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Sarasota Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 5 years ago

Our View: Derail the streetcar


At first thought, it sounds appealing and intriguing — a fixed-rail streetcar system for downtown Sarasota. How cute and quaint.

But then the next thing that comes to mind is: How much will it cost, and from where will the money come?

Oh, yeah, the money.

No problem, the streetcar’s proponents and city officials say. We’ll get the federal government (taxpayers) and the state government (taxpayers) to pay for it. After all, look at what the city of Fort Lauderdale is doing. It’s building a $125 million streetcar system with $83 million from federal and state taxpayers and the remainder from local taxpayers.

Now stop and think about that — Fort Lauderdale’s sucking up taxpayer money for a streetcar system and Sarasota wanting to do the same.

What’s worse, these projects are progressing in the midst of horrible fiscal conditions for all levels of government (taxpayers). Consider the picture:

U.S. taxpayers are drowning in federal government debt — around $16,000,000,000,000 and climbing); the federal government’s annual deficit is running about $1,200,000,000,000 a year; and the federal government is borrowing between $3,000,000,000 and $4,000,000,000 a day — $1,460,000,000,000 a year.

The state government is in much better shape compared to the federal government, but all of us are all too familiar with that situation as well. The fiscal strains on state revenues are such that, if truth be told, there is no money for frivolous spending — especially on such luxuries as charming fixed-rail streetcars in downtown Sarasota and Fort Lauderdale.

And then consider the state of the city of Sarasota’s finances. City Commissioner Terry Turner has been trying in vain for the most part the past two years to persuade his fellow commissioners to address the city’s own coming fiscal cliff.

Earlier in the year, Turner and city Finance Director Chris Lyons produced a spreadsheet projecting annual city deficits growing from $3.3 million in 2012-13 to $16.9 million in 2016-17, if the city maintains its current trajectory of income, population stagnation and expenses. Turner projected those deficits even after allowing for increasing the city property-tax from 2.9 mills to 5.4 mills (an 86% increase!).

On top of that, the city has about $151 million in long-term debt that taxpayers are servicing, and — here is the Big One — city taxpayers are facing $142.2 million in unfunded pension liabilities, an amount that continues to rise. In fiscal 2010-11, for instance, the unfunded liabilities increased $28.7 million. And the City Commission has yet to figure out how it will quit digging this hole deeper.

Put all three fiscal parts together — federal, state and city — and most sane, responsible household managers would say constructing a fixed-rail streetcar system makes zero sense. Constructing one and then subsidizing its operating costs makes even less sense.

We know the counter argument, and it’s weak: If we don’t go after those state and federal grants, some other city will get that money.

That is not justification, especially not a moral justification. Sarasota taxpayers should not be complicit in sinking U.S., Florida and Sarasota taxpayers deeper into debt with frivolous wants.

Mayor Suzanne Atwell should derail this desire … this streetcar named Frivolous Desire.

+ What’s good for St. Armands
No good deed goes unpunished.

But first, let’s start with the good deed:

Although it took too long for common sense finally to prevail, Sarasota city commissioners should be acknowledged for fixing an unnecessary mess on St. Armands Circle — namely, the city’s anti-business, “Customer Prevention” parking policies.

At last, the commission:
• Eliminated parking enforcement after 6 p.m. from Monday through Friday. Previously, customers and merchants fumed over the city enforcing the three-hour limit up to 8 p.m.
• Eliminated parking enforcement on Saturdays.
• Removed “box” parking lines around the Circle. This one was a doozy. The city ticketed dozens of motorists whose cars weren’t parked precisely within its striped rectangles on the circle. Again, St. Armands Circle shoppers and tourists erupted over this, often spitting venom or throwing their tickets at St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Diana Corrigan.
• Removed the three-hour limits from some of the neighboring side streets to allow merchants’ employees to park with impunity.

Sanity at last. Now leave it.

But no sooner did the city make these changes for St. Armands businesses, a few downtown business owners took notice and rightfully raised this most pertinent question:

If those policies are good for St. Armands Circle businesses, why don’t they also apply to downtown merchants and downtown parking, or everywhere for that matter?

Said Kenny Barr, owner of the Sports Page Restaurant on Main Street, in a letter to Commissioner Paul Caragiulo:

“… The city puts downtown and other areas at an economic disadvantage to St. Armands.

“For years they have had two large free lots and three-hour parking. We have two-hour parking. If anyone downtown parks over the lines, a ticket is a sure thing.

“We finally received a garage, [but it] was built backward for Main Street businesses — no entrance or exit on the southeast side of the building where all the businesses are. [I] realize that was done to highlight the new places under the garage, which in other words meant no one cared about us. [I’m] not even going to mention the parking meters and their selective placement.

“The city starts enforcing the parking laws on St. Armands, as it has been enforcing them downtown forever, and that now becomes a bad thing.

“We are trying hard to keep our employees from using on-street parking. On St. Armands, the city is now going to set up one of the streets for employee and resident parking. No more Saturday enforcement, and six o’clock instead of eight o’clock limitations.

“The parking laws need to be enforced the same citywide. It is very unfair to have the city give special breaks to certain areas.

“If every area were treated equally, there would be far fewer problems.”

What works for one commercial area may not necessarily work for another. But Barr is right. What works for St. Armands Circle should be applied to downtown, Southside Village and beyond.

Perhaps JP Knaggs, owner of the Bijou Cafe, put in a clear perspective in his response to one of Barr’s emails:

“Why should there be different rules for different neighborhoods? Our businesses are on the line, too.

“How are people supposed to go to a restaurant and then the opera or a play and only be allowed to park for two hours? Especially on a Friday or Saturday night.

“Let’s start this conversation. I can’t believe we just put the meter fiasco to bed, and now we have to start all over again battling with the parking authority. Who is working for whom here?”

Sarasota City Commissioner Terry Turner recently suggested a paid-permit parking program for downtown employees:

1) Allocate space in the State Street surface lot, the Whole Foods garage and the Palm Avenue garage to paid-permit employee parking.

2) Employees who are issued a parking permit should be issued a large sticker to place on their car in a prominent location. As a condition of the permit, employees would be required to acknowledge that they are not to park in time-limited spaces. The sticker could serve two purposes: to allow them to park in the permitted area and enforce their agreement not to park in time-limited spaces.

Turner says the city “may be able to draft an enforceable ordinance, which would allow the city to issue tickets to employees who have accepted a permit and who then park in time-limited spaces. Even if the city cannot enforce the prohibition against parking in time-limited spaces, the prominent stickers could be used by employers to self police their employees.”

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