Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Train Station

The Central Florida Commuter Rail Project, now known as SunRail may be about to get a big boost from the Federal stimulus package recently passed by Congress. No, not because of monies allocated for commuter rail projects. Strangely enough, SunRail may get its biggest boost of all because of the $8 billion in the bill for High Speed Rail.

I have written previously about the possible motivations of SunRail's biggest opponent, State Senator Paula Dockery. Yes, that Paula Dockery, the one who is married to C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the sponsor of the Florida High Speed Rail Constitutional Amendment. You remember, the constitutional amendment for high speed rail that was repealed in a campaign led by then Governor Jeb Bush. The same Jeb Bush, who in one of his last acts as Governor, signed the deal with CSX to make the SunRail project feasible.

Last legislative session, Sen. Dockery was able to team up with the Florida trial lawyers lobby to derail the last piece of legislation necessary for the SunRail project to move forward. The legislation has since been modified so that the trial lawyers have dropped their opposition. That's not enough to stop Senator Dockery. Now she is on to a laundry list of reasons for opposing the bill, most of which are nonsense, as detailed by the Orlando Sentinel.

That brings us back to the federal stimulus money for high speed rail. The Tampa Tribune is now reporting that the Florida High Speed Rail Authority (who even knew that they still existed?)
is hopeful it can get some of the $8 billion recently set aside for high-speed rail projects nationwide.
Presumably, Sen. Dockery will be supportive of her husbands efforts to secure this Federal money. Almost certainly, securing this stimulus money will ultimately require the support of Governor Charlie Crist.

Of course, Governor Crist is now a full throated supporter of SunRail. I am sure the Governor would look more kindly on the high speed rail effort if Sen. Dockery could somehow be persuaded to be supportive of one of his legislative priorities for this upcoming legislative session.

Governor Crist is a farily persuasive fellow. He should use this opportunity to persuade Senator Dockery to be for something for a change.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Meanwhile, Back at the (Florida) Ranch

It has been nearly three weeks now since the election. Three weeks of basking in the glow of victory and change! Three weeks of analyzing results; discussing various Cabinet and White House staff selections, and just otherwise reveling in the thrill of victory.

However, reality has a really nasty habit of rearing its ugly head. On Friday we learned
The state's barebones budget now has a $2.1 billion hole, state economists said in a Friday forecast that all but guarantees Gov. Charlie Crist will call a special legislative session to manage the deficit and consider what was once a non-starter: tax increases.
Others, such as state CFO Alex Sink and the Florida Education Association have already called for a special session to deal with the projected budget deficit. The smart money had been on a special session in January, but on Friday
Crist laughed and said ''no'' when asked if he'll delay the call for a special session due to his Dec. 12 wedding.
Predictably, Democrats are lining up against more cuts to education and social services. Republicans are eyeing more raids on trust funds and, if they have to, raising "sin" taxes on cigarettes and possibly gambling.

We are in this predicament because the state's economy has severely tanked. We currently have six times the traditional number of unsold homes on the market (300,000 vs. 50,000) and also on Friday we learned that the state's unemployment rate hit a 15 year high of 7%.

Perhaps a special session can provide an opportunity to look at a third alternative to raising taxes or cutting spending to help fill the budget hole. There is another way to raise revenue besides raising taxes, and that is to stimulate economic activity to increase tax revenue. Gov. Crist has already taken a shot at this with his "Accelerate Florida" program,
directing all state agencies to speed up billions of dollars in approved construction and capital outlay projects
Meanwhile, the buzz is getting stronger and stronger that the Obama administration will be pushing for an economic stimulus package as large as $700 billion,
addressing neglected public infrastructure projects like roads and schools, and creating “green jobs” through business incentives for energy alternatives and environmentally friendly technologies.
One project in Florida that fits that description to a "T" is the Central Florida Commuter Rail Project. This project is all teed up and ready to go. It just got hung up in the Legislature last year over that pesky liability problem. Maybe that is something else the legislators could take a look at resolving while they are in special session looking at their budget woes?

Federal stimulus package or no, this is a project that would definitely stimulate the Florida economy. And solving the liability issue now will unlock the commuter rail puzzle for all the other regions of Florida.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Another Republican Official Racist Email - this Time in Florida

The St. Petersburg Times is reporting on an email forwarded by Hillsborough County Republican Party chairman David Storck that
has critics within the party charging racism
What could be so bad that it even has Republicans criticizing one of their party officials?

According to the Times, the email ws written by Republican Party volunteer Ron Whitley and forwarded by Hillsborough County Republican Party Chairman Storck to about 400 party members. The email states, in relevant part:
I see carloads of black Obama supporters coming from the inner city to cast their votes for Obama. This is their chance to get a black president and they seem to care little that he is at minimum, socialist, and probably Marxist in his core beliefs. After all, he is black -- no experience or accomplishments -- but he is black.
Now Hillsborough is of course the largest county in the Tampa Bay area, at the western end of Florida's infamous "I-4 Corridor". The home of the swing voters in Florida. It is the battleground area of the largest battleground state.

Here is how the GOP Chairman prefaced the forwarded email:
This e-mail was sent to me from one of our Volunteers in the Temple Terrace office. If you think it can help us win this election please pass it on. This election is now in our hands everyone can make a difference.
This is putting country first? To me it is just one more desperate Republican engaging in any despicable act - any despicable act, if they felt it would help them win.

Well, there is one way to make sure that not this time. Get out and vote. Get your family out to vote. Get your neighbors out to vote. We can take our country back!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Save Sales Tax for Transportation

I just read a comment on how someone was planning to vote on the Florida Constitutional amendments that are on the ballot this year. The comment suggested to vote No on 2 and yes to the rest. While I'm all for voting No on 2, the so called Gay Marriage ban amendment, yes to the rest gave me some pause.

You see, there is one other amendment that progressives should consider voting no on. As unlikely as that may seem, that one is Amendment 8, the Local Option Community College Funding amendment. While it might seem counter intuitive for progressives to vote against higher education funding, bear with me while I explain my thinking on this.

First, let me say that I am an ardent supporter of expanding higher education opportunities in Florida. I received an AA degree along my educational trail from a community college, so I understand how important they can be.

I am also an ardent supporter of mass transportation, however, and I see Amendment 8 as a possible impediment to the implementation of viable mass transit systems throughout Florida. The reasoning for this is the way that local commuter and light rail systems are typically funded.

Most rail transit systems, and the ones that are being proposed in Florida, are financed by a partnership between local, state and the federal governments. The Central Florida Commuter Rail Project and the nascent TBARTA effort in the Tampa Bay region will both require local funding sources for completion.

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties are considering adding a one cent local option sales tax for mass transit funding. Pinellas already has the Penny for Pinellas local option sales tax as its seventh cent of sales tax. If a community college sales tax penny is added, that would make the transportation penny proposal the NINTH cent of sales tax. I'm very much afraid that would be a penny too far for local voters to swallow.

There are plenty of other options for state of funding community colleges. Local governments are severely limited in their funding sources fortheir portion of mass transit.

If you want to see mass transit in Florida, vote NO on amendment 8.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Bloom Off the Palin Rose in Pinellas

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made her debut in Florida's all important I-4 Corridor today. Her morning rally was held in Clearwater's Coachman Park. The park is best known as home of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. Given the Jazz Holiday's long history in the park, it ought to be safe to say that the Clearwater Police Department has a pretty good handle on crowd sizes in the park.

Given all the buzz about the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, it was a little bit shocking to hear that the Clearwater PD estimated today's crowd for Palin at 4,500. Interestingly, the Republican Party continues its pathetic attempt to overstate the size of Palin's crowds:
Clearwater PD estimated 4,500 people attended, though local party says it was more like 10,000.
But those claims are belied by comments like this:
My brother who was at the rally said they moved all the people over to one side so as to make it appear more full so they could take some pictures.

It made him mad because there was plenty of room to stretch out on the other side. It was completely empty (Note: The park holds 12,000 people.)
And this:
Dominic Grillo, 76, of Dunedin, saw Obama when he spoke at Knology Park two weeks ago. (Note: Barack Obama drew 11,000 just up the road in Dunedin). Curiosity caused him to ride his bike down the Pinellas Trail to Clearwater. He said he wouldn't wait in line to see Palin, but when there were no lines, he decided to join the throng.
So, what does this all mean besides some fun ticky tack back and forth stuff about crowd sizes? Pinellas is the western most county of Florida's infamous I-4 Corridor, the real swing area of the state. And Pinellas County is the swing county of the swing area of the state. Pinellas is almost evenly split in voter registrations with about 245 thousand Ds, 237 thousand Rs and 154 thousand independents. When Al Gore won Florida in 2000 he carried Pinellas by 15,000 votes. When George Bush won Florida in 2004, he carried Pinellas by the scant margin of 226 votes.

The fact that the "magnetic" Palin could only scare up 4,500 in this crucial swing area of Florida can not be a good sign for the McCain campaign.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

All Aboard

The Democratic National Convention has started. Barack Obama has selected Joe Biden as his running mate. The Republican National Convention follows next week. It would seem that these events would be sucking up all the oxygen available. They mostly are for us political junkies. But for the majority of Floridians, life goes on as usual.

Floridians are going about their daily business. They are engaged in their daily commutes and stuck in their normal traffic jams wishing somebody would do something to ease the traffic congestion. Or offer them a viable alternative to driving their cars. The mass transit situation in Florida is so bad that a commuter rail supporter recently included "all of Florida" among places that were "useless holes of car dependence".

Well, people all over Florida are trying to do something about it. In the Tampa Bay area, the newly created TBARTA is working on a regional transportation plan that has rail transit at its heart. TBARTA was created by the legislature in 2007, but it did not get any direct funding. Nevertheless, through funding provided for the Florida Department of Transportation, they have been engaging the community in their seven county region about the creation of a master transportation plan. With funding provided by the legislature this year, they are moving forward to hire an executive director to help them present their plan to the public early next year.

Even further along are the folks in the Orlando area. Four counties in central Florida have been working for years with the Florida Department of Transportation and the Federal government to implement the Central Florida Commuter Rail project. This plan to advance
a commuter rail transit project to run along a 61-mile stretch of existing rail freight tracks
was in the news quite a bit earlier this year. The "61-mile stretch of existing rail freight tracks" are to be purchased by the state from CSX railroad. The legislature failed to approve the deal after a major misinformation campaign centered around liability sharing arrangements between the state and CSX. This was defeated even though the proposed liability plan is essentially the same one that is currently in effect for the one existing commuter rail system in Florida, the Tri Rail system in South Florida.

Despite failing to receive approval in the Florida legislature this year, the Central Florida Commuter Rail Project is far from dead. The agreement between the Florida Department of Transportation and CSX does not expire until after next year's legislative session. Congressman John Mica, the Minority Leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee recently announced the project has been approved by the Federal Transit Authority to enter the Final Design phase. Per Mica:
This announcement brings Central Florida within grasp of a cost-effective alternative to crippling gasoline costs and growing highway congestion along I-4. The Commuter Rail project now joins an elite group of only five other major New Starts transit projects in Final Design around the country... In addition, Final Design means that Commuter Rail will get its own dedicated funding request in the next president’s budget.
At about the same time, the related CSX intermodal logistics facility in Winter Haven received approval from the Central Florida Regional Planning Council of its Development of Regional Impact application.

The commuter rail projects in the Tampa Bay Area and Central Florida are moving forward. If we want to end the days when "all of Florida" is among places that were "useless holes of car dependence", it is time for us to get All Aboard.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Kos Pumping Fundraising for Joe Garcia

The lead story on DailyKos right now is by Kos on a Zogby poll showing Obama with a big lead in South Florida. But it also includes this little gem regarding raising money for Joe Garcia:

"We are almost halfway to our goal of 1,000 contributors to our new ActBlue page. But I'd like a secondary goal as we close out the fundraising quarter -- Garcia is at 160 contributors as of this writing. I'd like to get that to 250 contributors. I know lots of people want to send a message to Bush that raising money for his most loyal lieutenants will cost him. I also know there are more than 90 south Florida readers of this site, and here's your chance to give a boost to one of your locals fighting the good fight for the good of our country.

So let's get Garcia to 250 contributors and help paint South Florida a delicious shade of Blue."

Can't we help Kos and Joe Garcia out?

Full story here: