Put one hand on your wallet…

Stuck In Traffic by Ed Kant

you will scream with frustration if you have read Michael Peltier’s “News From Tallahassee” column in Monday morning’s NDN.

Mr. Peltier describes the recent attempts by our fearless leaders to resurrect the Central Florida High-speed Rail initiative and possibly jack up the money-losing east coast South Florida Tri-rail. How do they propose to make this rabbit come out of the hat? Why, of course, raid the gas tax fund (again)! After all, the gas tax is meant solely for transportation infrastructure and aren’t these rail projects related to transportation? After reading about this, I am convinced that not all the turkeys wound up on someone’s Thanksgiving table this year.

It seems that the gas tax fund has risen slightly over what had been predicted in the past few years. This is probably due to the overall increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) that we have been experiencing over the past several decades, albeit somewhat more slowly in the past several years than earlier in the cycle. In addition to the increase in VMT, there are more vehicles on the road as well, although the population figures have stabilized. Perhaps there are more vehicles available due to the recent spate of incentives given out by our other fearless leaders in Baghdad on the Potomac.

In any event, I see this eyeballing of the gas tax fund as yet another indication that those who are supposed to be in leadership positions have no clue as to what it takes to maintain and operate our transportation infrastructure. They merely look on that fund, as with any large pot of money, as a way of “satisfying constituents” and just possibly winning the next popularity contest.. er, I mean general election.

Fortunately, the gas tax funds may be used for maintenance and operations as opposed to the impact fee funds which may only be used for capacity building. With the decline of the housing and commercial building industries over the past five years, the impact fees are not nearly as plentiful as other revenue sources (all of which are still scarce). So, why this renewed interest in high-speed and commuter rail? Isn’t next year an election year? Naaah, that couldn’t be part of it. What was I thinking?

How about, if we are not building as many new roads and if the gas taxes are still coming in at a reasonably good rate, then why not start something new that will take folks’ attention off of the fact that there has never been a successful (read “successful” as running in the back, not the red) commuter rail or high-speed rail project in this country as of this date. Why is that, you ask? I believe that, until we release ourselves from the mantra that only over-the-road trucking can deliver all of the goods and materials we need in our various markets, then we will be bound to build more asphalt ribbons. We have, unfortunately, lost most of our rail rights-of-way (ROW) in this country over the past century as rail travel and rail freight movement gave way to the almighty automobile.

Yes, I am a Traffic Engineer and I make a comfortable living manipulating the factors that help to ease automobile and truck traffic in Florida, but that does not mean that I am ignorant of other, possibly more successful, means of moving people and goods from place to place. I like rail; both as a means for people to get from place to place and especially as a much more efficient way of moving goods and materials from place to place.

Well, enough of my rant. Is there anyone else out there that is concerned that we may lose a portion (a large portion) of our gas tax revenues, revenues that you and I in southwest Florida put in the kitty, to fund a Tampa-Orlando-Jacksonville rail project or a Palm Beach-Broward-Miami-Dade rail project? Will we ever see a Naples-Fort Myer-Sarasota-Tampa rail project? I doubt it – not enough potential users (the population densities along the west coast are much lower than those along the east coast and the central part of the state, regardless of how much you think the traffic is so terrible here). I don’t like it one bit and I plan to let those who represent us in Tallahassee know just what I think of that plan. I urge you to think about this and if you believe that raiding the gas tax revenues to provide funding for these parochial projects is wrong, please let them know.

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