A think tank at the University of South Florida is a significant voice in the development of the state's transportation policy. But as the St. Petersburg Times' Michael Van Sickler reported last week, the Center for Urban Transportation Research has often promoted forms of transit it has studied on behalf of paying clients. There should be a clear line between scholarship and advocacy if taxpayers are to make sound decisions on how to divide scarce public dollars among roads, buses and commuter rail.
Since opening in 1988, CUTR has advised Florida officials on how to spend billions of dollars to meet the state's transportation needs. The Times analysis shows the center has often criticized passenger rail while promoting roads and bus rapid transit, the alternatives it has been paid millions to study.
The Times found that CUTR championed highways as it got most of its grant money from Florida's biggest road-building entity, the Department of Transportation. Since 2003, the DOT has paid CUTR $26 million to study roads, transit and highway safety, but not passenger rail. CUTR also has received more than $6 million since 2006 to study bus rapid transit, which competes with rail for transit funds and has consistently been favored by the center over rail. CUTR once supported a statewide bullet train, but it changed its tune after then-Gov. Jeb Bush killed the project in 1999. The center's director at the time said he was not trying to curry favor with the governor — who wields enormous clout over the budgets of both DOT and USF — and that Bush's opposition "gave me courage to do so as well."
CUTR performs a service and valuable research, and it is an asset to the Tampa Bay area. But some local officials say the institution has shown a bias against rail that poorly serves the public debate just as Hillsborough County looks to put a referendum on the 2010 general election ballot to pay for commuter rail. "I've been very disappointed in the role CUTR has chosen to play," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told the Times. "It's one of the reasons why we haven't moved forward with rail."
CUTR officials say they do not tailor their research to promote the interests of any client. They deny an antirail bias, saying CUTR simply has not studied the cost-effectiveness of rail. But if the center has not studied rail, how can it consider it less effective than other forms of transit it has studied?
The director of the center's mobility policy research, Steven Polzin, has urged the region to go slow on rail; he also serves or served on several Hillsborough transit boards that shaped the pending rail referendum. Polzin said he is open to rail and would like to support the proposal for a penny sales tax increase for transit proposed for the 2010 ballot. And Polzin said his support will hinge on whether the referendum language allows the money to be spent on roads and buses as well as rail. As board member of HART, the county's transit agency that would take the lead in operating rail, Polzin says he and CUTR likely would be barred from doing contract work on the referendum. "If anything, we've done a lot less in this county because of my involvement with HART over 10 years."
Still, Polzin has a seat at the table because of his association with CUTR — an institution that has its own relationships with USF and the DOT. The public needs to hear an independent voice on transportation policy. Whom will Hillsborough County commissioners turn to for advice on whether to put a penny sales tax for transit on the ballot in 2010? And whom will voters look to for advice on whether to bite the bullet? The choice between rail and roads is already divisive and partisan enough. The last thing voters need is for the public debate to be clouded by self-interest disguised as an independent, objective voice. There should be more transparency, not less.