A proposal that would provide $25 million both to the Tampa Bay area and Miami-Dade County for alternative transportation projects advanced in a Senate committee Wednesday, but not before there was considerable debate and criticism from Democrats who considered it unfair that their communities were being left out.
Tampa Republican Dana Young‘s bill (SB 1200) would repurpose (or “liberate,” to use the Senator’s term) $60 million in funds originally approved by the Legislature for Orlando’s rail project known as SunRail, and divert most of those monies beginning in 2021 to the Tampa-Bay Area and Miami-Dade County to spend on alternative transportation projects.
The wish list include autonomous vehicles and bus rapid transit. The remaining $10 million would be allocated across the state.
“We are at a pivotal moment in the two metropolitan areas that I mentioned, because simply building more roads is not going to be sufficient to handle the transportation needs today and certainly not the future,” Young said at the outset of what was nearly an hour-long discussion on the bill before the Senate Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
She also presented a strike-all amendment that included a name change. Instead of being called the Statewide Alternative Transportation Authority, it will now be known as Statewide Mobility Innovation Program. It would be housed within the Department of Transportation.
Unlike the bill’s initial committee hearing in the Senate, Young received significant pushback from Democrats in this committee, mostly regarding questions about why only the Miami and Tampa regions were receiving so much funding for the bill.
Jacksonville Democrat Audrey Gibson said that a project in her district that the Jacksonville Transportation Authority is working on called the Ultimate Urban Circulator was worthy of consideration under the guidelines that Young’s legislation proposes.
The Ultimate Urban Circulator deploys driverless vehicles onto the current Skyway rail system and would expand into other neighborhoods and developments. Her amendment called for $8 million to be allocated annually to that project. While Young said she considered it a “friendly” amendment, the committee voted it down.
South Florida Democrats Perry Thurston, Bobby Powell and Kevin Rader all raised objections to Young’s proposal, saying it was essentially unfair to allocate the majority of the funding to just two regions of the state.
Young was pressed by Powell if she had specific criteria asserting that Tampa Bay and Miami-Dade were the two worst places in Florida with regard to traffic congestion, and remained unconvinced by her response.
“It’s kind of like a money grab here,” said Rader, who’s from Boca Raton. “I completely disagree with this process and how we’re dividing our taxpayers’ money in this fashion.”
Thurston proposed a different amendment that would spread the $60 million towards all 67 counties. It too failed to pass.
Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano said it was important to realize that the funds were already allocated for rail, but with transportation changing so rapidly, it makes sense to reallocate them for the future.
“If you vote no, those funds are going to stay earmarked in that particular fund, and they won’t impact any area of the state, unless we say let’s go back to the antiquated model and see it funded,” Galvano said. “I think that’s going backwards.”
The committee then approved the bill, 7-3, with Thurston, Powell and Rader voting ‘no.’