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U.S. 19 shows how the deals are done

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By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 12, 2001


If you're a regular person, spare change is the quarter you find in your car when you are fishing around for meter money.

Or the forgotten few dollars you discover in a pair of jeans headed for the laundry.

But if you're among the handful of power people who dole out Florida road money, it turns out that $50-million is considered pocket change.

That's pretty much the answer to the question of how Pinellas County casually acquired an extra $50-million to help make U.S. 19 into something other than a frightening confluence of autos and bad attitudes.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, a St. Petersburg Republican, announced the bonus money at a Wednesday meeting of the county's transportation board.

It wasn't, he said in an interview later, a part of the state transportation budget the Legislature passed eight days ago. No, this was extra money lying around the state Department of Transportation that Sebesta convinced Ken Hartmann, our region's transportation chief, to give to Pinellas.

Sebesta explained it like this: The folks who run the state's transportation districts deal in giant wads of road money, billions. Sometimes projects are delayed, but the money has to be spent.

"If the contract is not let, he ends up with a little extra change," Sebesta said. "When you're spending billions each year, it's not that much."

The senator and Hartmann sealed the deal at a Burger King in Tampa on Tuesday afternoon. Sebesta said he likes Burger King and often arranges meetings at the restaurant on Kennedy near Westshore.

There was not any spoken agreement between them that Sebesta, chair of the state Senate Transportation Committee, would push through the DOT budget in return for U.S. 19 money. That Sebesta spent the last 12 minutes of the session hustling the transportation bill through the Senate merely was good government in action.

"Maybe there's some quid pro quo there, but it absolutely never came into the conversation," Sebesta said.

And the windfall also had nothing to do with a message the DOT got from another very important politician.

U.S. Rep. Bill Young, a Largo Republican who chairs the House appropriations committee, complained that yet another $50-million for U.S. 19 he had tucked into last fall's federal highway bill wasn't going to be spent quickly enough.

It is a total coincidence that the new $50-million would, in combination with the old $50-million, substantially move up the timetable to build a new overpass on U.S. 19.

Before we go any further, let's be clear: U.S. 19 is a horrible road. Sit near a police scanner on any given day and the routine carnage is daunting, to say the least. Making it safer to drive is a worthy public expense, as it would be to improve any number of congested Florida roads.

And let us also be clear that there was nothing nefarious or unusual about how this money came to Pinellas. Generations of respected politicians have padded along this well-worn path. Though typically, of late, the road money booty has gone to other counties, say Hillsborough.

But neither is it the kind of government you learned about in eighth grade civics class. It is this: a reality check; an interesting peek at the flow chart of how things actually work.

Despite all the talk in Tallahassee about refining the process, about ranking projects and awarding money based sheerly on need, it turns out that power still brings home the dollars.

If you drive U.S. 19 on a regular basis, you probably will be thankful for this. Whatever it takes to fix that wretched excuse for a main county thoroughfare.

Funny how politics isn't so offensive when you're on the getting end.

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