Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at email@example.com.
The man who hoped to lead the Republican Party of Florida a year ago now is setting his sights on becoming a Sarasota County Commissioner.
Christian Ziegler filed Monday to run for the Sarasota County Seat 2, hours after the incumbent, PaulCaragiulo, announced he would not be running again in 2018.
“Why I’m running? Simple — After being asked to consider running for this position of public trust, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help shape the local community that my mother retired to, my wife & I work in and most importantly, where my two daughters (4 & 2) will grow up in,” Ziegler wrote on his Facebook page Monday night.
“In the coming months, I look forward to speaking to as many of the residents & generous taxpayers in Sarasota County as possible in order to share my principles and most importantly — to hear directly from them about how we can improve local government & OUR local community.”
The 34-year-old Ziegler serves as state committeeman for the Sarasota Republican Party. He is an enthusiastic advocate for President Donald Trump.
Although this would be his first run for public office, Ziegler campaigned hard a year ago in a bid to defeat Blaise Ingoglia in the race for Republican Party of Florida chair. Ingoglia beat down the challenge, winning 152-76.
Christian Ziegler’s wife, Bridget Ziegler, serves as chair of the Sarasota County School Board.
A contentious bill that would expand the state’s school voucher system to allow children who are bullied to use tax dollars to pay private school tuition was approved by a Senate committee Monday.
Senate President-designate Bill Galvano’s bill (SB 1172)would establish the Hope Scholarship Program to provide the parent of a public school student subjected to a negative incident at school the opportunity to transfer the student to another public school or to request and receive from the state a scholarship for the student to enroll and attend an eligible private school.
The definition of an incident would be: Battery, harassment, hazing, bullying, kidnapping, physical attack, robbery, sexual offenses, harassment, threat or intimidation of fighting at school.
The House version is sponsored by Naples Republican Byron Donalds (HB 1), but is strongly backed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who has steadfastly supported school-choice policies.
Public school advocates told the Senate Education Committee that the bill was just another attempt to divert funds from public schools to private ones.
“We believe this is simply a voucher expansion bill, and like all of Florida’s voucher programs, we’re concerned about the complete lack of academic lack of academic accountability for these children,” said Sue Woltanski with the group Common Ground.
“This bill opens the door to universal vouchers in Florida,” said Stephanie Kunkel, representing the Florida Education Association. “The bill has the direct result of removing general revenue from schools and other programs.” The Hope Scholarship Program would be funded through a tax-credit program associated with the purchase of a motor vehicle.
Democrats on the panel weren’t so cynical, but all pressed for changes to the legislation.
Sen. Gary Farmer said he was worried that the legislation didn’t fully addressing protecting the student from being bullied at the private school he or she may migrate to after leaving the public school. And he noted how public schools and charter schools are required to report to the state the number of bullying incidents, but private schools aren’t.
Galvano said he would look into the issue.
Reviewing the categories that would qualify for a public school student to attempt to leave his or her school and move to a private institution, Thonotosassa Republican Tom Lee wondered about the legal definitions of some of them. He said he wasn’t sure what was the definition of harassment or bullying in this particular context.
“This is part of life to some extent, and kids are going to make threats and intimidate one another on occasion, and I just don’t want to create an environment where we don’t have real good strict definitions or some pattern of behavior develop where someone doesn’t like what somebody said to him and they consider it a threat,” Lee said.
He later added that sometimes such incidents were in the eye of the beholder. In the 2015-2016 school year in Florida, there were over 32,000 total incidents reported about fighting or physical attack in state public schools.
Marco Rubio believes an agreement in Congress to protect approximately 780,000 undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program can and should happen.
But Florida’s junior U.S. Senator also warns that such a deal shouldn’t be the product of a “gang” of senators as it was with the group he was a part of for comprehensive immigration reform the Senate passed in 2013.
Appearing Monday on Fox and Friends, Rubio said any legislation would have to include funding to build a wall for border security and a need to find “some permanent status” for those currently in DACA.
“That is the deal. What has complicated it is people come forward and say ‘Well, I want citizenship,’ which Republicans and even the president has expressed an openness to but only if you deal with chain migration,” Rubio said.
Chain migration is a term used first by demographers in the mid-1960s to describe the process of allowing legal immigrants to petition for their parents, adult brothers and sisters and adult sons and daughters to come to the U.S.
Republican Senators Tom Cotton from Arkansas and David Perdue from Georgia have introduced legislation that would reform chain migration and create a point system to evaluate potential immigrants based on factors such as age, education, professional skills and English proficiency.
Rubio said that if Democrats want to talk about a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, then a debate about chain migration has to be on the table. But he said that Democrats have to understand that such a deal won’t happen until they agree to authorize funding to construct a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border.
“The president has expressed a willingness to do it, but it’s important for Democrats to understand: nothing is going to happen unless we can figure out a way to permanently fund the wall and the enforcement that the president wants, and that the vast majority of Americans and myself included, support,” Rubio said.
Rubio added that progress can happen quickly on the issue, “but it cannot be a product of a gang of four or five people meeting somewhere, putting a bill on the floor, and saying ‘take it or leave it.'”
“I was part of an effort like that in 2013, I see others are trying to do it now. It won’t work. This issue is too critical to too many people to be a product of a small group and a ‘take it or leave it’ proposition.”
Rubio was a crucial part of the “Gang of 8” that passed a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. The bill was attacked by conservative media, and then-Speaker John Boehner refused to put the bill up for a vote in the House.
Tea Party groups protested Rubio’s support for the bill as well, and he began backing away from it almost immediately after its passage in the Senate. While running for president two years ago, he said at a campaign stop that the bill “was not headed toward becoming law,” telling a questioner in Rock Hill, South Carolina, that “ideally it was headed toward the House, where conservative members of the House were going to make it even better.”
Rubio’s appearance on Fox took place just a few hours before the Senate was scheduled to vote on legislation that would reopen the government by extending funding until Feb. 8. It would also extend the low-income children’s health insurance program, CHIP, for six years and suspend some taxes under the Affordable Care Act. It does not include any legislative fix addressing those in the DACA program.
There’s now “a path forward to help the DREAMers,” Bill Nelson declared after joining 32 of his Democratic colleagues Monday in advancing a bill to fund the government through Feb. 8.
“This is a win for bipartisanship and common-sense,” Florida’s Democratic senator said after voting. “I have been meeting with a group of moderate senators for days to reach a consensus to end the shutdown and get a commitment to take up other critical legislation. As a result, there is now a path forward to help the DREAMers, fund the military and other agencies and provide Florida with the hurricane disaster assistance it still needs.”
By an 81 to 18 vote, the U.S. Senate approved cutting off debate on a bill that would end the federal government shutdown — essentially ensuring its passage in a subsequent vote, which is likely to be held later Monday. The continuing resolution includes a six-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, but no protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
In a deal forged between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, if a broader deal on the Deferred Action Children Action (DACA) plan is not reached by Feb. 8, the Senate would then take up legislation to protect more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants who face losing protections from being deported.
On Sunday, Nelson had tweeted the reason he voted against the Continuing Resolution Friday night was that it did not include disaster relief to help Floridians recover from Hurricane Irma. The bill that he voted for Monday to end the government shutdown does not include any disaster relief for Florida.
Nelson is among a group of 10 Democratic senators up for re-election in states won by Donald Trump in 2016; he was undoubtedly feeling pressure to agree to a deal ending the 48-hour standoff.
Now the Orlando Democrat faces criticism from progressive groups for agreeing to a promise by Republican leaders to address immigration at a later date, without any guarantees.
In March, the 700,000 undocumented immigrants on DACA are scheduled to lose legal protections from deportation. It’s why Democrats were advocating for that issue to be contained in this latest bill to keep the government functioning. Over the past week, McConnell insisted there was no urgency to act on DACA, since it doesn’t expire until March.
“Democrats need to ask themselves: what do they really care about — human beings or irrelevant political grandstanding? If the answer isn’t people, then are we any better?” asked liberal Democratic activist and fundraiser Tom Steyer.
Nelson’s statement noted that he was part of a bipartisan group of senators that convened over the weekend to come up with a compromise that ends the shutdown, which officially began Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
Nelson was not among the group of those same Senate Democrats who announced Friday they would vote to withhold pay for members of Congress during the shutdown, in a proposal sponsored by North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
Democratic gubernatorial nominees Philip Levine and Chris King spoke before their largest audiences to date in the Tampa Bay region on Sunday at the Women’s March in downtown St. Petersburg.
Several thousand people crammed into Williams Park for the rally, which, in an unusual twist, Levine co-sponsored.
“The opportunity came up and we believe in women’s rights and human rights and any way we can bring our message forward in the right venue, and this was one of them, so we were honored to be given that opportunity,” the former Miami Beach mayor said shortly after he addressed the audience.
The appearance before a mostly Democratic, friendly crowd was a boost for both candidates in getting attention from voters in the state’s biggest media market. Although it’s still relatively early going in the race, both trail former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham in the polls of the race to become the Democratic nominee for Florida Governor.
Levine got into a verbal back and forth with the Graham campaign during his last visit to the Bay area. That exchange prompted a statement from the Republican Governors Association in which it mocked the two candidates as being “desperate to turn things around amid embarrassingly low name recognition and lackluster fundraising.”
The statement “flattered me greatly,” Levine said Sunday. “I guess they think that I’m a very viable potential nominee for the party. I don’t see them picking on anyone else, so I’m going to wear that like a bad of honor.”
(Actually, that isn’t accurate. The RGA has previously sent out statements attacking Graham, Levine and Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.)
A multimillionaire who made his fortune running media companies in the cruise industry, Levine says his focus on being both “pro-people and pro-business is something that I think scares the heck out of them,” referring to the GOP.
Levine has called himself a “radical centrist” and, somewhat unusual in a Democratic primary campaign, says he welcomes Republican support for his candidacy.
“I can’t tell you how many Republicans have come up to me and said the same thing,” he recounted Sunday. “They go, ‘Mayor, I have been a lifelong Republican, I have never voted for a Democrat, you’re the first Democrat I’m going to vote for.’ In a purple state like Florida, we need Republicans to believe in our message. We need independents, and we need Democrats, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
With Florida being a closed primary state, those registered Republicans and independents wouldn’t get a chance to vote for any Democrat until the general election.
Graham and Gillum participated in the Women’s March in Miami Sunday.
Kay Akins is still “pissed off” about Donald Trump‘s election more than a year ago. “It gets worse every day.”
The Naperville, Illinois resident joined thousands of protesters Sunday in what felt like a seismic level of antipathy for the President of the United States, felt in both St. Petersburg and many parts of the country.
A year ago, Akins participated in the massive Women’s March in Washington D.C. She never felt more solidarity with so many like-minded people in her life, she said.
This time around, Akins found herself in the Tampa Bay area; she drove by herself Sunday to the Women’s March in St. Petersburg’s Williams Park, joined by thousands of similarly like-minded people. Organizers called on them to make their voices heard by voting in this year’s midterm elections.
Unlike last year, when the marches were all held on the day after the president’s inauguration, protestors held rallies over both weekend days this year, with gatherings Sunday in Las Vegas, Miami, Seattle, Phoenix and many other cities around the country.
On Saturday, a reported 120,000 crowded streets in Manhattan for a women’s march, with massive rallies in Chicago, D.C., the San Francisco area and many other locations.
Among organizers, the theme was “Power to the Polls,” featuring a call to have more women participate in elections this November.
But among those in the crowd, the focus was squarely on Trump.
“He awakened the sleeping giant,” said Patti Michaud, who served asco-captain of the Central Gulf Coast Women’s March.
An activist in the 1960s, Michaud said that while things may have become better for women, following Trump’s election, they were now “fighting for the rights we fought for fifty years ago.”
As a result, record numbers of women are running for office this year. At least 79 female candidates are exploring runs for governor, according to the Rutgers UniversityCenter for American Women and Politics.
Emily’s List, which recruits and trains pro-choice Democratic women, announced last month that over 25,000 women had contacted the organization about running for office since the 2016 election. Additionally, over 8,000 people have signed up to help women run for office.
Among those locally who are pursuing a run for office for the first time is Tampa resident Kimberly Overman, a Democrat running for the Hillsborough County Commission\. Overman attended last year’s march in Washington, which she called “inspirational” and said it demonstrated the power of women working together to get something done.
“I think that’s one of the values of having women in the process,” she said, “whether it be on the corporate side and corporate boards, whether it be on the government side in terms of serving for office, whether it be in the lobbying world, where women actually can help people find a consensus and find some good solutions.”
Other female candidates in attendance included Democrat Jennifer Webb, who is taking a second shot at the House District 69 seat this year.
Trump’s election was a shock, one that took awhile to get over, said Palm Harbor resident Kim Nymeyer. Like others at the event Sunday, she called her participation in last year’s march a cathartic experience.
It’s different this time around, Nymeyer added. “People are asking: What is the action now?”
Joining Nymeyer was her friend Marlene Witherspoon, who made the trek from Fort Myers to St. Pete. The two sat with beach chairs directly in front of the stage at Williams Park.
Reflecting on the 2016 election, Witherspoon admitted she was restrained in her support for Hillary Clinton, the reason she didn’t campaign for her in the conservative hometown, as she had for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“I wasn’t on board with her,” she recounts. “She was too polarizing for me to risk knocking on doors to people [who] I know are Republicans.”
While Trump’s candidacy brought out conservative voters disaffected from the political process for years, his subsequent election has energized progressives who had been indifferent in the past, such as Lakeland resident Michelle Ploughman.
Wearing an “Elizabeth Warren in 2020″ T-shirt, Ploughman said the opportunity to empower female voices is part of the movement in which she’s taking part. She cited the power of black women in particular for Democrat Doug Jones’ victory over Republican Roy Moore in the Alabama U.S. Senate special election last month.
“That’s what this is all about for me. It’s really just promoting the idea that we all have the chance to make change in whatever area we choose and the best choice at this point is to vote.”
There were dozens (if not hundreds) of signs held up by those in the crowd: “The future is female,” “Vote like a Girl,” “Stop tweeting and read a book,” to name a few.
Scheduled to appear was U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, but events with the government shutdown in Washington precluded his appearance.
As was the case last year, Mayor Rick Kriseman made an appearance, as did Democratic gubernatorial candidate Philip Levine.
“Are you all ready to get expelled from Trump University?” Levine asked to a roar of approval.
Levine then awkwardly posited that it was time to enroll in a new university: “The university of doing the right thing.”
That’s a mantra heard in his often-aired television commercials touting his candidacy. In a creative bit of outreach, Levine also paid to co-sponsor the event.
In a four-and-a-half minute speech, Levine touted campaign pledges: raising the minimum wage, investing in public education and keeping a strong environment. And he excitedly told the crowd that November’s election in Florida was the most important “in the world.”
“Because so goes this governorship this year, so goes the presidency in 2020,” he said. “Women of Florida, you must vote. We must change our state. We will change our country. We will change the world. It begins right here in St Petersburg. It begins right here in Florida.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris King spoke later in the afternoon as well.
In the audience, St. Petersburg resident Joan Thurmond was wearing a T-shirt touting the candidacy of Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, yet another one of Levine’s opponents in the Democratic race (Gillum and Gwen Graham, the other major Democratic candidate for governor, spoke in Miami on Sunday).
“I think he’s a racist,” Thurmond said of Trump. “A bigot. And I really think that he does not know what running the most powerful country in the world is all about. ”
Thurmond added that she didn’t appreciate his recent comment reportedly disparaging African nations.
“Being African-American, I know what it’s like to be discriminated against.”
Although overwhelmingly female in number, the crowd was diverse regarding race and especially in age, where toddlers to seniors were well represented.
Whether 2018 will be “The Year of the Women” at the ballot box won’t be known until after the November 6 midterms. But to women like Akins, their outlook on politics has been forever changed, no matter what happens this fall.
“My husband always says, ‘you can’t do anything,'” she recounted. “I said, ‘I can be there and give my voice.'”
The National Republican Senate Committee (NRSC) is targeting Sen. Bill Nelson with an online Facebook ad condemning Democrats for the failure to come together on a Continuing Resolution to keep the government running.
The ad focuses on how the shutdown threatens hundreds of thousands of Florida children from receiving health insurance and stops funding for the military.
“Bill Nelson’s vote for the Schumer Shutdown will have serious, real-world consequences for Florida children and seniors, as well as our national security,” said NRSC Communications Director Katie Martin. “When it really mattered, Nelson sided with Washington Democrats instead of Florida, and voters won’t forget in November.”
The Florida Commission on Ethics decided Friday to give Hillsborough County Commission Ken Hagan the opportunity to amend a petition requesting that activist George Niemann pay his legal fees.
The decision came after a commission attorney advocated that Hagan’s petition be dismissed.
The county paid Hagan’s attorney, MarkLevine, $7,841 last year to defend the District 5 commissioner against Niemann’s ethics complaints.
Those complaints alleged that Hagan received free campaign consulting services and other assistance from public relations consultant Beth Leytham, and repaid her by steering a $1.3 million contract related to Go Hillsborough to one of her clients, Parsons Brinckerhoff.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office investigated the matter in 2016 and concluded there were no criminal violations. Niemann and three others then filed an ethics complaint with the state office in Tallahassee. The Ethics Commission threw out the complaint last year against Hagan, as well as complaints against Commissioner Sandy Murman and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
Hagan then turned around and called on the County Commission to back his request to have Niemann reimburse the county’s legal fees to Levine. It did so on a 4-3 vote.
Among those four commissioners backing Hagan was Murman. Unlike Hagan, she opted not to pursue a claim to get the county’s legal fees spent on her behalf.
At the hearing Friday morning, Gray Schaefer, a staff attorney for the Ethics Commission, said the complaint made by Levine against Niemann was “a very general allegation,” that Niemann’s complaint contained false allegations, and that Niemann knew or should have known that it was false at the time of his filing.
“There’s nothing specific in the petition alleging why the commissioner feels Mr. Niemann knew the two allegations were false at the time he filed the complaint,” said Schafer, who added that there was no support backing up the charge that Niemann knew he was making a false complaint.
Schaefer said it was common that complaints were made from news reports and not original sourcing.
Levine responded that anyone who knew him would “clearly agree” that he’d be the last person to advocate for thwarting a citizens’ right to seek redress of violations of public trust. However, he said his understanding was that Niemann did not get his information from a newspaper article or television report, but from a specific tip from a news reporter.
Hagan was unfairly under a cloud of suspicion for the past two years, Levine said, adding that his children who attend public school have had to contend with name-calling because of the allegations.
“His children come home. They’re not very happy. Daughter crying because somebody said, ‘Your dad’s a crook,'” Levine said.
He then said that if the counsel for the Commission on Ethics felt that he had not pled the case properly, then they should give him the opportunity to amend his petition.
“It’s routinely done in circuit court,” he said, adding that he needed time in discovery to find out what Niemann knew, “when he knew it, how he knew it and what he thought about it.”
After debate, the Ethics Commission voted to give Levine 30 more days before resubmitting his petition.
Niemann has filed 10 ethics complaints over the past decade against Hagan. In 2014, he was successful. That’s when Hagan agreed to pay a $2,000 fine after admitting he violated state ethics laws by failing to properly disclose assets on annual financial disclosure forms.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that of the 2,189 complaints filed since 2007 with the Ethics Commission, less than 2 percent of defendants sought reimbursement for their fees. Among the 37 reimbursement cases finalized during that period, 30 were dismissed, two were settled and five ended in an awarding of payment.
Hagan is running for the Hillsborough County Commission District 2 seat this year, after being term-limited out of his District 5 seat.
Niemann is running as a write-in candidate for the District 5 seat.
With Congress potentially just hours away from a government shutdown in part because of a dispute over whether to include a plan to deal with those affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a group of Florida Democrats slammed Gov. Rick Scott Friday for what they called his hypocrisy regarding DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers.
In an op-edpublished this week in USA Today, Scott called on Congress to secure the immigration status of those young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. through their parent’s choice. Scott also said policy decisions should be coupled with enhancements for border security.
“Personally, I just don’t see how doing the right thing for these kids, and doing the right thing for our country by securing our borders, are partisan issues,” Scott wrote. “These are just plain common-sense actions for Congress to take.”
Approximately 780,000 Dreamers were given protection from deportation under DACA in 2014, but President Donald Trump announced last year he was dismantling it this March. Democrats want to address the issue this week within a continuing resolution, while Republicans say there is no urgency to do so just yet, and it should not be a barrier to keeping the government up and running.
“In Florida, we pride ourselves on being the gateway to the world,” Scott added. “Many Dreamers live in our state because they are in search of what we all care about: a good job, a good education and the ability to live in a safe community. It’s time for Washington to secure our borders and to do the right thing for these kids by removing the uncertainty hanging over their future goals and dreams. It’s really not too much for us to ask Congress to get these things done.”
With Scott likely to take on Democrat Bill Nelson in a U.S. Senate race this year, Florida Democrats seized upon Scott’s take on the issue, saying his more sympathetic stance towards Dreamers is an election year conversion, noting his support for a controversial immigration law in Arizona when he first ran in 2010.
That law, SB 1070, required police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” they are in the U.S. illegally. Arizona ended that policy in 2016.
“Rick Scott can write all of the op-eds he wants, but Dreamers will remember who was on their side over the past 16 years of fighting for the DREAM Act,” said House Minority Leader Janet Cruz in a conference call. “They’ll remember who campaigned on a platform of deporting them and who marched with them. They’ll remember who the real allies of Florida immigrants have been.”
Boca Raton Democratic U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch called SB 1070 one of the “most racist, anti-Latino pieces of legislation in recent history.”
“He even paid for TV ads applauding it, and tried very, very hard to bring it to Florida,” Deutch added. “We talk about candidates borrowing from the Trump-playbook of scapegoating immigrants, but it’s possible if you look at the history that our President borrowed from Scott’s playbook.”
Deutsch also referred to Scott’s attempts to purge the voter rolls in 2012, citing a Miami Herald story that found 58 percent of those who would be purged from the rolls where Hispanic. “This Governor cannot hide from his record,” he said. “DREAMers don’t need lip service, they need Republicans who will join with Democrats and step up to pass a clean DREAM Act.”
“When the DREAM Act came before Congress in 2010, Rick Scott made it very clear that he was against it, saying that he ‘does not believe in amnesty,”‘ said Broward County Democratic state Sen. Gary Farmer. “Three years later later Rick Scott opposed Dreamers once again, as he vetoed bipartisan legislation that allowed DACA recipients to receive temporary driver’s licenses. In 2014 Rick Scott refused to oppose a lawsuit led by Donald Trump’s favorite State Attorney General Pam Bondi, which opposed DACA and DAPA, seeking to block as many as 5 million undocumented youth and their parents, including thousands here in Florida, from receiving permits which would protect them from unjust deportation.”
Last fall, Scott said that President Barack Obama was wrong to address the Dreamers issue by Executive Order, and said it should have been done in consultation with Congress.
“I do not favor punishing children for the actions of their parents,” he said in a statement, adding that “these kids must be allowed to pursue the American Dream, and Congress must act on this immediately.”
“Governor Scott has been clear in his support for DREAMers, including supporting and signing a bill in 2014 that provided in-state tuition for DREAMers in Florida,” spokesperson Kerri Wyland said late Friday.
A transportation plan for the Tampa Bay area that would use bus rapid transit (BRT) and not rail to move riders from Wesley Chapel in Pasco County to downtown St. Petersburg was introduced to the public Friday.
Called a “catalyst” project because of the hopes that it would jumpstart transit planning in the region, the 41-mile, rubber transit line along I-275 was presented by a consultant to the members of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area (TMA) Leadership Group on Friday in St. Petersburg.
The TMA consists of political and transportation leaders from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
The Tampa Bay Times reported on the initial concept of the plan last week, so most of those in attendance at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) headquarters were aware that it was a BRT and not a rail project, but all were hungry for more specific information.
“This is not your everyday bus,” ScottPringle with Jacobs Engineering said in introducing the plan. Jacobs Engineering is the company conducting the transit.
“It doesn’t look like a bus, it looks a train, and has the same passenger amenities that rail service has,” he said.
Though not exclusively throughout its 41 miles, there would be a separate lane at different parts of the route for the bus to bypass congestion, enabling it to travel as fast as a train. There would also be transit stations along the route, some elevated. Because of those differences, Pringle calls it “rubber tire” rather than bus service.
Originally called a premium transit study but now renamed the regional transit feasibility plan, Pringle said that the research that his team at Jacobs did last year ultimately came down between two options – the I-275 Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg BRT project, or a nine-mile CSX rail corridor project between the USF area in Tampa to downtown Tampa.
He presented a slideshow on how and why his team ultimately chose the BRT project. Much of it came down to costs.
Pringle presented side by side comparisons showing that the cost per trip is cheaper via the I-275/BRT project at $8-$10 a ride, vs. $10-$13 from CSX.
The total cost for the I-275/BRT project would range between $380-$455 million. The CSX project would range from $490-$620 million.
There is also this: There would be no need to build right-of-way for the BRT project vs. the CSX project, and it would take roughly half as much time: 5 years vs. 10 years, to construct the BRT project. He said it would initially serve about 4,100 passengers.
Jacobs said the decision to jettison rail and focus on BRT came last November when realizing the total dollars involved. Jacobs Engineering realized that it would cost between $2.5 and $4 billion to build passenger rail or a dedicated interstate median.
The project also connects to a number of transportation projects in the region either underway or in the planning stages, such as Pasco County’s Vision 54/56, the City of Tampa’s Streetcar Extension, the Florida Dept. of Transportation’s (FDOT) identification of Regional Intermodal Centers, and St. Petersburg’s Central Avenue BRT (which will actually run on First Avenue North and First Avenue South).
FDOT is funding the $1.5 million study, but it’s the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority which has been overseeing the project. FDOT’s District 7 secretary David Gwynne said that while his agency has nothing to do with the plan being proposed, it has set aside $5 million if a project is decided upon that will enter the process for federal funding. He agreed that there are already plans by DOT to improve roadways along I-275 that could create “synergies” with the proposed BRT route, lowering the overall costs of the project.
Reviews were scattered.
“I think project definitely gets us started,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said she was fine with the express buses and limited stops as an option, but opposed the idea of spending money on elevated stations.
“I don’t think it will be transformative,” she said.
“Today’s presentation if off to a good start by showing we can significantly lower costs, attract federal funding and innovate with existing structures,” said St. Pete City Councilwoman and PSTA Chair Darden Rice.
Transit advocates in Tampa weren’t so impressed.
“This Regional Transit Project seems to be more of the same a little bit of money spent that won’t create as good of benefits as the less sexy work of making urban transit service work,” said Kevin Thurman. “I’ll take the dedicated transit Right of Way to operate service in, but the project itself isn’t too impressive no matter what mode (rail, Bus, etc). If people want a transit upgrade here it must be combined with a massive commitment to increase the usability of the bus service — not follow a gutting of the service with this kind of project. “
Michelle Cookson with the Tampa-based group Sunshine Citizens said the entire process of the transit feasibility plan is flawed because of a lack of meaningful input and collaboration with the public.
“It has that same feel of ‘here’s the pre-determined outcome, a political solution’ instead of listening to the public that has consistently, repeatedly communicated that they want emphasis on a vision and comprehensive plan- one that includes several, connected mass transit modes (light rail, gold standard BRT, modernized, extended streetcar),” she wrote in an email.
Cookson also criticized what she said has been a glaring lack of transparency in the process.
Pinellas County Commission candidate and Greenlight Pinellas foe Barb Haselden praised the fact that rail was now off the table.
“On behalf of the 62 percent of Pinellas voters that voted against rail, we hope you will no longer go down that road,” she said, referring to percentage that the 2014 transit tax went down to defeat.
Pringles said that there would be a very robust outreach period taking place over the spring and summer. After incorporating that feedback, the plan will be finalized in the fall.