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Tampa Bay Tea Party transit critics get their say at forum

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Whatever adjective(s) you may wish to use to describe Sharon Calvert, Tom Rask and Barb Haselden, “effective” has to be one of them.

The three Tea Party-aligned citizen activists have led the opposition to the two major public transit initiatives that have gone down to defeat over the past seven years, and contributed strongly to a third never making it to the ballot in Hillsborough County in 2016 (they also proudly add the failed referendums in Polk County in 2010 and 2014, as well).

The facts are well known, but just a reminder:

In 2010, the one-cent sales tax referendum known as Go Hillsborough lost by a 58%-42% margin in Hillsborough County.

In 2014, the one-cent sales tax referendum known as Greenlight Pinellas in Pinellas County did even poorer, losing 62%-38% at the polls.

In 2016, what might have been a half-cent sales tax referendum known as Go Hillsborough got mired in ethics issues and never even made it to the ballot, after Hillsborough County Commissioners twice rejected putting it there on 4-3 votes.

Calvert, Rask and Haselden were the invited speakers at Friday’s Cafe Con Tampa lecture series at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa, where they faced a large crowd, many of whom come from the Tampa/Hillsborough County business and political establishment that wish those ballot initiatives had passed in one form or another (though the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee sent out an email alerting their members about the meeting).

While critics say you can’t build enough roads to handle the transportation needs of the Tampa Bay region, all three speakers were unified in saying that they support putting money in roads, first and foremost.

Referring to how to lighten the gridlock on the Howard Frankland Bridge, Haselden asked the audience, “Is the solution more public transportation? Or is the solution re-doing the road? So we widen the roads.”

Calvert and Haselden also said they both support the FDOT’s multi-billion dollar Tampa Bay Express toll lanes project, which is extremely unpopular in some parts of Tampa.

All three speakers also talked about trust in believing their local officials, or to be more accurate, their lack of trust.

“My transit agency (PSTA) – I don’t trust them. I don’t trust the board,” said Rask.

With a college degree in finance, Calvert said that numbers “have to make sense to me,” and in her opinion, there has not been an honest explanation about the fiscal scenarios laid out in the Hillsborough initiatives in 2010 and 2016. She later said that if she ever would support a transit referendum, it should only extend ten years out, and not thirty, as both Hillsborough initiatives would have been.

“I’m not anti-transit. I’m cost-effective transit,” Calvert said about her general philosophy on using public monies for major transportation projects.

Not only did she play a leading role in ensuring that Go Hillsborough never made it to the ballot in 2016, Calvert is now expressing concerns about the much heralded “premium transit” study that the Florida Dept. of Transportation is funding and that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) will conduct that will look at various options, including bus rapid transit, light rail and commuter rail. She says she has attended the public meetings about the study, and sees basically the same people talking to each other, while shutting out an organization like the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) out of USF.  She says more entrepreneurs need to be invited to the discussion.

One area where Calvert is enthusiastic about the future of public transportation is when it comes to the use of autonomous vehicles, where Florida is actually ahead of the curve compared to the rest of the nation in creating the regulatory framework for that technology to begin happening relatively soon.

Haselden worked against Greenlight Pinellas in 2014. She says that the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) should rely on providing essential bus service for those who need it, and stop vying to get “choice riders” to ditch their cars, because “it’s not going to happen.”

Although branded as the three transit critics were coming into hostile territory, there was mostly positive vibes expressed from the members of the audience for the speakers coming to the forum. However, there were also criticism about not presenting alternatives  to fixing the region’s huge transportation problems.

Rask disagreed with the notion that the region is 20 years behind because of a lack of a viable public transit system.

“I think we’re ahead by not wasting money on these public transit projects,” he said, eliciting some groans from the crowd.

There has been considerable concern amongst the Tea Party crowd of a creeping referendum coming from the new HART-PSTA Memorandum of Understanding, something officials with those transit agencies strongly deny.

Tampa City Council Chairman Mike Suarez said that just because the voters have rejected referendums in the past, doesn’t mean they don’t want the option of having one in the future. “Saying that you can’t  have another election because it’s already been defeated I think is the weakest part of their argument,” he said.

Suarez then asked if they would support having the Legislature approve a law that would allow some of Florida’s cities (like St. Petersburg and Tampa) to put their own referendums on the ballot. This has been a hobbyhorse for locally elected officials in the Tampa Bay area, frustrated at losing referendums at the country level, while they have performed much better in the cities. While Rask and Calvert said they didn’t necessarily have a problem with it, local GOP Bay area lawmakers have expressed repeatedly that they have no interest in doing so.

At the end of the discussion, Tampa resident Sandy Reif told the three speakers that all he had heard was a negative message.

“I don’t think you’ve offered a solution to anything,” he said with disdain.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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