As officials with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) laid out their preliminary budget and Transit Development Plan (TDP) on Monday, a couple of board members (once again) expressed frustration with the agency’s lack of access to key lawmakers who could help them obtain more funding from either Tallahassee or Washington, D.C.
The recommended FY 2016 budget includes operating expenditures of over $69 million and capital expenditures of just over $12 million. The plan calls for a a 2.1 percent increase in revenue hours, as well as purchasing 14 new buses, one year ahead of schedule.
But while reviewing some of the line-item price increases such as printing costs, board member Kathleen Shanahan became unhappy, calling some of them “outrageous.”
That led HART Chairman Mike Suarez to attempt to explain to Shanahan that some increases were just the cost of doing business. A commercial insurance executive in his daytime job, Suarez said that he’s heard similar complaints when he makes a presentation to a firm telling them that their insurance rates are going to go up 20 percent.
“We have to follow federal rules based on where you put buses on the roads, we have to do these TDPs. I understand what you’re saying,” Suarez said to Shanahan. “I do think the perspective is, if we’re putting more service out there, there’s going to be a corresponding cost to that.”
But Shanahan pushed back, quoting a Wall Street Journal story that says that 97 percent of the public has access to mobile technology. Why were printing costs going up so much? She inquired. She said if it was a federal requirement, where were HART’s lobbyists in Washington working to lessen that regulation? “Who’s asking that?” she demanded to know.
“We need to get more aggressive,” Hillsborough County Commission Chair Sandy Murman chimed in. Referring to Tampa Port Director Paul Anderson‘s efforts in meeting with members of Congress, Murman said that HART needed to increase its communications with people in power.
“Paul Anderson’s constantly meeting with (U.S. Rep.) Mario Diaz-Balart,” she said. “Constantly. Chewing on him about what the needs of the Port are. We need to be doing that very same thing. He can get us what we need. But we have to develop those relationships, we’re just going to have to take, and get what we can get.”
At the conclusion of the meeting, board member Karen Jaroch said one solution to the logjam regarding federal funding is to take another look at how local transit agencies receive such funds, and she said the answer was the Transportation Empowerment Act, a bill that the group that she works for, Heritage Action, also strongly supports. Though no vote was taken from board members, it’s hard to see if there would be much support for the act.
That legislation would devolve the federal gas tax rate from 18.4 cents (which has been at the same rate since 1993) down to 3.7 cents per gallon for gas. At the same time, federal programs such as subway, bus and bicycle programs would end, with authority and accountability returning to the states. Those states would have the option of raising fuel taxes or other avenue to raise revenues.
“We’re a big donor state,” Jaroch told her colleagues. “We’ve got to do a paradigm shift. Money’s not going to be there from the feds and we free the shackles of the streams that we have to replace… and grow this agency without having to raise taxes.”
It’s the second time that she’s raised the issue since she began serving on the HART board in 2011. Chairman Mike Suarez agreed that Florida is a donor state, but didn’t touch on the merits of the Transportation Empowerment Act.
One very sad note to end the day: Suarez announced that Anne Madden, who served on board from October of 2011 to last summer when she was replaced by County Commissioner Les Miller, had passed away from ovarian cancer.