Pinellas County Should Red-Light the Greenlight Transit Plan, Expert Says

By: William Patrick FloridaWatchdog.org | Posted: January 31, 2014 3:55 AM
Ranal O'Toole

Randal O'Toole

If Pinellas County residents are expecting economic growth in exchange for a taxpayer-funded public transit project known as the Pinellas Greenlight Plan, they may be disappointed, according to one transit expert.

“Transit agencies have this fantasy that if they spend more on transit then they can get more economic growth,” said Randal O’Toole. “There’s absolutely no reason for that to be.”

O’Toole, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, is the author of numerous books, scholarly papers and articles relating to urban growth, public land and transportation issues.

In an interview with Watchdog.org, O’Toole expressed skepticism about the Pinellas Greenlight Plan and others like it.

“Only about 1 percent of all travel in Pinellas County is by transit,” he said. “So even if you double that -- and only one urban area in the U.S. has been able to double transit ridership in the last 50 years and that’s Las Vegas; they did it without building any rail lines -- but even if you double it, it’s not going to be enough to affect the economy of the region.”

“People aren’t going to go around constructing buildings or houses or factories along the rail line because 1 percent of all their customers use the light rail or the expanded bus system,” O’Toole said.

Using data from the National Transit Database and the U.S. Census Bureau, O’Toole found that increasing transit spending actually has the opposite effect.

By comparing the country’s top 64 urban areas -- defined as areas with at least 600,000 people -- per capita transit spending and respective growth rates, the result was clear: Urban areas that seek to provide high-cost transit services, such as trains, in order to attract people out of their cars tend to grow far slower.

The Pinellas Greenlight Plan proposes a $100 million annual sales tax increase for expanded bus services and a 24-mile light rail track. Voters will have the final say in November through a referendum vote.

In December, the County Commission approved an ordinance establishing the ballot language:

"Summary: Shall the improvement, construction, operation, maintenance and financing of public transit benefiting Pinellas County, including an expanded bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency and extended hours, local passenger rail and regional connections be funded by levying a 1 percent sales surtax from January 1, 2016, until repealed, with the proceeds deposited in a dedicated trust fund?"

The ordinance also states the transit plan would increase economic competitiveness, promote economic and community redevelopment as well as create jobs. No specific details are included.

“Anytime government spends a lot of money on something. some people will make a lot of money off it; everybody else will pay a little bit,” O’Toole said. “The people who stand to make a lot of money have a strong incentive to invest in these types of projects and make arguments for them.”

The real problem, he said, is that spending enormous amounts of money -- in this case $1.7 to $2.5 billion -- for relatively limited transportation benefits for the entire community will lead to a demand to spend even more money to expand the system into new areas. Spreading that kind of money around is a political winner, O’Toole said.

“Transit doesn’t go very fast, it doesn’t go exactly where people need to go and it’s expensive,” he said. ”Cars go everywhere and they go a lot faster than public transit. Studies have shown that having a car is more important to having a job than having a high school diploma.”

Contact William Patrick at wpatrick@watchdog.org or follow Florida Watchdog on Twitter at @watchdogfla.

Tags: News, Politics

Comments (9)

Jackson Sprat
2:59PM FEB 3RD 2014
@Michael, @Frank:
“Only about 1 percent of all travel in Pinellas County is by transit,” he said. “So even if you double that -- and only one urban area in the U.S. has been able to double transit ridership in the last 50 years and that’s Las Vegas; they did it without building any rail lines -- but even if you double it, it’s not going to be enough to affect the economy of the region.”

Does this have anything to do with ideology? Or is it just a fact? Sometimes it is difficult to face facts.

Another fact: the MARTA system in Atlanta is so unsuccessful that voters recently turned down an opportunity to increase their taxes to expand a failing system that costs more and delivers less:
“MARTA needs to be fixed, and before the taxpayers are going to spend any more money on MARTA, I think they also sent a message that they’re not going to put more money into something they perceive is not functioning appropriately with the revenue that’s available,” he said.
Bill Heyen
1:47PM FEB 1ST 2014
Look at the first graphic from the link below. It is taken from the Greenlight Pinellas proposal. It will show you how much is going to be spent on the train.
PinellasGreenlight Pinellas: 11 Deceptions Revealed. Endless Deception is the Goal.
2:33PM JAN 31ST 2014
How many times has the "expert" O'Toole concluded that public transportation is a good deal? Oh, never. He just might be driven by ideology and bad ideology at that. Facts be damned.
1:43PM JAN 31ST 2014
Yes, yes, have your community listen to out-of-state, self-proclaimed transportation experts like Randal O'Toole, rather than your traffic engineers or planners (i.e. he's neither) . . . listen to Randal and your community too can be a transportation success . . . as successful as, say, the larger Atlanta area is right now . . . but he does make the Tea Party types happy since they never seem to check truthiness words versus reality . . . . do any of you even realize his stated desire is to have Florida totally repeal ALL its growth management programs . . . . not even the far right in Florida believe that's a viable action in Florida . . . . . you too can have a nuclear waste dump next door (luckily, federal laws won't allow that) . .

Pathetic . . . .
Bob H
12:27PM JAN 31ST 2014
Transit, and it's options, has to be planned precisely. Where do people go the most, and where do they come from to get there. Las Vegas works, because it's monorail that stops at the airport and all the hotel/casinos, is above street level (no interruption of street traffic), and is relatively inexpensive to ride. Pinellas County has none of those reasons to ride. Now if transit options were combined with HART, and you could ride to Tampa Intl, downtown Tampa and Busch Gardens, That would be a different story. Public transit has to stop thinking locally and start planning "Regionally" for it to perform and pay off. Other wise, don't even think about it.
Betsi Burgess
11:12AM JAN 31ST 2014
Randall is the expert. He is emersed in the details and facts of
Public Transit successes and failures. He was our guest speaker at
a Rail Forum almost 2 years ago here in Pinellas County at Feather
Sound Country Club. It was very well attended. However, to my knowledge only one elected official in Pinellas County attended,
though each were personally invited. They don't want to know the
truth and proceeded down this referendum path as another government
vanity project
1:42PM JAN 31ST 2014
Oh, he must be a traffic engineer, correct? . . . NO? . . . then a transportation planner, right? . . . . NO? . . . . does he even have any recognized professional credentials in transportation or traffic planning or engineering? . . . . NO? . . . . well, then, how is he an "expert" (don't you EVER ask yourself such questions) . . . NO? . . . . well, that's just . . . .

Pathetic . . . .
1:19PM FEB 3RD 2014
Were any "experts" with the credentials you believe to be critical actually involved in creating the Greenlight Pinellas plan? Did you attend the AA, MPO and PSTA meetings?
If you did, then you know that the Greenlight Pinellas plan was drawn up by politicians and consultants whose primary intent was to meet federal govt requirements for funding - whether we need it for not.
Many of the members of those organizations are "stakeholders," meaning they have an opportunity to personally benefit from the fed govt funds: realtors, developers, contractors, etc. You know, the ones that are funding Greenlight Pinellas with millions of dollars to make sure voters are suckered into voting for their own tax increase.
It doesn't take an expert to figure out how many jobs will be lost when we start taking $130 MILLION out of our local economy every year, when the streets are torn up for ten or more years laying tracks for streetcars that will cause even more traffic congestion.
Please name one light rail system in the country that has lived up to projections/expectations in an area similar to Pinellas County.
Follow the money, Frank - this isn't about transit or buses or trains, it is not about traffic congestion, clean air or jobs.
It is all about who can get the $2 BILLION that they plan to take out of taxpayers pockets, about how many deals can be made on the property along the route, how many small businesses will fail and have to sell because of the construction.
WC Green
9:36AM JAN 31ST 2014
I plan on attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Project Greenlight in a self-driving car. Pinellas County ought to plan for the future of transportation, not its past.

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