Group organizes forum to defeat preposterous plan to build light rail in Pinellas

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Pinellas County’s proposal to bring light rail to the community to solve traffic gridlock is under attack by those who believe more efficient and less expensive solutions exist. Specifically, South Pinellas 912 raised serious concerns at a forum they hosted in Feather Sound last weekend.

Specific concerns include predicted poor ridership, large construction and maintenance costs and heavy federal government subsidies.

Barbara Haselden, South Pinellas 912 organizer, said that they spent a lot of time and money to bring in national speakers who have experience with transit in areas that Pinellas officials have made reference to in its discussions.

Randal O’Toole, an author and an analyst of growth, land and transportation issues and a senior fellow for the Cato Institute, had harsh words to say about transit operations in is hometown, Portland, Oregon.

“They have subsidized light rail to the tune of $4 billion in counting,” said O’Toole. “The costs are going up and they are spending more and more on each new rail line as it comes out.”

Portland’s first transit line cost $15 million a mile. The second cost $55 million a mile, O’Toole said. Continuing, “They are building one now that costs $205 million a mile.”

In one example, O’Toole reported that Portland has a commuter train that costs 60 percent more than predicted and ridership is very low.

 A common argument in support of light rail cites the popular light rail system in Europe. O’Toole spouted off statistics that would dispel that myth, saying that the average American rides rail transit 96 miles a year. The average European rides rails transit 108 miles a year.

“They have four times as many trains yet they only ride it 10 percent more than we do,” O’Toole said.

Ed Braddy, executive director of the American Dream Coalition and former Gainesville city commissioner, said that leaders need to look to the future.

“The most … maddening thing is this routine claim that rail transit is the future. Folks, it’s the past,” he said.

Instead, Braddy recommends the use of one-way street conversions and hot lanes with high occupancy tolling among other mobility tools.

“You can build your way out of congestion,” he said. “Maryland’s inter-county connector is electronic tolling so you don’t have to stop.” Braddy claims that this has reduced the daily commute by half.

He compared this Hillsborough County’s Selmon Crosstown Exressway that has reversible lanes, electronic tolling and is financed 100 percent with user fees. Braddy emphasized, “It’s elevated in the medians so there wasn’t eminent domain.”

State Representative Jeff Brandes participated in the conversation via Skype. Brandes said that he was working to stop light rail in Pinellas County and encouraged the organization to stay involved. He called it “a boondoggle program.”

Haselden said that her group members have been regularly attending county meetings on transit planning. Likewise, county officials were invited to the meeting at Feather Sound, and attendees included Pinellas County Commissioners Nancy Bostock, Norm Roche and Neil Brickfield and Largo City Commissioner Curtis Holmes.

While South Pinellas 912 was able to find national experts who oppose light rail, they also found some very local and very important opponents—local business owners with businesses that lie along the exact route the proposed rail would travel.

Alarmingly, among 279 businesses surveyed by Pinellas 912 in mid-April, Haselden reports that most were very upset and “essentially no one had heard of the rail plans.”

Specifically, she reported, “One in 31 supported the rail when we told them of the plans or 2.5 percent. Again, we went to 279 businesses.”

Haselden made a comment that the county’s bus system is headed for insolvency in the next few years.

Yet, according to PSTA spokesman Bob Lasher, he said, “PSTA is in no way heading toward ‘insolvency.’”

Tampa Bay Newspapers Online reports:

“[Lasher] said PSTA developed a plan that provides the agency several years of time while it uses new revenues from four different types of fare adjustments over the past three years, draws down on its reserves, takes advantage of substantially increased advertising revenue, saves resources through competitive contracting for higher-cost paratransit services and maintains a reduced level of bus routes, which were previously cut by about 8 percent.

“This time is needed to develop PSTA’s longer term plans including identification of a sustainable set of revenues,” Lasher said. “We will, as we always have every year, develop a balanced budget each year and will not become insolvent.”

Regarding Braddy’s remarks that rail transit is the way of the past, Lasher said “around the U.S., when coupled with strong supporting bus networks, city after city take advantage of modern rail transit’s ability to efficiently carry high numbers of residents, tourists, and workers throughout their communities. Pinellas County’s future will be tied to transportation solutions that can accommodate efficient, sustainable growth where there is almost no room for additional roads or low density development.”

“What could be better for the future of a county – where there is almost no room for additional roads – than a modern, enhanced transit system that cuts pollution, cuts our dependence on foreign oil, encourages economic development and gives us the freedom of not needing a car when we want to go somewhere? That is an appropriate question for the citizens of Pinellas County to consider,” he said.

He also said that Pinellas has little room for new roads, whether they be toll lanes or typical taxpayer funded roads.

Opponents of light rail are outspoken against proposals for a 1 cent sales tax to finance Pinellas transit improvements. In fact, several people at the meeting had signs that read, “no tax for trax” on their vehicles.

The proposed sales tax increase is under consideration along with other funding sources such as a 50 percent local funding commitment financed over 30 years. Pinellas is exploring federal, state and public-private partnerships as part of a plan to cover the remaining project costs.

Though elected officials were present during this meeting, no ewer asked to give a presentation to provide another perspective. According to Haselden, she said that the agencies’ position on transit has been heard, and now South Pinellas 912 wanted to present its side.

Via Daphne Taylor Street. You can reach Daphne at dts.streetmedia@gmail.com

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.