Don't be railroaded into transit tax
October 12, 2010
I love the Bucs, but I wouldn't ask taxpayers to build 81 new football stadiums just to create a few jobs and show we're a first-tier football city. But Hillsborough County voters are being asked to spend an equivalent amount in money to build a light-rail system that will carry a tiny amount of riders and have a negligible impact on jobs and growth because our political leaders envy the boondoggles in other cities.
NoTaxForTracks.com understands The Tampa Tribune has been advocating "rail" in the Tampa Bay area for many years. We also understand the Tribune editorial board met with Mayor Pam Iorio and the million-dollar pro rail marketing campaign PAC Moving Hillsborough Forward. One might expect the Tribune to consider both sides of the political debate, particularly considering the huge financial expense the voters of Hillsborough County are being asked to make. But that was not the case.
This tax costs too much, does too little and never sunsets. Those supporting this tax, including the Tribune, local elected officials and the alphabet soup of planning and transit agencies, refuse to address the issue of cost.
Even federal officials concede that rail transit is simply not cost effective. In January, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suspended the cost-effectiveness rules governing federal grant awards for rail transit. Several months later, Federal Transit Administration chief Peter Rogoff recommended colorful "special" buses over light rail, saying "Paint is cheap, rails systems are extremely expensive" and warned, "Some communities might be tempted to pay the extra cost for shiny new rails now, but they need to be mindful of the costs they are teeing up for future generations."
Many questions remain about the rail plan. Hillsborough County voters do not know where the proposed routes will go or what the costs per trip will be but instead get only glittering generalities about a "comprehensive transportation plan." This sounds eerily familiar to ObamaCare when Nancy Pelosi stated that we had to pass ObamaCare so we can find out what is in the bill.
Cost overruns are rampant with rail projects. In widely cited Phoenix, the mayor told voters light rail would cost $500 million. The actual cost is now over $1.4 billion, and Phoenix has had to raise taxes and cut bus and rail services to close budget deficits.
HART is already over budget, late on its alternatives analysis and continues to change scope, priorities and miss key milestones. If HART cannot perform on small tasks, how can we trust it with much greater responsibilities?
The costs of these plans are staggering. The FTA requires a vetted plan. Voters must demand the same and should not give a blank check for rail at any cost.
NoTaxForTracks.com has offered alternatives to this proposed tax: expanding a much more economical and flexible bus service along corridors where demand exists; building on successes such as the Lee Roy Selman Expressway, built without taxpayer money; and reforming how our gas taxes are allocated are just a few examples. HOV lanes and expanding vanpools are others. So is moving forward with the shelved bus rapid transit plan along Fletcher and Nebraska avenues, already paid for by CIT funds. And telecommuting also relieves congestion with zero taxpayer impact There are numerous services today that provide door-to-door service for the elderly, disabled, those on Medicaid and those who cannot drive, including HART's Para Transit service and others. Door-to-door service is a much easier, safer way for the elderly and disabled to travel than waiting for a train and having to make a transfer or walk to their final destination, especially in the summer. While taxpayers currently subsidize HART riders at a cost of $7.63 per rider, we estimate the plan on the ballot will increase that taxpayer subsidy by 71 percent, to $13.04 per rider. How about an option to offer mobility vouchers to the needy, to further expand this door-to-door service, using private operators for improved coverage?
As our cars and bus fleets, which totally turn over about every 18 years, become much more fuel efficient, taxpayers will be stuck with an electric powered rail system that is run on fossil fuels. Rail technology only turns over about every 30 to 40 years. Rail is a 19th century technology and once constructed, taxpayers are stuck with it for decades, with huge future capital replacement costs that require an amount equal to the original capital outlay and is not addressed in HART's plan. With a $14 trillion national debt and increasing uncertainty with state and local budgets, now is not the time to commit to long term spending programs with unproven benefits. The game to get more "federal" dollars because of "rail envy" must stop. There is no "free" money, and the money likely will not be there when we need it.
Proponents suggest light rail will spur development and increase jobs. Experiences in other cities show redevelopment subsidies and tax-increment financing, not rail, behind so-called "revitalization." If we really want development and jobs, we should keep taxes and regulatory barriers low. After all, are we seeking a cost-effective transportation system or a jobs program? We believe that low taxes equals more jobs and increasing the sales tax to the highest rate in the state will cause businesses to go elsewhere. Voters have an historic chance to stop this financially unsustainable rail boondoggle and demand a common sense approach to our transportation needs. NoTaxForTracks.com urges citizens to vote against the sales tax increase ballot initiative.
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