the new TBARTA? Since Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco keep rejecting sales tax hikes, can we assume the next hat trick is to put a multi-county sales tax hike on the ballot?

From higher property tax rates? Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller is looking at raising HART’s ad valorem property tax millage rate. What does he want to fund? Would any of those new property tax dollars go to this new TBARTA regional transit entity?

The question no one is answering is where’s the funding for the new regional TBARTA operating entity coming from?

Note: In 2014, TBARTA passed a resolution to become a direct recipient for FTA federal funds. At the March 2015 TBARTA meeting the Eye attended, the 2015 Regional Master Plan was presented by Jacobs Engineering. The same Jacobs who did the Greenlight Pinellas boondoggle, was a subcontractor to Parsons Brinckerhoff on the Go Hillsborough debacle and is now working on the Regional Transit campaign. One thing Tampa Bay does very well is enrich the same transit consultants over and over and over.

But beware.

Michigan state legislature created the four county Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority (RTA) that includes Detroit in 2012. RTA used consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff and AEComm to create a regional transit plan (sound familiar). RTA put a 20 year, $4.6 Billion 1.2 mill tax proposal on the ballot last November and it was defeated.

While RTA was asking taxpayers for billions, the CEO of RTA Michael Ford claimed $37,000 in expenses, including airfare, luxury hotel rooms and out-of-town meals over 2½ years. Ford recently paid back $19,000 after the Detroit News submitted numerous public records requests and a review brought the expenses into the Sunshine. Where was the oversight?

In San Diego, SANDAG (San Diego Association of Governments), the entity that Commissioner Long modeled her proposed Tampa Bay Regional Council of Governments, put a half-cent 40 year sales tax hike on the ballot in November and it was defeated. (CA requires a 2/3 majority to pass)

Taxpayers are probably very glad it did not pass because now there’s a big scandal. Apparently SANDAG was deceiving the voters and taxpayers about how much revenue would be generated to pay for all the projects promised and understated the costs of those projects. An independent investigation is being demanded.

And it is no surprise there were allegations that SANDAG was illegally using public money to promote the sales tax hike plan. We have seen those tactics used in Tampa Bay.

The five counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area representing the regional Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) are discussing disbanding. CTIB, that levies a quarter cent sales tax and $20 vehicle excise tax, was created by the state legislature in 2008 by a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA). Each county would have to vote to dissolve the JPA to disband. Dakota County has already voted 6-1 to leave by 2019 because the county has received less funding from the coalition than it has paid in. Creating a regional transit entity thru a JPA – Sound familiar?

BART is under the umbrella of the nine county Metropolitan Transportation Commission in San Francisco. BART’s ridership is down while it’s costs are increasing that may result in a $25-35 million operating shortfall this year. While BART has spent billions of dollars on expanding transit, they neglected to put money aside for much needed maintenance.

BART put a $3.5 BILLION three county bond measure (debt) on the ballot last November that would use a property tax assessment to pay back the debt to pay for the neglected maintenance. It was approved with overwhelming support from San Francisco of course. But here is a scathing editorial from East Bay Times against the measure (click on the links in the article):

The ballot wording conveniently omits that the district would tax property owners for 48 years to pay off the debt.

These massive transit referendums use deception, dishonesty and half-truths to ram massive tax hikes through. We saw the same dishonesty and half-truths with Go Hillsborough, Greenlight Pinellas and the 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward rail tax.

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

The bigger the bureaucracy the more influence special interests will have and the less influence local voters and taxpayers will have. Regionalism makes it harder to oppose these huge regional tax hikes for costly boondoggles as deep pocketed special interest groups launch multi-million dollar regional advocacy campaigns.

The bigger the bureaucracy the greater the problem is for less accountability, less transparency and less oversight.

The bigger the bureaucracy the greater the opportunity for corruption and cronyism.

Look at the recent contract scandal with South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) that operates Tri-Rail. Governor Scott wants the controversial contract rescinded. State Senator Jeff Brandes raised his concerns. State senator George Gainer filed bill SB1118 that would strip Tri-Rail of state funding unless its board  rescinds a controversial $511 million contract, and it requires state approval of future contracts. Note: all Florida taxpayers bail out Tri-Rail every year with tens of millions of state tax dollars.

Bigger regional bureaucracies just get bigger, more arrogant and more powerful especially over time.

Regionalizing decision making has led to increased taxes and more government spending everywhere it is implemented.

Our elected officials in Tampa Bay already work together across county lines. We do not need a new regional transit operating entity for them to do so. They need to do their jobs, not give up local control.

Tampa Bay does not need a regional transit bureaucracy placed an arms length from voters and taxpayers.

We need more honest and more accountable government that better utilizes our existing growing revenues on our highest priorities not ploys to fund bigger government entities.

We need better government not bigger government.

The senate bill may muster through with Latvala’s arm twisting, but we hope the House bill goes nowhere and dies under Speaker Corcoran.

Time to Kill these Bills Now!

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