Back in 2010, Hillsborough County residents defeated a referendum that would have given the go-ahead to financing and building a light rail system between the city of Tampa and its outlying suburbs. Here on the other side of the bay, we may be gearing up for our own referendum on the subject, with an actual vote possibly coming as early as the fall of 2013.
According to PinellasOnTrack (which may or may not be an official government agency – their website is written in a sort of friendly-yet-bureaucratic style that inevitably causes my eyeballs to just slide down the page without actually retaining anything), the basic idea is
light rail transit connecting Clearwater, Largo, the Greater Gateway area, Pinellas Park, and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, with a regional connection across Tampa Bay to Hillsborough County. This also includes significant countywide local bus enhancements to the existing PSTA network to support the service.
(Of course, there’s nothing for Pinellas light rail to connect to in Hillsborough County yet; perhaps it will connect with the county’s forthcoming BRT system?)
That’s certainly a much more useful route than the one I envisioned in an earlier post about a hypothetical Pinellas County light rail system that theoretically could have been built in place of the Pinellas Trail (which itself was built on top of disused CSX tracks). This 24-mile line would connect the downtown areas of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, and would serve both the St. Petersburg / Clearwater Airport and the high concentration of office space in the Gateway area (home to corporate headquarters for companies like Home Shopping Network and Raymond James Financial). It would offer a convenient and functional alternate way to work for a large number of commuters. And it might be just the shot in the arm that downtown Clearwater needs.
In spite of the turgid prose on their website, PinellasOnTrack offers a wealth of information about the proposed line, with maps, documents, videos, and an events calendar. It’s an incredibly useful site, regardless of your position on light rail in Pinellas County – but especially if you’re undecided and just want to learn a bit more about the whole issue.
The same cannot be said for the opposition. Yes, there’s vocal opposition to a light rail line – this is still Florida, after all – and I’ve seen their “No Tax For Tracks” yard signs popping up here and there for months now. Their site uses the “Myth vs Reality” format – based on CATO Institute senior fellow Randall O’Toole’s “Ten Transit Myths” – to try to frame the argument and then refute the presented pro-rail position in their own preferred way. Of course, they offer no citations for any of their “facts,” and some of them are nothing more than opinions that are so strongly-held, they’ve metastasized into articles of faith. In fact, nearly everything they list as a “fact” either misses the point, is completely irrelevant, or is unsupported by a citation. For example:
Competition is one of the best ways to improve transit services.
Really? How would that work? In the case of a rail system, who would own the tracks? Well, we don’t know, because that’s all the anti-railers are willing to say. Competition good, monopoly bad – yes yes, we know. But let’s think this through – and as an occasional economics professor, I can talk a little bit about why monopolies are sometimes more efficient service providers than competing companies are. It’s entirely likely that, if you had two competing companies trying to provide rail services to the same population, you’d end up with two systems that do not connect, do not go to the same places, and charge higher fares than a regulated monopoly would (each of these companies would be trying to cover large operating costs with a smaller customer base, and some costs don’t scale up linearly as the size of the system increases).
Transit’s effect on congestion is insignificant in most American cities. Spending dollars on transit to reduce congestion is more likely to increase because it diverts funds from activities that have a more significant effect on congestion.
Like what kind of activities? Because if you mean building new highway lanes … well, okay, that does have a significant effect on congestion, but not the kind you think it has. New lanes bring new traffic. Add new lanes to a crowded highway and more people will choose to use that highway, thinking that the new carrying capacity will make the trip a breeze. And it will, at first. But after a while, traffic will be as bad as or worse than it was before the lane addition.
Both transit funding and the facilities provided by transit agencies have been steadily increasing for decades.
Perhaps that’s because more and more cities are building new systems? Perhaps because people are finally recognizing that our car-centric lifestyle isn’t sustainable, and that we need alternatives?
The automobile has made Americans the most mobile people in the history of the world. That mobility has significantly improved urban livability in many ways.
That’s pure unsupported opinion, which you can tell because they never specify the “many ways” in which automobiles improve urban livability. I could easily argue the opposite, and provide specific examples of ways in which total dependence on the automobile has actually degraded urban livability (pollution, time spent sitting in traffic, the amount of space required to accommodate parking and the effect on urban temperatures that these asphalt heat islands have, the inhospitability of modern cities to people who can’t afford cars or who choose to commute by bicycle or walking, etc etc etc).
We don’t need it. Only 3% of residents regularly use the PSTA bus system but 75% of costs are paid by your taxes.
To me, this illustrates the inadequacy of the current transit system and the need for improvement. It also demonstrates how the tea party crowd doesn’t understand the concept of indirect benefits. I’ve said this before – an effective transit system improves the quality of life even for people who don’t ride it, because it reduces the number of cars on the highway at any given time. Okay, you think light rail is a communist plot that will lead inevitably to fluoridated water, and you won’t ride it. That’s fine. Nobody’s forcing you to buy a ticket. But it will make life better in this county, in some very tangible ways. If we get it.
And that’s the rub right there. Will a light rail referendum fare better in Pinellas than in Hillsborough? I’m not going to make a prediction on that, but I will make a few observations.
First, Pinellas County is by far the most densely-populated county in Florida It’s pretty much completely urban, with some exceptions up near the Pasco County line. That means two things: one, rail in Pinellas will be more efficient and accessible than it would be in much of Hillsborough County; and two, we have almost none of the rural population that was instrumental in defeating Hillsborough’s light rail referendum – so my side (yeah, I am pro-rail) may have a demographic advantage here.
Second, US 19, the county’s main north-south artery, is an undriveable madhouse much of the time. Yes, we have an interstate loop cutting through St. Petersburg, but it veers off to the east before it even gets as far as Gateway. Much of the county isn’t served by I-275 at all, which means that it’s US 19 or one of the lower-capacity surface streets if you want to get from one end of the county to the other – and even then, it ain’t gonna be fast.
Third, essentially the only argument the anti-railers have is that taxes suck. They don’t have much in the way of a fact-based argument, or if they do, they are strategically choosing not to make it. And sadly, that might be enough to scuttle the whole thing. What with this being Florida and all.