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Roundup 4-13-2012

April 13, 2012

More  Master Planning

We have already mentioned much about the  master planning of downtown Tampa.  As our readers will know, this week saw another part of the Mayor of Tampa’s effort to master plan – InVision Tampa.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn launched a yearlong effort Monday to write a master plan for downtown with the help of residents, neighborhoods and business owners.

“This is a plan that’s driven from the grass roots up,” Buckhorn said. “We’re going to go out and talk to people about what they want their future to look like.”

Starting Wednesday night, the city will hold a series of public meetings to give residents and others a chance to talk about downtown — what stores they want, where they work, how they get around, what they want to do for fun.

The city also plans to engage residents through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and any other of social media it can think of.

If you thought we are going to attack this idea, you are wrong.  We think it is a good idea to talk to the present residents and business owners to get a pulse of what they are thinking.  However, we think it is incomplete.

More importantly, the City should be asking the target audience NOT living in the urban core what they would like to see.  What would get them to move there?  Why don’t they live there? The City should also ask students at Florida, USF, Vanderbilt, Duke and other schools what would draw them to Tampa.  The City should survey employees and managers at corporations it would like to relocate – like high tech companies.

We also have a number of concerns with this process.  First, as we have said numerous times, the easy, obvious things in downtown are not being done while we wait for all the master planning.

Second, this master planning process tends to take a while and run into the next campaign. Not only that.  How many substandard designs are going to be built while the City waits for the obvious?  How many blocks will be taken up for 30 to 50 years with buildings that do nothing to achieve the Mayor’s stated goals?

Third, we fear the desire to micromanage.  We have said on a number of occasions that the government should not try to force all housing into on cluster, all retail into another cluster, all offices into other clusters with government offices in another cluster.  That is the backward planning that brought us the mess we have – and that real urban centers do not have.  In fact, the City cannot make anyone open a business or build a building of any type.  It cannot make patrons go to any open business.

Therefore, any plan should set general parameters and design standards under which a proper city can develop organically – like all real cities do.  Among those need to be requirements that, unlike the apparent plans for this building, there is real street retail/interaction with the street. (Like in Channelside where retail space was empty for a long time but is starting to fill up.) There should also be a minimum density, which should be relatively high.

Which brings us to our next concern with the neighborhood input – NIMBYs.  It is all fine that the neighborhoods have input, but it would not be unique if those residents, who now have a foothold in the area, complain if there is dense development around them.  If the city codified their demands, it would not be the first time a local government caved to a small group of NIMBYs to the detriment of the city as a whole.  This is a plan for an urban area. The plan should make clear that if you live in the designated area, you will have to deal with density.  If you don’t like it, move to a less urban location.

A downtown should be like a huge, dense, mixed-use project, not a series of small single use projects separated by visible or imagined walls from all other projects.  That is the only way a downtown can be alive.

Finally, the Mayor listed some mistakes that occurred when the city grew.

He told WUSF-FM’s Bobbie O’Brien he thinks Tampa’s city leaders made a few mistakes along the way at the city grew.

1. There was no master plan

2. Land was cheap, so sprawl was encouraged

3. Neighborhoods surrounding downtown are not interconnected

4. No effort has been made to maximize the city’s waterfront

We are glad that the Mayor learned some lessons from his experience with the home builders and the city government in the 80s and 90s, though we are not sure a master plan was necessary.

However, we think he should add a few more lessons to the list:

  1. City allowed too much of the old urban fabric to be demolished and replaced with suburban or non-urban development.
  2. There was/is no transit/transportation plan
  3. Design guidelines/zoning were/are substandard.
  4. The City settled for OK when it should have demanded really good.

Let’s face it – the Tampa Bay area grew quite a bit over the decades.  If it had been done properly, we would have a wonderful city right now.  However, there were many mistakes and a lack of will to make the obviously required changes.  That is why we are playing catchup.

Once again we are happy the Mayor wants to learn from mistakes of the past and wants input.  We just hope that the Mayor, and his staff and advisors, are genuinely interested in getting input and not just going through the motions.  And, we hope they, unlike some others, deal with constructive criticism that aims to improve the Tampa Bay area as positive input rather than as personal attacks.

Otherwise, all this is just a facelift, not changing Tampa’s DNA.

HART – Merger of sorts

The Tribune ran an opinion piece by a HART Board member representing the Tea Party.  The piece really had two purposes – one was to prejudge and attack the study regarding possible benefits of a merger PSTA and HART.  The other was to propose some reforms at HART itself. We address the latter first:

I’m referring to consolidation of the door-to-door transportation service for the elderly, low-income and disabled persons administered by Hillsborough County’s Sunshine Line.

The Sunshine Line duplicates demand service offered by HART’s para-transit service. Taxpayers may easily save almost half of the $6 million currently charged by the Sunshine Line.

Last year an average Sunshine Line trip cost $60.26 compared to HART’s $32.02 per trip for similar service. HART and the Sunshine Line’s service areas overlap, and overhead costs, such as for maintenance facilities, scheduling and administrative staff, could easily consolidate for further cost reductions.

* * *

At last August’s workshop, it was suggested that HART study contracting out both its demand response services as well as its regular bus operations to private operators.

Our growing region will continue to have transportation issues that will not be solved by simply raising taxes and growing duplicative government agencies like TBARTA — but instead should be sought in the private sector that is the true economic engine of prosperity.

Right. Those issues will be solved by intelligent planning and development – not relying on the failed models of the past that created the issues in the first place.

Actually, setting aside all the rhetoric about private sector and how is has little to do with the board member’s own special interests and its reliance on government money, we think both ideas should be looked into.  Though, we admit we are not big fans of privatizing all transit services because there is always the possibility that those with the most need and least ability to pay will be left without service.  Maybe there is a way to account for that.

As for the portion of the article on the study of the possibility of merging HART and PSTA, it is full of rhetoric lacking any substance.  For instance:

As to the more controversial merger study being forced upon HART and the PSTA by Tallahassee, politicians are doing the bidding of special interests and fabricating a fictitious savings potential to justify seizing budgetary control from two independent authorities.

Transit experts at HART and PSTA have already reviewed the issue and concluded that consolidation will likely increase costs, not reduce them. This burdensome study will likely cost HART and PSTA $100,000, and cost thousands more in staff salaries and slipped project milestones as it redirects staff time and attention from current priorities.

This is bizarre.  The politicians “forcing” the study are (unlike the HART board) elected legislators who come from the Bay area.  We have already discussed why there should be an outside study – because the “independent boards” have their own interests in maintaining the status quo.  Moreover, there is, as of yet, no real evidence that a study would be harmful at all.

There is more:

What a forced merger will do is co-opt local control to a larger regional agency, likely the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA), where federal funds would be redirected and no longer fairly allocated back to the counties by formula based on population.

The city of Hazleton, Pa., recently experienced this phenomenon when its regular share of federal funds was suddenly withheld by the regional transit agency it began merging with earlier this year. The Hazleton City Council is desperately trying to halt the transit merger as a result.

First, this is prejudging the study.  Second, there is no way to know how money would be allocated and if there should be specific rules for such an allocation.  That is why one would study the issue.

Moreover, how does Hazelton, PA, compare to our situation and why should we care about it?  Let’s include it in the study and find out.   And more:

Local property taxes would be exported out of the county and likely raised to fund the special-interest priorities codified in TBARTA’s master plan, which was conceived by unelected insiders and narrowly focused “stakeholders.”

It appears the writer does not grasp the irony of such a comment coming from an unelected  tea party member who sits on a board that taxes citizens.

Moreover, while she keeps mentioning “special interests,” she does not tell us what those special interests are – nor does she reveal her own “interests”.  Maybe the “special interests” are people who want efficient government that provides a proper transportation system in the Tampa Bay are so the area can be competitive economically for decades into the future.

We commend the writer for putting her thoughts out there to be considered.  Like we said, her proposals should be looked at.  However, that does not change the fact that a merger of HART and PSTA should be studied.

HART/PSTA – Getting Closer

Interestingly, HART and PSTA ridership is still breaking records.

Pinellas County had 1.259 million riders in March, surpassing all previous monthly ridership records, according to the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. That’s about 90,000 riders more than the previous record, set in March 2011.

Hillsborough’s 1.279 million riders also set a record, according to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. It topped the previous monthly record, also set in March 2011, by more than 60,000 trips.

If this keeps happening, according to our HART Board member and resident bus expert in 2008, the area is going to have to start looking at rail.

Yet Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy at USF’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, argues this area still isn’t ready. Not when only one percent of travelers use buses, and where less than a fifth of all trips are for work. And only in Los Angeles are jobs more dispersed than in the Hillsborough-Pinellas area, Polzin says.

Polzin thinks Hillsborough County should begin collecting taxes for a rail system, but shouldn’t build one until bus ridership doubles to 2 percent.

Pinellas Rail – The Governor Still Hates Trains, but Only in the Tampa Bay Area

Well, we know the Tea Party still has the governor’s ear, at least when it comes to messing up plans in the Tampa Bay area, though other parts of the state seem to have no problem getting permission and money from the state.  Another example:

Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a bill April 6 that would have allowed Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to look for alternative ways to fund its operations besides collection of property tax.

Scott listed three objections in a veto letter.

He wrote that the bill would require PSTA to stop collecting its ad valorem tax revenue if county voters approved a 1 percent Charter County and Regional Systems Surtax.

If the taxpayers approve the sales tax surcharge, PSTA has the ability to cease collection of the ad valorem and prevent “double taxation” without the mandatory language of the bill, the letter continued.

“The bill also provides an opportunity for proponents of the sales tax to use the legislation to build support for approval of a local referendum. Promoting the sales tax in place of property tax as ‘a swap’ will result in a large overall tax increase in the county,” Scott said.

First, we thought the tea party thought local was better.  If people vote to tax themselves (through direct democracy) in a local election, why is that bad?  Second, this is not even a tax increase.  It is a change in funding method supported by the legislature.  Why kill it?  Because it might be used for building rail – which is not allowed in the Tampa Bay area.

Toll the Howard Franklin – Why Does the Governor Dislike Tampa Bay?

The State seems to be singling out the Tampa Bay area in other ways.

The state’s top transportation official said Wednesday that the Howard Frankland Bridge may one day become a toll bridge as the state seeks more money to improve roadways.

With gas tax revenue on the decline, the state will use tolls to fill a void in financing road projects, said Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad.

“Bridges last for a while — up to 80 years. But when you have to replace them, they suck up a lot of money,” Prasad said in a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. “If we’re going to replace it, put a toll on it.”

The toll, he said, would subsidize the cost of reconstructing the bridge’s northbound lanes, set to be replaced in 2022. The cost could top $500 million.

We understand the need to toll certain projects – especially new roads – but the Howard Franklin is a key link tying the Tampa Bay area together that has been free for decades. Of course it needs to be maintained and upgraded – so do a many roads throughout the state. When the state tolls all lanes of similar links around the state, like I-4 though Orlando and I-95 though Jacksonville, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, then we can accept their argument that the Howard Franklin should be tolled.  Until that happens, it is one more example of the Governor apparently treating Tampa Bay as second class.

List of the Week

Our list of the week is the fastest growing cities.Coming in at number 1 is Charlotte, NC.  Coming in at number 5 is Austin, TX.  Tampa Bay is not on the list.

Maybe the Mayor should be surveying the companies/people that moved to Charlotte and Austin to see why they picked those cities. (and, yes, we are serious)

Last Note

Last week we noted the old link to the members list of the City of Tampa Economic Competitiveness Committee was no longer working.  There is a new link here.

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