Hillsborough’s Rail Referendum – It looks like we'll still be stuck with the same bad growth habits

By George Niemann

PoHo contributor and R-LAND, UCAN, Amendment 4 activist

Views expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the organizations to which I belong

Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the county’s leading proponent of the pending 2010 rail referendum, has written an opinion piece in the Tampa Tribune that really needs a response from those of us that still have serious concerns about the transportation package that’s being offered.

Let’s look at the case he tries to make (quotes from his opinion piece are below, followed by my responses) and see if it begins to answer the tough questions that many of us have.

“One erroneous e-mail suggested the cost is over $400 per family. The actual estimate is $140 - or $85 per person, which is dwarfed by the costs of rising fuel prices”

Working families would certainly pay more than the county’s estimate of $140 per year. Do the math, it’s simple. Using a low estimate of a family earning $50K, if they took home $40K and half was spent on taxable items, it would amount to $200. What he forgets to tell you is that you will start paying the rail tax right away, but will not see rail for many, many years. How long will you wait? Will you still be alive when that first train rolls down the track?

Take a look at the proposed deployment schedule:

Line #1 – Downtown Tampa to USF – scheduled for 2020 (the wait will be 10 yrs)

Line #2 – Downtown Tampa to Airport – scheduled for 2025 (15 year wait)

Line #3 – USF to Wesley Chapel (county line) – scheduled for 2030 (20 year wait)

Line #4 – Downtown Tampa to South Tampa – scheduled for 2035 (25 year wait)

Line #5 – Downtown Tampa to Brandon – scheduled for 2035 (25 year wait)

Wanna talk about a high cost? The cost of building rail in Tampa will be approximately $70M+ per mile (per Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Org). So, get ready for this …are you sitting down…Line # 5 to Brandon (13.5 miles @ $70M per mile) will cost us almost $1 Billion!!! Do you still feel like paying for 25 years before you can step onto that Brandon trolley?

“The referendum on rail transit and other transportation needs allows the voters to finally address our congestion issues”

That statement is not true for one reason. It does not fix the root cause of our current transportation problems. The root cause of our problem is the fact that our current commission and previous commissions approved growth without infrastructure. For years our commissions allowed growth to run wild without obtaining adequate funding for the needed augmentation of roads, schools, fire, safety and water from those that overbuilt Hillsborough.

Has this commission learned their ways? Commissioner Sharpe has admitted that they screwed up by approving growth in record numbers without giving a damn about infrastructure, but what about the rest of them? None of them are on board when it comes to admitting to the problem they’ve created. Even Sharpe, who now admits they were wrong for letting developers off the hook for the needed infrastructure, still hasn’t made any commitments about new development paying for itself. His colleagues, like Commissioner Norman, still want to waive all impact fees for his developer/campaign financiers (he sticks up for them by crying, “hey folks they’re dying out there”). The root cause is still there. If we go forward without charging for the true cost of growth as its being built, we will be back in the same boat in another 10 years. This commission hasn’t acknowledged the evil of their ways. They believe that existing residents should pay for growth, not the developer. With that approach they will keep coming back for more tax money because they plan to keep the growth machine going, once the market comes back.

Hillsborough County Planning Commission has done an analysis called the Fiscal Impact Estimates of Land Development, otherwise known as the FIELD Model. This analysis looks in detail at the cost of growth. According to the FIELD Model, for every dwelling that’s built in this county, we incur a deficit of $11,000+ in providing the infrastructure needed to supply services for those new residents.

We’re kidding ourselves if we think the introduction of light rail will allow us to continue the bad habit of unchecked, budget-negative growth.

“We must provide some alternatives to people who now spend on average $2,100 per year to pay for gas - with an $800 jump each time fuel prices increase $1”

You are not providing an alternative to people who drive today. The overwhelming majority will continue to drive their vehicles as they currently do, even with gas prices fluctuating. What you will be doing, however, is forcing them to pay for both the use of their cars and the cost of building a rail network that most will never use. In addition, the introduction of rail will inevitably raise the cost of auto usage in higher fees (gas tax, tolls, etc), regardless of what happens to the price per barrel of crude oil. So, instead of just one monkey on our backs, we'll have two.

“People with options will not ride a system that performs like a social welfare program, but they will ride one that has enough fleet units to reduce wait time at our stops and takes you where you need to go rapidly. It is a no-brainer”

A very, very small percentage of our 1.2M population will end up riding buses. That’s the reality. With the exception of the city of Tampa, our population is spread out across the entire county, based on the sprawl recipe that our commission let the developers dictate for decades (and still do). It is disingenuous to suggest that this geographically dispersed population is going to take a bus to Publix, the post office, or wherever. And it is so unfair to push this high cost alternative on everyone, when only a handful will ever use it.

“Our solution brings $1.2 billion back in fare box money. The "do-nothing" argument brings us nothing”

$1.2B in fare box money? I’m not sure where that number comes from but, in any case, it doesn’t really matter what the fare box generates. It always costs more to run a transit system than you could ever collect in fares. What voters need to realize is that even in best case scenarios, the ridership fares might only cover 50% of the operational cost, and that’s if you have a high volume of ridership. If ridership volumes are low (which I suspect will always be the case in Hillsborough) the fare will cover only a fraction of the cost. So you can expect that once it’s up and running they’ll be back to get more taxes to cover the cost of running it. Unfortunately, this 1% tax is just the start of it.

“The cities I have named all are reaping billions in transit-oriented development (approximately $6 for every $1 invested in transit)”

Oh good, just what we needed, more development. The artificially low fees charged for building in Hillsborough creates an ever-increasing deficit, as referenced in the FIELD model above. Other cities may have instituted budget-neutral growth, but here in Hillsborough we still follow the dictates of the development powerbrokers. God forbid we generate billions more in development because our sales tax will end up higher than our federal income taxl!!! Don’t forget, under the existing formula used by our BOCC, the more we grow, the more it costs existing residents.

“Twenty-five percent of the money from this referendum will go to address our road problems (about $40 million to $50 million a year) and will be paid by everyone, including tourists”

Why should we pay for road expansions that are the result of overdevelopment? That funding should still come from the for-profit companies that built all of the huge subdivisions. Our commission conveniently forgot to tell the voters that part of this tax will be used to subsidize road expansions that the county’s largest developers (including Newland Industries - FishHawk and Lake Hutto) already agreed to provide, but now don't want to pay for. Instead of taxing us, the county should be handing the bill to sprawl-creators like Newland Industries. After all, they created the traffic problems by not providing the road expansions commensurate with building those huge subdivisions.

Another thing not mentioned by the county is the potential loss of business as a result of having the highest sales tax in the state. When people buy consumer products, particularly bigger ticket items, they will end up going to Polk, Manatee, Pinellas or Pasco to get a lower sales tax. In this economy many of our businesses can’t afford to lose even a small percentage of business. This is going to hurt Hillsborough’s “main street” businesses.

Trying to deal with this set of commissioners is like having six teenage sons and one daughter, and we are the parents. The transportation solution being offered is similar to what happens when teenagers don’t act responsibly and their parents are stuck with the problem. It’s the equivalent of us learning that our seven teenagers got drunk and as a result they wrecked their car. Of course, they want us to buy them a new car because, in the end, we pay for everything. When we ask them not to drink and drive they refuse to commit. After all, they say, all their friends do it and they don’t want to be bogged down with a whole bunch of commitments.

So, do we break down and buy them that new car in spite of their refusal to act responsibly?

I don’t know about you, but I think we need to tell our commissioner sons and daughter, Mark, Jimmy, Allie-Boy, Kenny, Rosie, Kevin-Cain, and Kevin-Abel that we’re not buying them anything until they learn how to behave.

Scroll to read more News Feature articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.