The Tampa Tribune's Misleading Rail  "Taxatorial" Inaccuracies


"Cities and counties are finding it less costly to build rail lines than to depend totally on streets and highways…. Soon, cities without rail will be seen as either backward or politically inept."


-- The Tampa Tribune, editorial, Dec. 28, 1997




The Facts


"The proponents of rail often mislead decision makers and the public by claiming non-existent advantages…. Left unchallenged, these arguments have gradually bored their way into conventional wisdom. However, a close examination reveals that the rhetoric of rail tends to involve sweeping assertions, uneconomic thinking, and assumptions that range from difficult to impossible to verify."


-- The Reason Foundation, Ten Transit Myths, 1996 

By: John F. Sugg

(Last of a two-part series)

January 11, 1998

Updated: 7.13.98

Updated: 1.6.05


There was a small – but very telling – drama Nov. 6 in Brandon. The federal government has decreed that before politicians can launch massive transportation projects, they must venture among the toiling masses and explain their plans to the people who will pay the freight. So, a brigade of bureaucrats took the good tidings of a commuter rail plan to a public meeting in east Hillsborough.

The transit plan included a recently added spur, running from Lumsden Road south to Bloomingdale Avenue. Along this line, planners envisioned high-density housing, often referred to as "trainominiums." It was to be the brave new world of the "New Urbanist's," an elitist movement that, according to Washington Post writer Joel Garreau, "would increase dramatically the real residential population … raise the gasoline tax by 300 percent … raise the price of automobiles enormously … limit movement completely … put enormous costs on parking."

Garreau, a prolific writer on the future of cities, said of the New Urbanists, whose philosophy is the underpinning of crusade to build rail transit systems, that they "would force Americans to live in a world that few now seem to value."

Brandon residents might not have heard of New Urbanism. But they know what kind of world and neighborhood they value.

Word of the planned rail extension spread among the Brandon neighborhoods, and one citizen activist, Les Seright, mailed 700 letters to his neighbors, people who had moved to the suburbs to escape the sort of high-density anthills planners now want to cram into their community.

About 250 angry taxpayers showed up. "It was tar and feather night for those rail guys," Seright recalls brightly.

The Bloomingdale spur will likely be pulled from the transit plans, a small victory for citizens. Unfortunately, the war has probably
already been lost.

Most people in Hillsborough County are blissfully unaware of the rail plans. The transit meetings usually attract only a few people, typically advocates of one side or the other. There are intermittent news reports, usually buried on inside pages, mostly about some minor threshold in the arcane process of transportation planning. And, an occasional Tampa Tribune editorial trumpets trains – and never, ever raises any skepticism about rail or notes that there is considerable national debate on the issue.

Certainly, many local citizens would be surprised, perhaps horrified, to learn that a small group of politicians and planning wonks already has committed Hillsborough to a rail system – something that will cost every county resident about $80 a year. That's a number based on enormously optimistic estimates of the train advocates; the real price tag almost certainly will be much, much higher.

The plan, pretty much engraved in stone, is chugging rapidly toward a March completion date. All aboard!

Last week, I told of Miami's experience with a rail system. Here are some comparisons with Tampa's plan:

What has transpired in Miami is a debacle that has brought the city national ridicule. Cost overruns were staggering. Fourteen years after Metrorail opened, only about 20 percent to 25 percent of the projected riders click through the turnstiles. Dade’s government faces a financial crisis, and a major contributor is the rail system.

The Miami experience is what we’re about to repeat here.

The national evidence against building rail projects is staggering. The most misleading justification for building "light rail" systems (essentially, 20th Century versions of 19th Century trolleys) is the supposed economic savings. Ed Crawford, a leader of Hillsborough's train efforts, has said that "typical new four-lane roads" cost $15 million to $25 million a mile to build, compared with $5 million a mile for rail.

Those numbers are vastly wrong on two counts.

Turanchik's guesstimate of the train system's capital cost is somewhat of a moving target. Most often quoted as saying it would cost $350 million, he told the St. Petersburg Times last March the price would be $259 million.

However, critics who have analyzed Turanchik's numbers point to a number of omissions.

But even that is likely a lowball estimate. The experience of other systems very similar to what is proposed in Hillsborough show that the costs are much closer to $15 million a mile. Seattle, for example, is building a 60-mile commuter light rail along an existing train corridor that will connect the city with Tacoma. The cost is just shy of $1 billion, or a little less than $17 million a mile.

The planned Hillsborough light rail system would stretch about 90 miles, from Lakeland to Odessa, South Tampa to Lutz – that it will top $1 billion is almost a dead certainty, if the experience of other cities holds true.

Other variables haven't been thought through.

Thus, maybe 10,000 to 15,000 people would use the rail each day – perhaps only a scant 1 percent of the population.

Do you believe even those ridership guesses? You shouldn't. An U.S. Department of Transportation study of nine commuter rail systems found that ridership fell below projections in every one of the cities, and only one achieved even half the predicted passenger levels.

"Forecasts are cheap and mysterious enough to most voters that agencies can manipulate forecasts with little risk of getting caught," states Ten Transit Myths, a 1996 policy study by the Reason Foundation.

If the current county budget and passenger estimates should miraculously come true, each trip would cost about $9.86, yet the fare would be only $1.75 – you and I pay the difference. If the system costs a more realistic figure, say $1 billion, each ride would be worth about $15.22 with, again, the ticket costing only $1.75. Such a deal!

Turanchik and his supporters point to what they say are public subsidies of cars to offset the criticism of rail. Sorry, but that doesn't work. Nationally, subsidies to motorists not offset by gasoline taxes work out to about $10.5 billion a year, or one-quarter of a penny per passenger mile. Meanwhile, urban transit costs not offset by fares result in annual subsidies of about $16.6 billion, $6 billion of which is paid by highway users. On a per-passenger-mile basis, the transit subsidy is roughly 150 times greater than that for cars.

But the problems for Hillsborough's plan are much easier to understand than statistical analyses.

Other thoughts: Does rail have a serious impact on traffic? Nope.

Is mass transit energy-efficient or a boon to the environment? Again, nope and nope.

Its interesting that local rail promoters often glorify Portland as the example of what Tampa should emulate. Sorry, but the proof just isn't there. Here are some facts:

Other cities have been embarrassed by their systems. Miami we know about. Here are some more.

Speaking of voters, here's my final point. So far in Tampa's quest for rail, your opinion hasn't counted for much. Turanchik claims popular support for rail – he told me in 1995 that a study had shown 65 percent of Hillsborough citizens wanted a train. Where’s the study? No one seems to have a copy.

However, another study does exist. About 63 percent of Floridians have no interest in boarding public buses and trains, USF political science professor Susan MacManus found when she conducted a statewide survey last June for Florida's Department of Transportation. "Most of these people said public transit is not even a viable option in even the most adverse situation," MacManus told the Wall Street Journal.

So, who does want rail? The people who build the train systems, multi-national corporations that are very good at getting their richly moneyed hooks into local politicians. And, big landowners and developers. The St. Petersburg Times noted in 1996 that "some of the biggest supporters of the rail system are the planners of the 14 private commercial and industrial parks on Interstate 75, along which part of the rail system would run." The rail project is like throwing gasoline on the flames of land speculation.

Knowing that public support probably isn't there – if citizens have the full story on commuter trains – Turanchik has tried to push the project along by other means. Last year, he made a pitch for $243 million in federal funds. The federal dollars would have kicked the rail project into high gear – they would appear to pay for almost all of the construction. Later, if the costs ballooned – well, once you drive the first rail spike, its almost impossible to stop a train project. Unfortunately for Turanchik, the program that would have supplied the cash, Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), has been put on hold by Congress.

The latest gambit is Turanchik's scheme to grab near dictatorial control of civic priorities for the next 14 years by launching a bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. Its no secret that the Olympic plan is tightly woven with the rail program. The Trib dutifully predicted "federal money by the boxcar load" would materialize to speed the rail-Olympic tandem along. Right!

Actually, the boxcars are being filled with local taxpayers’ money. The Community Investment Tax (CIT) is generating cash at a rate that will double the original projections of $2.7 billion over 30 years. It won’t require a referendum to divert some of that money, say $1 billion or so, to the rail project.

Did I say "referendum?" That's a nasty word to some rail promoters. A couple of years ago, Turanchik said a referendum was necessary, and the county commission even passed a resolution to that effect.

Now? Turanchik, when I pushed him on the issue last year, said he thought a "straw ballot" might be fine, but he wouldn't commit to a binding referendum.

And that's a tragedy.

Over the years, I've been transformed from an ardent rail supporter to a skeptic. That's because I have access to a lot of information on the subject that most people don’t. I could still probably be swayed to vote for a train. I’d certainly be willing to listen.

But what the community lacks is a debate, a discussion, a search for some common ground. The little public meetings don’t count. They're window dressing at best. The decision has already been made. The process is just a formality.

Put the commuter rail project on the November ballot, Mr. Turanchik. Let both sides have their best shot. Then, let the people decide if they're going to catch the train.