Transportation Experts Slam Hillsborough Light Rail Plans, Higher Sales Tax


A group of nationally recognized transportation experts lambasted a Hillsborough County special interest referendum Saturday, calling for a 1 percent sales tax increase to finance a mish mosh of transit options including an obsolete light rail system.

Four panel discussions with 10 speakers were featured at a daylong forum sponsored by the American Dream Coalition.

Transit ridership is declining in just about every urban area in the country, but “planners” continue to use outmoded models to predict future needs, declared Randal O’Toole, noted transportation expert from the Cato Institute. Tampa-St. Pete is no exception, he said, pointing out:

  • Tampa Bay urban area:  10 minutes by car to reach workplace compared to 60 minutes transit.
  • SF-Oakland: 30 minutes by car vs. 60 minutes transit.
  • There are 30,000 jobs in downtown Tampa vs. 300,000 in SF-Oakland.
  • 2.8 percent of Tampa Bay’s population have no cars. Eighteen percent of that group uses public transit. Despite this, Hillsborough County uses 40 percent of its transportation allocation for public transit.
  • Fastest growth of transit passengers is the group earning 75K and up.

O’Toole noted that ride sharing is killing traditional public transit, with 700 million more ride-sharing trips in 2017 than 2015. Efforts by local government to tax Uber and Lyft to bail out obsolete taxi companies and other forms of transit failed miserably.

The driverless car revolution looms as a huge transportation player, O’Toole went on, explaining that it has proven to be far more reliable than humans behind the wheel.

Roads will be far less congested, even if by only an ultra-conservative projection of 5 percent, he said. More than 50 companies are researching Automated Driving Systems (ADS).

He predicted that by 2030, transit organizations will be zombie agencies, existing only to pay off debt and pension obligations.

Marc Scribner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, elaborated on the advantages of ADS. Future impacts of the new technology include:

  • Increased safety
  • Increased accessibility for non-drivers
  • Reduced cost of taxi-style services
  • Reduced demand for off-street parking
  • Increased demand for curbside loading areas

”Anyone talking about light rail networks in 2018 is not being a good steward of the public purse,” Scribner said.

Chris Spencer, government consultant for GrayRobinson, enumerated the disruptions ADS will cause:  far fewer visits to trauma centers, less need for automobile insurance, and less government revenues from traffic violations.

Entrenched interests, including red light camera companies — a pet program of Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn — will need to deal with the new paradigm.

Tampanian Jim Davison reviewed his 30-year transportation plan with virtually no new taxes. It had been presented to the Hillsborough County Commission in April.

Davison’s plan consists of five separate revenue sources totaling $8.468 billion, over the next 25 years. About $6.2 billion goes toward transportation, but the unique thing about this plan is that for its last 20 years, there is no increase in the property tax millage or sales tax rate. There is a small increase of .25 percent in the sales tax for the first six years until 2026, and then the sales tax returns to its current 7 percent.

The special interest, 8 percent sales tax proposal over 30 years, Davison asserted, is an attack on unincorporated areas and Hillsborough County’s smaller cities. Tampa reaps the benefits with 27 percent of the county population siphoning 53 percent of the tax receipts.

A copy of the alternate plan was sent to several editorial employees of the Tampa Bay Times.  The paper never published a word about it.

More than 50 citizens attended the eye-opening session including two local political candidates: Barb Haselden, District 6, Pinellas County Commission; and Terry Power, primary challenger against House District 64 incumbent Jamie Grant.

Despite being held at an easy-to-reach epicenter of the Tampa metro area — the Holiday Inn near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport — the forum was notable for those who didn’t attend.

Absent: the willfully ignorant including every incumbent political officeholder in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties as well as representatives of the mainstream local media that have been propagandizing for the regressive sales tax to support technologically obsolete light rail.

Overextended, rapacious developers and special interests view light rail as a windfall that will be financed by a sales tax and burden low and middle income families and fixed income retirees.

The sales tax referendum is being heavily promoted by former hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik whose downtown Tampa development is in deep financial trouble.  He virtually owns the equally economically challenged Tampa Bay Times, which has conspicuously promoted light rail in downtown Tampa while withholding publication of its enormous drawbacks.

Vinik’s propaganda arm has pulled the identical stonewalling of information on other occasions. In March 2017, nationally-recognized transportation expert Mark Aesch, speaking at a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board meeting, called the Times characterization of Tampa Bay as having “one of the worst transit systems in America” as not only “silly and misleading” but 180 degrees from the truth.

His statement went unreported in the Times but not in Tampa Bay Beat.

In July, 2016 the Times refused to cover a summit of transportation experts held at the Don Cesar Hotel only 10 miles from its offices. A symposium panel attributed voter mistrust of government as the insurmountable barrier to referendum-based tax hikes to fund transportation.

That unanimous assessment did not jibe with the Times’ agenda of bailing out developers at the expense of the average taxpayer.

Tampa Bay has been on the sales tax-financed hamster wheel of light rail for years. The 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward referendum failed 58-42 percent. The 2014 Greenlight Pinellas vote failed by 62-38. The 2016 Go Hillsborough effort never made the ballot. The only difference in 2018 is that emerging technologies have rendered new light rail construction even more obsolete.

Jim Bleyer, a former reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Tribune, writes the Tampa Bay Bey blog.