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The Rail Not Taken

July 2, 2011

So the Governor of Florida has given approval to SunRail, the rail transit system for the Orlando area.  Leaving aside the merits, or lack thereof, of the specific plan and whether it fits into the Governor’s stated philosophy, Tampasphere finds the entire SunRail episode interesting for the following reason – basically, Orlando schooled the Tampa Bay area on all levels, once again.

Many people do not realize that Orlando held a referendum on a broad based transportation plan back in 2003 – which failed. (Tampasphere would like to note that these rejections were not all in recessions) Some highlights from a contemporary article in the Orlando Sentinel are enlightening:

The Mobility 20/20 plan — a comprehensive list of 140 road, rail, sidewalk and bike path projects — went down 53,210-45,236, a margin of 7,974 votes, 54 to 46 percent.

*  * *

More than 22 percent of Orange’s registered voters went to the polls, a significant number for a ballot with only a single question.

The loss came after pro-tax supporters lined up unprecedented support among the area’s elite and oiled their push with a record $1.5 million in campaign cash. The defeat elated critics of the plan — and left supporters struggling to understand what went wrong.

“What this was really about wasn’t the government trying to tell the citizens what to do, but the government offering the opportunity for citizens to make the ultimate decision. They decided. I respect that,” said Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty, the plan’s chief architect and biggest booster.

“We’re going to move on.”

Proponents of the tax expected to win by a healthy margin, with the Mobility 20/20 campaign’s internal polling showing support above 55 percent as recently as Sunday night. But even before the last vote was counted on Tuesday, some were questioning whether Orange County’s politicians and civic leaders are out of touch with Orange County’s working families.

State Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, the only local politician to publicly oppose the tax, predicted the defeat will cost Crotty and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. Crotty and Dyer, forging a rare city-county partnership, campaigned tirelessly for the tax, speaking to dozens of civic groups and raising a healthy chunk of the pro-tax contributions.

“People are going to be suspect of them,” Siplin said.

That sounds familiar. Oh, and then there was this:

Speculation about the loss was widespread, with most theories leaning toward the inclusion of new toll lanes on Interstate 4 and money for some form of rail transit, possibly the politically unpopular light rail that voters had already rejected in 1997.

So Orlando tried for light rail in 1997, then in 2003.  Both times the voters rejected the tax. But, and here is the interesting part, aside from the fact they did not use recessions or the tea party as excuses – the region kept plugging away and came up with a new plan – the recently approved SunRail.

What happened in Hillsborough County: HART is offering dressed up buses:

Tampa’s 40-foot BRT buses would be modified versions of regular buses, with cosmetic touches including a paint scheme to differentiate it.

To wit:

Source: Tampa Tribune.

(Here is a review of Eugene’s BRT, which is touted in the Trib article.  Make of it what you will. As for other systems touted in the Trib: Note in Pittsburgh, there are actual busways that, if Tampasphere is not mistaken, actually were built where a rail line used to be.  HART’s Metrorapid, as far as Tampasphere can tell, will just run on normal streets – including the recently NARROWED Nebraska Ave.  And here and here is some info on Cleveland – which apparently is hardly “rapid” )

That is great, but not a substitute for renewed planning and creative financing.

And that is not all.  Recently, Tampa Bay area residents have been treated to news that TBARTA (which has limited funding and ability to pay for anything) has revised its master plan. (See here and here)   Sure, they kept some rail in (While Tampasphere applauds that, TBARTA can’t fund it) but now they are talking toll lanes on interstates, freight rail (?), and buses.  (We also learned that Tampa Bay is among the most “sedentary” metro areas around – which is not surprising as you have to drive virtually everywhere.)

Tampa Bay area residents were also treated to a Times report that, somehow, as the transportation plan for St. Pete was being revised, light rail was “inadvertently” dropped.

The article quotes a St. Pete official as saying it was just a mistake and:

If this region wants to be competitive, it needs a regional rail system. It’s kind of a given.

Well, it is kind of a given, but that is not the same as a definite given.  There are a good number of people opposed to light rail.  If conversations, comments by Opponents and message boards are any indication, there are even more people that really cannot distinguish between high speed rail, commuter rail, light rail, and streetcars.  (if you are interested in the difference, see here and here).  And, frankly, Tampasphere sees no real attempt by many proponents of any of these systems to actually do the hard work of explaining the difference, either in the overview or detailed practical terms.

In fact, Tampasphere is not at all surprised that the St. Pete document avoids light rail.  According to the Times, this is the edit:

For instance, removed was this statement: “(The transportation program) could utilize a sophisticated and innovative type vehicle, possibly elevated or fixed rail, which would provide a unique travel experience.”

Added was this statement: “A vibrant downtown requires a transportation system that balances automobile access with pedestrian-oriented facilities such as bus, trolley, biking and walking.”

Seems like quite the slip of the finger on the keyboard.  But really, why would one expect that St. Pete leaders would put light rail in the plan after the failure of the referendum in Hillsborough County, when even HART was afraid to really push for rail? (See here and here).  Or as the former Tampa mayor said:

It is time for this region to focus on a real investment in mass transit,” Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wrote in a 2006 white paper that reignited a debate that began a generation ago and led to next month’s vote. “At issue is how we want our city and our region to grow over the coming decades.

Tampasphere agrees.  Of course, at the time of the referendum in 2010 – when people were asked in a recession to pay–there was still no firm plan for rail that they could evaluate.  This was so even given Orlando’s more than a decade of trying to work out these issues – did anyone actually study the Orlando experience?

Ideally, plans would have been nailed down before the election, said some members of the Hills­borough Area Regional Transit board. Having details by a deadline is less important than collecting data and making informed choices, they said.

True, except when people don’t have the information to make informed choices and – as in Orlando – reject the tax.

Then there is this:

People will understand the thrust of the corridors,” he said. “I don’t think people should be too upset that we’re doing the due diligence.

No, people are not upset about due diligence (even though people have been talking and studying rail in this area for decades, they couldn’t present a full plan.  That is quite diligent, indeed.), just that there wasn’t a real plan and the thrust of the vaguely defined corridors ignored the county – so it is not really surprising that the referendum did well where the corridors were and quite badly everywhere else.  (It would benefit the area greatly in future referendum plans to remember that Hillsborough County has about 1.2 million people, and the City of Tampa has only about 350,000 of them.  It follows that if one wants the County residents to pay for something, they should see an obvious benefit – and buses are not an obvious benefit )

Election results show the question did best, however, in precincts along or close to proposed rail lines. That was particularly true in the working-class and heavily minority districts along the proposed north-south route. It also held true in South Tampa, where the ballot question was soundly rejected, except in a few precincts next to a proposed future spur of the rail line.

Which all leads us back to the St. Pete article.  Tampasphere is not surprised that the St. Pete government, which apparently has no strategy to deal with the issue of the Rays stadium other than to bury its head in the Astroturf  (Quick, somebody get them the Tampa Bay Partnership report on behaving regionally), is doing the same with transportation.   They can talk rail and write no rail – then who could complain?  Just like Hillsborough voted on a shadow of a dream of rail, rather than a rail plan, St. Pete can waste years, decades, even, just to ensure that any attempt to remedy transportation issues, or other kinds of issues, will fail – but someone else, maybe the voters, can be blamed.

So what has Tampasphere learned.  First, rail is not dead – just the approach tried in Hillsborough County.  Second, do all the planning NOW, while you are waiting, so that there is a plan A, and if that fails, a plan B.  Third, it should be a regional effort.  Fourth, the political leadership must lead – and by that Tampasphere means come up with a full plan, include all the stakeholders, and go sell it beyond saying “jobs.”  Fifth, it is time to get Tampa Bay-area state and federal politicians in leadership positions – like Orlando keeps doing (See here and here)  – and make sure they use them. Sixth, and most importantly, study what has happened before and avoid the mistakes other people – like, say, Orlando – have made.

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