Light Rail is a 19th century answer to a 21st century concern. At a time when the public’s distrust of their elected officials is at an all time high, I feel it is important to include Pinellas residents, elected officials and transportation experts in a thorough discussion on all the options available to address the county’s transportation needs. Governor Scott’s veto of House Bill 865 serves as a jumping off point to restart the conversation.
First we should ask, who is asking for light rail? According to polling commissioned by the Pinellas County Transportation Task Force it would appear the answer is no one. The poll of likely voters showed the support for Transit expansion is soft in Pinellas County and that an overwhelming 96% of the likely voters who would decide on the tax increase do not even use PSTA’s services. Armed with these results PSTA now attempts to rebrand a tax increase into a tax swap, place the referendum on an off year municipal election ballot to depress turn-out and spend $300,000 of tax payer money to do so. Such a tax increase would hoist onto Pinellas County citizens a $100 million dollar tax increase. A tax increase of such magnitude will make Pinellas businesses less competitive and give us the highest sales tax in the state of Florida. I feel strongly this is yet another example of government telling the taxpayer what they need instead of the other way around.
America’s taxpayers too often pay the tab on expensive and ill conceived projects by transportation authorities determined to expand light rail. Here in our state, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (Tri-Rail) spent $53 million operating commuter-line rail service and collected fares totaling only $9 million. Despite bleeding red, Tri-Rail spent nearly $1 billion on capital improvements to double- track 71 miles of rail line and promised to attract 30,000 new riders with such improvements. The results were that just over 13,000 weekday riders used the train in 2008 which was an increase of less than 3,000 more users than pre-expansion numbers in 1994. Thus, Tri-Rail spent approximately $330,000 for each new rider it attracted. With that sort of money we can buy each rider a lifetime supply of Pruis automobiles.
So what is the answer? The conversation must include a thoroughly vetted discussion that includes all options for mass transit for the region. The 21st century has been marked by our ability to be increasingly flexible due to the innovation of technology. Approving a fixed line rail system with no flexibility to adjust to urban density growth patterns or new areas of interest is like asking us to give up our Smart phones, tablets and laptops for land lines, phone booths and the telegraph. The discussion must include new innovations in busing such as the new-model bus companies that have made intercity buses more efficient and cheaper than Amtrak in the Northeastern US. Increased use of fuel efficient bus models that are organized on a flex-schedule model that puts the buses where they are needed most during the day. The installation of Traffic Information systems that improve the coordination of stop lights to improve automobile traffic flow as well as innovative ways to use dedicated lanes for peak rush hour. And yes, improved automated automobile technology that will revolutionize the use of the automobile.
In the end, voters should have a choice. However, the choice should be made through the prism of a thoroughly vetted pathway where all transportation options have been explored. Not a decision made by unelected bureaucrats who use tax payer funded sleight of hand methods to impose a narrowly focused and inflexible plan upon our citizens. I stand ready to get the discussion jump started and I look forward to the ride.