By Mark Calvert, from Eye on Tampa Bay
The All for Transportation transit referendum, which if passed will make Hillsborough County the highest sales tax county in Florida, contains a plan short on specifics, flexibility, and roads.
AFT fails to consider much outside the downtown core of incorporated Tampa. While the regressive tax will hurt low-income families and retirees, the main beneficiaries will include developer Jeff Vinik, other real estate interests, bond attorneys, and engineering firms.
AFT’s pitch last week at a weekly Tampa civic function asked more questions than it answered.
Question: The question is really about how can this plan fund new roads? And why is there not a section that spends X amount of dollars on new roads?
AFT: There’s not. The county is spending $600 million for new roads. They have a plan for that. Today 20 percent of this plan can go to fund new roads where we need them. That’s about $1 billion more if you vote yes for this plan for new roads than if you vote no.
An important distinction here is that new roads are not the only way to reduce traffic. With this plan, 68% of the road money can go to reducing traffic, that is new roads, new lanes, that is turn lanes, light timings, and accident reduction.
AFT finally acknowledged publicly for the first time there are no dedicated funds in its plan to address new road capacity.
Secondly, the statement “20% of this plan can go to fund new roads where we need them” is not supported by any text in the amendment language. The only portion of the amendment that mentions 20 percent is from the General Purpose portion of the amendment 11.07(1):
(1) Maintenance and Vulnerability Reduction. At least twenty percent (20%) of the General Purpose Portion shall be expended on projects that: (i) improve, repair and maintain existing streets, roads, and bridges, including fixing potholes, or (ii) reduce congestion and transportation vulnerabilities.
The charter amendment sections 11.07(2) deals with congestion reduction at 26% of the General Purpose portion, 11.07(3) is specific to safety at 27%, 11.07(4) “network”, or bike and pedestrian at 12% and 11.07(5) Remaining funds, at 15%.
These are among the sections in the charter amendment specifically excluded by 11.07(8):
(8) Limits on New Automobile Lane Capacity. Agencies are prohibited from expending any funds from the categories mandated by Section 11.07(1), (2) and (3) above on New Automobile Lane Capacity. For purposes of this Section 11.07(8), “New Automobile Lane Capacity” means projects that consist of (i) adding additional lanes for automobile traffic to existing roads or streets that are not related to intersection capacity improvement, or (ii) constructing new roads or streets.
It’s rather clear in their own ballot language, despite what AFT says, there is no way that 20% of the money can be used for “new roads where we need them.” AFT tries to have it both ways in suggesting some new turn lanes and light timings will help “reduce traffic”.
Those help on the margin on select intersection improvements, but will be practically meaningless to reduce traffic with another 700,000 new residents, or a 50% population increase in Hillsborough County. That “$1 billion more if you vote yes for this plan for new roads than if you vote no” will never happen.
Likewise, the statement “68% of the road money can go to reducing traffic, that is new roads, new lanes, that is turn lanes, light timings, and accident reduction” is misleading. The 68% appears to be the sum of the 11.07(2,3,5) categories – Congestion reduction, Safety, and Remaining funds. However, as stated above, 11.07(2-3) are explicitly excluded from funding new capacity. They are trying to have it both ways with some redefinition of “reducing traffic” equating to increased capacity.
AFT uses a similar tactic when it asserts Hillsborough “is spending $600 million on new roads”, when much of the tax increase pitch advocates the county did not have enough money to properly fund transportation. The $600 million is likely a reference to the Hillsborough County Commission’s 10-year road project plan from 2016, which went into effect fiscal year 2017. However, this 10-year plan addressed more than roads, including sidewalks and right-of-way acquisitions.
Unfortunately, this county transportation plan is not much more than a budget shell game, as there was no ordinance passed. So any future county commission can change this spending on a whim to anything else they may want. Or they may simply remove this plan, since a future BOCC may be “anti-road radicals”, or believe the AFT plan covers new road capacity, which AFT keeps deceptively touting.
Question: The question is, Tallahassee often plays a shell game with money, funding one project, then using if for another. How do we ensure that does not happen with the AFT scheme?
AFT: This plan was designed precisely so that does not happen…. It is in the governing documents of the county, so there is no ability for any politician, whether we have some radical anti-road county commission or some radical anti-transit city council or whatever down the road, this future proofs it.
This “future proofing” only ensures politicians, or you, can’t change the plan. Your elected representatives are practically removed from the plan. We elect politicians, as imperfect as they are, to represent our interests. Those interests and our elected representatives will change over time, especially over 30 years.
Transportation will change dramatically in 30 years. The AFT plan has been engineered to be extremely difficult to change — requiring a 75% super super majority of the unelected Independent Oversight Committee, not your elected representatives. Section 11.07(9) states:
(9) Reallocation of Expenditure Categories. Upon request by an Agency, which request must be approved by seventy- five percent (75%) of the Independent Oversight Committee, the General Purpose Portion expenditure allocations mandated in Sections 11.07(1) through (3) above may instead be expended on any project to improve transportation within such Agency’s jurisdiction to the extent permitted by F.S § 212.055(1) and this Article if, in the opinion of the requesting Agency, any of the percentages set forth in Sections 11.07(1) through (3) exceed the amounts required to fulfill the purpose set forth therein.
Note THIS ONLY APPLIES TO THE 11.07 GENERAL PURPOSE PORTION OF THE PLAN. Transit portion 11.08, with an estimated $7 billion over 30 years, cannot be changed at all! It certainly commits the taxpayers of Hillsborough County to billions on transit, regardless of its effectiveness, regardless of the economy, regardless of newer and better technologies.
The only thing worse than politicians representing our interests is an unelected, unaccountable new bureaucracy making decisions how to spend $16 billion.
Question: How can we ensure that the African-American community will have representation on the Oversight Committee?
AFT: The answer is, we are not politicians. We are putting forth a plan to hold politicians accountable….and the way to get good people on the committee is working together. … Getting them on the committee is calling them now, and demanding that now. … By having a stake in what we are doing right now, in passing this plan, and providing solutions to every neighborhood in Hillsborough County, when it’s time to pick those committee members, we’re there to knock on their doors, ensure they are diverse, they are representative of the county and have the best interests of Hillsborough County in mind.
The truth is, identity diversity is pretty much excluded by the language in the amendment. From the charter amendment section 11.10:
Section 11.10. Independent Oversight Committee. To ensure that the Transportation Surtax is successfully implemented, independent oversight of the distribution and expenditure of the Surtax Proceeds shall be provided by an Independent Oversight Committee, which shall be composed of Hillsborough County residents appointed by the following bodies: (i) four (4) individuals appointed by the board of county commissioners, and of which two are Experts (as defined below) in either transportation, planning, sustainability, engineering, or construction; (ii) one (1) from each Municipality, appointed by the mayor thereof; (iii) one (1) additional member from each Municipality for each 200,000 residents in such Municipality, appointed by the legislative body of that Municipality, based on population estimates published annually by the State of Florida; (iv) two (2) from HART, appointed by the HART board of directors; (v) one (1) attorney, who is a member by the Florida Bar, appointed by the Clerk; (vi) one (1) land use or real estate Expert appointed by the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser; and (vii) one (1) certified public accountant appointed by the Hillsborough County Tax Collector. No person then currently serving as an elected or appointed city, county, special district, state, or federal public office holder shall be eligible to serve as a member of the Independent Oversight Committee. Additionally, no member of the Independent Oversight Committee may be an employee of, independent contractor of, or otherwise be materially engaged for remuneration by any public or private recipient of Surtax Proceeds.
The short version is the Independent Oversight Committee members will be appointed by politicians, yet many of the appointees must meet specific technical expertise criteria creating a small pool of candidates. Committee members also must not serve in any other civic capacity, and commit to an unspecified amount of unpaid time over three years to oversee the spending of an estimated $16 billion dollars over 30 years. In other words, they likely will not be very representative of the community.
The Independent Oversight Committee is totally unaccountable to anyone in any community. The residents of Hillsborough have no recourse to take against any members of the oversight committee. The members of the oversight committee “serve at the pleasure or the appointing body”. That is, they serve the politicians, not the community.
Given the over $2 million and growing, from extremely rich downtown Tampa special interests funding the AFT campaign, who do you think will be seeking to further influence the makeup of this committee?
Another discussion was regarding the 30 years of the plan, and its impact on congestion illustrates the lack of depth on the issue.
Question: This gives all the money that the state allows us to levy in a sales tax for transportation, and puts it in the charter, so that it can’t be changed for 30 years, no matter what happens. Then on top of that, you’re telling people, congestion is going to be reduced. What evidence or metrics does AFT have?
AFT: We have 700,000 people moving into Hillsborough County in the next 30 years. If we do not do something, this is the best it will ever going to get. We have an opportunity to fix it. We have the opportunity to save lives. To save money. The cost of doing nothing will be higher than the cost of doing something. And we have the opportunity to ensure that traffic does not get worse over the next 10 to 20 years that we let everything go, and choke on our own growth. A $9 billion backlog means we are already behind. We are the fourth largest county We are 62 of 67 counties in transportation spending… We are the fourth largest county and we are growing. It’s not enough to maintain our growth. We want to have a good quality of life. We want to provide people options. We want safer streets. These priorities today will be the same in 30 years from now. This plan allows flexibility, so we can address them in different ways. But it keeps priorities the same. If voters want to change the plan, they can change it. But the politicians can’t change it.
This was some pretty evasive word salad. AFT clearly never addressed the question regarding congestion impacts. They addressed the concern of locking Hillsborough in to a maximum tax rate for 30 years by “we have to do something”, and do it now, and we are the chosen ones.
We are as concerned as anyone with the poorly managed and lack of investment in transportation, especially roads, as Hillsborough will continue to grow. But forecasting the “priorities today will be the same as 30 years from now” is the definition of arrogance. The only way for anyone outside the oversight committee to change the plan is to repeal the plan.
Handcuffing our elected representatives from adapting to whatever the future may bring, because a group of self-appointed transit activists have decided they must take control, is far from the answer the citizens of Hillsborough really need.
AFT assumes the future is static. It has designed a plan that locks in nine spending categories for over 30 years, with minimal ability to adapt the plan to changing reality.
Only the General Purpose portion of the plan as stated in 11.07(9) may be changed with a 75% super majority of the Independent Oversight Committee. The allocations for the Transit Restricted Portion cannot be changed at all. The only way to change them is through repealing the charter amendment.
When transit is dying across the country, and new technologies are on the horizon, the economy will have ups and downs, 30 years is a long time to bet against the future.
AFT’s enemy is the future. The future will not be kind to AFT, nor the citizens in Hillsborough, nor the proponents of the plan.