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Wednesday, Dec 17, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: TaxWatch cautiously says rail has ‘potential’

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Published:   |   Updated: June 3, 2014 at 10:54 AM

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We know Florida TaxWatch as the fiercely independent, nonpartisan caretaker of the public’s financial interests. Its annual list of “turkeys” that politicians sneak through the Legislature is always a must-read for anyone interested in how politicians spend our money.

What I’m saying is, this group is always on guard against reckless spending of taxpayer money. Keep that in mind as you consider a report TaxWatch issued the other day headlined “Commuter Rail Has Potential, But Drawbacks A Concern For Taxpayers.”

Now, you say, what’s the big deal about that?

Consider the source.

“That’s interesting, coming from those guys,” Hillsborough County Commissioner and mass-transit advocate Mark Sharpe said. “I think the reality is starting to engage for all of us. People talk about how expensive rail is, but roads aren’t free, either.

“And when you do build roads, you have to operate and maintain them. That’s not free.”

It’s almost impossible around here to engage skeptics of commuter rail. They have decided it will be a massive government boondoggle where the rich will get richer while the public gets fleeced. Because of that, their standard response to rail is to shout “NO” as loudly and often as possible.

I’ll concede the point that government can louse up a one-car parade, and as the TaxWatch report points out, there are potential drawbacks to any large-scale rail system.

“Many people have expressed concern about the negative impact of a new commuter rail on corridor communities,” the report said. “Residents are concerned about falling property values, which would reduce local government revenues and restrict economic growth during the post-Great Recession recovery period.”

All true.

That didn’t stop Orlando from building SunRail, which opened a month ago. It’s a public-private commuter system that is 32 miles long with 12 stops, with plans for expansion to 61.5 miles over Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the system was essentially overwhelmed in the first two weeks it opened because ridership was free. After riders were charged a $2 one-way fee, traffic fell to a manageable level as riders begin getting used to the system.

The state paid $432 million to CSX for track upgrades and other costs. There is more state and federal grant money. That’s a lot of money.

However ...

The ticket for the four-year project to widen 4.2 miles of Interstate 275 from downtown Tampa to the West Shore area is $216 million, and at least three times that amount in driver aggravation. So, we have to look at all things.

“Commuter rail is one option for Florida to invest in to enhance transportation infrastructure in anticipation of the state’s rapidly growing population,” the TaxWatch report said.

“However, the costs should be weighed against the benefits and other options should be explored to ensure the smartest and most beneficial solution to Florida’s long-term transportation needs.”

That’s what advocates have been saying all along.

We also have to get cars off the road, and there isn’t a magic solution. It will take new roads, increased bus routes, and it will take rail done the right way.

There are always people saying things won’t work. I remember the fierce opposition, for instance, to what is now the Selmon Expressway because many argued no one would ever use a toll road.

TaxWatch is right.

There are legitimate concerns about a commuter rail system, but its potential impact on our community can’t be dismissed.

It’s time we find out which one trumps the other.

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