Elected lawmakers requesting money for roads and transit projects in the state budget run the risk of crossing the Florida Department of Transportation.
If it comes as a surprise that control over much of the state's $10 billion annual transportation budget is in the hands of bureaucrats as opposed to lawmakers held accountable by voters, those more familiar with the process say that's just the way the system works.
"You don't want to do something that they perceive as going behind their back," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said, referring to the DOT.
There are two paths toward earning state transportation dollars: land a spot in the DOT five-year work program or ask a legislator to place a line-item in the budget. A recent Tampa Bay Times report found that Pinellas and Hillsborough county legislators tend to stay away from the second option, asking for far fewer line-items for transportation this year than lawmakers in other major counties.
Kriseman, a former state representative, said one reason for Tampa Bay's lack of legislative requests is that DOT officials prefer local officials to work through the five-year work program, which the agency coordinates more closely. Kriseman said requests by state lawmakers for one-year allocations could be viewed by DOT officials as circumventing that process.
Lisa Saliba, director of DOT's work program and budget, said legislators have the power to appropriate money, but they're not encouraged to do so. That's a message Gov. Rick Scott isn't shy about sending with his veto pen, either.
"Sometimes the governor uses his veto as a message that folks need to go through the process," Saliba said, referring to several projects that made it into the state budget as line-items in past years but were vetoed by the governor.
Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Whit Blanton said there are risks to taking the line-item route because of the way the process works. For example, many of those projects are slated for partial funding in the work program. But if the governor vetoes the legislative request, which he often does, then an MPO cannot ask the state to set aside money for it in the work program for at least a year.
"That's the rule," Blanton said. "That's what we get told by DOT ... It's a real risk, reward proposition."
Still, it's an option lawmakers throughout the state use more frequently and at a much higher rate than their Tampa Bay counterparts. While legislators in Pinellas and Hillsborough asked for a combined $8 million worth of projects this year, their counterparts in Miami Dade and Broward together requested $50 million. Even smaller counties such as Volusia, Escambia and Lake have each asked for $14 million to $27 million.
There is a perception within the agency that legislative requests could affect the amount of money allocated to DOT in the final state budget, Kriseman said. Because of that, local and state politicians are encouraged to use the agency's system.
Kriseman, a leading advocate for the pilot ferry program operating between downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa, said extending the project was a good candidate for a legislative bill. However, the pilot program hasn't finished and new rules require legislative requests to be filed much earlier. So the ferry didn't make it onto lawmakers' list of projects. Kriseman said he was also wary of not dealing directly with Tampa Bay DOT secretary Paul Steinman.
"I've worked really hard to build a good relationship with him," Kriseman said. "I don't want to do something he feels is undermining him."
Because there is a limited amount of money, Saliba said, there needs to be a way to prioritize projects. That's where local MPOs come in. They are the pipeline for the state's five-year work program.
Pinellas and Hillsborough each have their own MPO, though some local leaders worry this contributes to the fragmented nature of the region and makes it more difficult to coordinate budget requests. However, Blanton said there are priorities, both on a county and regional level, for which lawmakers can advocate.
For instance, a group comprised of MPO leaders from Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco adopted a list of regional transportation priorities for this legislative session. That list of preferred projects exists, Blanton said, but it's up to someone to ask for money for each one.
"We have a cultural, fragmented mindset we've got to overcome," Blanton said, "and it's certainly so much more than how many MPOs are in our region."
State Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said she wanted to make more transportation requests — she filed one $500,000 ask for Hillsborough's transit agency — but she needed the county or city to recommend a project. Toledo said she called Mayor Bob Buckhorn's office asking if they had any requests. His office provided information for a stormwater drainage project, she said, but nothing for transportation.
"As much as I want to do these transportation improvements, I can't just invent them," she said. "It's something I have to get from the city or county."
Toledo said she did not call Hillsborough County. However, the county does have a detailed list of transportation projects, including road, pedestrian and transit options.
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill raised another complication: It's difficult for legislators to ask for state money when there aren't any local dollars available to match.
"To put a legislator in a position of just saying, 'give us $15 million,' but not having anything to put up with it is probably not a good idea," he said. "Once we can show that we have plan and it has a long-term funding source, then I think we're in a better position to make a big ask.
"Other counties are in that position. We're not."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.