TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation should stop paying a University of South Florida think tank millions of dollars to advise policymakers on how to improve transportation, a powerful state senator said Monday.
"Tax dollars are being wasted and individuals at this think tank go along with whomever is paying their salaries," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Let them find revenue from somewhere else. This well has just about run dry."
Fasano chairs a Senate committee that oversees how the DOT spends its money. Over the past eight years, the agency has paid USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research $26.8 million to study and give advice on a variety of issues, including toll roads, road rangers, bus safety and drug abuse.
Fasano said he didn't know the DOT had been paying CUTR (pronounced cutter) for research until he read a story in Saturday's St. Petersburg Times. The story reported CUTR has consistently criticized rail, which it doesn't get money to study, while it has championed alternatives such as road expansion and bus rapid transit, which it is paid to research.
"It's wild," Fasano said. "None of us knew that some of our taxpayer money was going to some think tank. It's laughable that the DOT has paid it $26 million. This is why people don't trust government."
Officials at the center say they play no favorites when evaluating transportation options and their scholarship isn't swayed by the money the center gets.
Fasano, who supports commuter rail, said he was concerned that CUTR had an anti-rail bias. But he said it was the amount of money the DOT has paid CUTR, especially in tough economic times, that is more worrisome.
As the chairman of the Senate's Committee on Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations, Fasano helps decide what gets included — and excluded — from the DOT budget. He said he'll consider proposing a budget that eliminates future funding for think tanks.
If CUTR does lose DOT funding, it would be a major blow. Founded in 1988, the center has 45 researchers. USF pays only a portion of their salaries. It gets the rest from grants, most of it from the DOT. In 2008 alone, CUTR was awarded $2.9 million in DOT money.
"The DOT is a significant sponsor of our research," said Ed Mierzejewski, CUTR's director. When told about Fasano's comments, he referred questions to the DOT.
"Every project that we work on has a scope of work that the DOT has agreed for us to do," Mierzejewski said. "(The DOT) must presume that this is something we should do."
DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos couldn't be reached for comment. Fasano said he spoke with her over the weekend, but she hadn't read the article.
Fasano reviewed a list of grants DOT awarded CUTR since 2001. He specifically questioned $600,000 the center received in grants to advise the DOT on drug abuse and $75,000 to study the state's Road Ranger program.
"Someone will have to convince me between now and the spring, when we decide the budget, that these expenses were necessary," Fasano said. "Right now, I'm not convinced."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.