TAMPA — For two decades, the Center for Urban Transportation Research has advised Florida policymakers on how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars to improve the state's overwhelmed transportation system.
The University of South Florida think tank says every transportation option it examines undergoes a rigorous and objective analysis. It says it plays no favorites.
But a St. Petersburg Times analysis shows CUTR has often criticized one type of travel — passenger rail — while promoting alternatives it is paid millions to study.
An examination of the center's research and funding shows:
• CUTR (pronounced "cutter") has consistently championed highway expansion even as it gets most of its grant money from Florida's largest road building entity — the Department of Transportation. Since 2003, the DOT has paid CUTR $26 million to study and advise on everything from toll roads to road rangers to drug abuse — but not passenger rail.
• CUTR has received more than $6 million since 2006 to research bus rapid transit, which competes for much of the same money that rail does. It has consistently favored this transportation option over rail.
• Since CUTR opened in 1988, its experts have been quoted or cited on rail in at least 119 published accounts. Their statements were three times more likely to be negative than positive, according to a survey of the Nexis data base.
Most of CUTR's positive assessments were published before Jeb Bush, a rail critic, was elected governor in 1999. Several of these stories publicized a study co-authored by CUTR that concluded a statewide bullet train would be a boon to Florida.
On the day that Bush scrapped the project, however, CUTR's then-director did an abrupt about-face, supporting the move and criticizing the train. Bush, it so happened, had a great deal of influence over the budgets of USF and the DOT — two major sources of CUTR's income.
CUTR officials said that the think tank doesn't have an antirail bias and that self-interest never influences its scholarship.
"Frankly, that's an insulting question," said Steve Polzin, CUTR's director of mobility policy research. "We pride ourselves on the work we do.''
But some local and state officials say it's no coincidence that CUTR's hometown of Tampa remains in a 20th century auto-centric landscape while cities such as Charlotte, Denver, Phoenix and Seattle are building new rail systems that are redeveloping their urban cores.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said CUTR's objections to rail have held the area back and could be recycled once again, this time to weaken public support of a light rail proposal that is headed for a vote next year.
"I've been very disappointed in the role CUTR has chosen to play," Iorio said. "I do believe academic think tanks can play a very important role in shaping public policy. But CUTR is such a waste of a resource. It's one of the reasons why we haven't moved forward with rail. It's really been a shame."
Matter of preference: BRT vs. rail
CUTR's 45 researchers occupy a two-story building wedged between a parking garage and USF's engineering school. Its founder, Gary Brosch, is an economist skeptical of rail. He once said taxi cabs were a suitable way for the Tampa Bay area to help meet its mass transit needs.
While most Tampa Bay residents have never heard of CUTR, elected officials often cite its work to justify their votes. Transportation agencies use its recommendations to help decide which projects get public subsidies and which don't.
And CUTR does more than just offer advice. Its mobility researcher, Polzin, who is paid $126,000 annually, is a voting member on two transportation boards that help determine how Hillsborough County spends taxpayer money.
Polzin and CUTR's director, Ed Mierzejewski, say they are free of political pressures and independent of the DOT even though that agency provides millions that go for salaries and research.
"I don't think I've ever felt any pressure from a DOT secretary to support or not support a particular point of view," said Mierzejewski, who is paid $157,447.
While they insist they're impartial when evaluating roads vs. buses vs. rail, the two men don't hide their affection for one mode of transportation -— bus rapid transit, also known as BRT.
Where BRT exists, lanes that could be set aside for rail are instead dedicated to specially designed buses that can go fast and trigger traffic signals so they don't have to stop.
Rail advocates regard BRT warily because the two compete for transit dollars. In fact, BRT often is used as a cheap substitute for rail projects that would be more effective, said Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization, which oversees long-term, local transportation planning.
In 2005, Congress awarded CUTR $7 million for its National Bus Rapid Transit Institute, which was established in 2001 to study and promote BRT across the nation. Brosch was its founder and served as chair until 2006.
In this job, Brosch lobbied for grant money, often sounding more like a BRT advocate than the impartial expert CUTR held him out to be.
"BRT is an idea whose time has come," said Brosch in 2003 testimony before a U.S. Senate subcommittee. "Fast, convenient, and frequent service are what transit users want, and BRT systems provide all of these factors in a very cost-effective manner."
Now semiretired, the former CUTR director acknowledges favoring BRT over rail.
"I personally became hugely enthused with (BRT)," Brosch said. "Rail is, you know, rail is rail. It didn't excite me as a new transportation technology."
Mierzejewski said CUTR doesn't let such personal preferences influence how the center studies transit choices, acknowledging that in some scenarios light rail is more cost-effective.
If so, why do CUTR officials continually tout BRT as a more affordable option?
"We don't have a contract to study rail's cost-effectiveness," Polzin said.
"That's right," Mierzejewski said.
"We do have a contract to study BRT's cost-effectiveness," Polzin said.
Tune changed as politics changed
CUTR hasn't always preferred other options to rail.
In 1997, CUTR was paid $52,000 to study a proposed $6.3 billion high speed rail project with Florida State University's Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis. The study concluded the train would produce $35 billion in statewide economic impact, create 252,000 jobs and reduce annual highway traffic by 261 million vehicle miles a year. Motorists driving from Tampa to Miami would save nearly three hours if they took the bullet train instead.
The report was so upbeat that Polzin, CUTR's lead researcher on the study, was asked if it was too rosy.
"We used the current, state-of-the-art methodologies and we used them correctly," said Polzin, the center's then-deputy director. "And obviously, we've got reputations that transcend this project that we are very sensitive about."
But CUTR's enthusiasm for the bullet train vanished when Bush was elected governor a year later. In his sixth day in office in 1999, Bush killed the project.
Brosch, CUTR's director at the time, told reporters: "I think this was a tough decision, but a good decision."
"The train would have an extremely minor impact on the highways."
When asked about this reversal, Brosch said it's the bullet train study he regrets, not his comments to reporters. He says now that the study analyzed only the benefits, not the costs.
Polzin, CUTR's lead researcher on the study, denies it endorsed the bullet train. He said other consultants came up with the rider estimates and additional data that he used to calculate the train's benefits, so he couldn't vouch for its accuracy. He said he was only asked to look at the good things the train would do.
"We weren't hired to look at the negatives," Polzin said.
But the lead researcher on the study said it determined the bullet train was a necessary investment for Florida. Tim Lynch, who is now retired, was the director of FSU's Florida Center for Economic Forecasting and Analysis. He said the study showed the train would pay back its costs and spin off other rail lines throughout the state, much like Florida's Turnpike does with toll roads.
"My support hasn't wavered," said Lynch, who thinks Bush's decision on the train set back passenger rail in Florida for a generation.
He said he never asked CUTR officials why they endorsed Bush's move, but he said it wasn't hard to understand. Bush was the governor, which means he had a lot to say about university budgets. CUTR is an arm of USF.
"(Brosch) needed to take care of his end of the university," Lynch said. "He decided to do what he thought was expedient at the time.''
Brosch said that's not true.
"Maybe the governor speaking out gave me courage to do so as well," he said. "Not because I was trying to get on his good terms, but generally I try not to speak out on rail issues."
Brosch said his philosophy as CUTR's founder was to help improve people's lives with transportation solutions. He said he couldn't do that with rail projects.
"I had seen, even back then, the issue of rail around the country was almost always a controversial issue," he said. "I just wanted to stay out of that issue."
Suggesting and deciding how to spend
Mierzejewski replaced Brosch as CUTR's director in 2001. But it's Polzin who is the center's public face.
Although he says he's open-minded on rail, the public record suggests otherwise.
In 1999, he wrote an opinion article in the Tampa Tribune that called the auto "the most attractive and efficient means of travel for the vast majority of people who live in Tampa Bay."
Rail might work in places like Portland, but not in Tampa, Polzin wrote.
His reputation as a transit guru has gone unquestioned by most elected officials. In December, all seven Hillsborough commissioners voted to return him to the board that oversees Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, where he already had served nearly seven years.
He sits on a county transportation task force, which helps decide how sales tax money is spent on various needs like buses, bike paths, rail and roads.
In 2007, the task force recommended spending $500 million in taxpayer money — $460 million for road improvements and $40 million for mass transit. Of the latter, 90 percent was for bus rapid transit. None was for rail.
The same board recommended a second phase this year where three-fourths of the money would be spent on rail and buses, but there is no funding for it. Polzin said he's not sure he would support a sales tax to finance the second phase.
Mierzejewski said he doesn't see a conflict in having one of his researchers sit on a board that makes recommendations on how tax dollars should be spent, even if it decides, like this one did, to spend it on a form of transportation that is heavily promoted by CUTR.
"Steve is there as a representative of Steve, not as a representative of CUTR," Mierzejewski said. "It has nothing to do with CUTR."
As a HART board member, Polzin has a mixed record on rail. Though he approved expanding downtown's street car system, he sought a few years ago to slash its public funding. This summer, he said too much energy was being expended on getting public backing for more mass transit investment and not enough was being invested in roads.
Last year, he expressed doubt that the 2010 ballot referendum on rail was giving the public a real choice about transportation. He maintains that Tampa is not ready for rail.
"Unfortunately, he's been viewed as an expert," Iorio said. "His advice on 'go slow' has been followed, and because of that, we're 20 years behind every other metropolitan area of our size."
But other elected officials say they value Polzin's advice. Pat Frank, Hillsborough's clerk of circuit court, said she relied partly on Polzin and CUTR material when she was a member of the County Commission. During that time, she consistently voted against light rail plans.
"CUTR is a research institution and carries considerable weight," Frank said. "They don't have anything personal to gain."
But Frank said she wasn't aware of the center's dependence on DOT grants and federal money to research bus rapid transit.
"That clouds that image," she said. "I would hope their results are not skewed by the money they receive."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes or (813) 226-3402.