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Roundup 4-27-2012

April 27, 2012

State Money, Regionalism, and Competitiveness

It was quite a quiet week for news – unless you keep chickens at home or are excessively fond of large, red slides and Star Wars (Did you really think the Governor would veto the Florida Poly bill?), so we decided to go back and address something.

A couple of weeks ago, the Tribune ran a story entitled “Hillsborough comes out on top in state money” that told us the following:

More than $1.2 billion in state appropriations will soon start flowing to Hillsborough County, more money than any other Florida county got in the 2013 budget passed by the Legislature in March.

The figure tops the $1 billion to Miami-Dade County and $480 million for Broward County, counties with more residents than Hillsborough.

Counties surrounding Hillsborough got much less: Pinellas, $358 million; Pasco, $132 million; Polk, $110 million; Manatee, $50 million.

Pushing Hillsborough to the top of the heap was money for three highway projects totaling more than $808 million. They include $295 million for the continued widening of Interstate 275, and $257 million for the connector now under construction between Interstate 4 and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

Most of the money for those two projects consists of federal highway dollars passed through the Florida Department of Transportation. About $105 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as stimulus money, has been spent on the I-4-Lee Roy Selmon Expressway connector.

The third highway project, the widening of the Veterans Expressway from four to eight lanes between Memorial and Gunn highways, is getting $236 million, which includes landscaping. The money comes from tolls collected in the state by Florida’s Turnpike’s Enterprise. Another $20.4 million is being spent to convert the Veterans to all-electronic tolling throughout Hillsborough County.

The first thing we have to say is that we hare happy these projects are moving forward.  They are well overdue.

That being said, we do not know the method of calculation used by the Tribune, though a few things are odd.  For instance we are told that the Veterans Expansion is $236 million but in this article, the Tribune puts the price as $150 million in another article, but we are not going to quibble.  We are also not going to get into a long discussion about whether Federal stimulus money is state money because it is well past time that all these needed projects get done and most projects have a mix of financing.

          Transportation is a Regional Issue

What really struck us as interesting is what the article does not say.  First, is it relevant whether the money is allocated this year or over a number of years?  The list projects will take time to build and are long overdue anyway.  Most have been planned for years.  What is the number looking back ten years and looking forward 10 years?

Second, while we are glad the projects are being built, a proper analysis of spending should be regional – not by county – because transportation is regional.

For instance, in the Orlando area, either under construction or truly planned are about $4 billion in state supported/approved transportation improvements.

In addition to SunRail, work is expected to start this fall on the $1.7 billion Wekiva Parkway, and state officials say they hope to begin a massive overhaul of Interstate 4 that could cost $2 billion in 2014.

That’s a total expenditure of $4.9 billion, but all of that money will not be spent in Central Florida, particularly in the case of SunRail. Nearly half of the SunRail cost will be spent on equipment made elsewhere and for purchasing the tracks from and making other rail improvements for CSX, the Jacksonville-based train company that previously owned the rail corridor.

SunRail, which is under construction, alone is a $1.2 billion investment, including $ 583.75 million in state money (not including Federal).

Of course, the Orlando area projects occur in more than one county – so they would not count in the article.  They are regional and are meant to connect the region and improve the regional economy.

What about the Tampa Bay area, which includes the listed projects being built?  First, not included in the article’s list because it is not approved, the State contemplates putting tolls on a Howard Franklin Bridge replacement.  Then there is this:

The latest phase of the I-275 widening will increase the roadway to four lanes in each direction from Himes Avenue to the Hillsborough River. However, this phase of the widening will not eliminate the choke point at the flyover bridge that goes to Tampa International Airport.

So even when I-275 is wider in Tampa, it will be choked at the Howard Franklin Bridge overall and specifically coming into Tampa from Pinellas – right in the heart of the Tampa Bay area.  And, unlike I-4 in Orlando, if it ever gets fixed, you will have to pay tolls for it.

In contrast, the Orlando area will get a completed beltway, rail, and a once-more fixed up I-4 (Some, but not ALL lanes of which may be tolled.). Orlando will get a regional transportation system, and the Tampa Bay area will have pieces of a system that are completely car based and either not connected or inadequately connected.  That should be the main issue.

          Vision and Will

It should be noted that none of this is accidental.

The Orlando region got together to get their improvements.  There is a regional approach.

In the balkanized Tampa Bay area, we have a Veterans Expressway that does not go to I-275.  We have a never really seriously planned east-west toll road in Pasco to connect I-75 to the Suncoast Parkway and Pinellas (and the Suncoast has never been fully built). We have a stalled Gandy Connector, and, even if it did connect, what would be on the Pinellas side?  What do all these things have in common?  A lack of vision and lack of political will to execute a needed project, often appeasing a small but vocal group to the detriment of the region overall.

We have said it before, and it really needs to be understood – transportation is a regional issue. (the HART and PSTA boards notwithstanding) Partial solutions and lack of will are not acceptable and will keep the Tampa Bay area at a competitive disadvantage.

          Rail as a competitive advantage

Of course, SunRail came about after the Orlando area voted down a tax and then rolled up its sleeves to come up with an innovative plan.  Moreover, it was a regional plan backed by a bi-partisan group of legislators.  We also think the following is instructive:

Laurien [the Director of the East Central Florida Regional Planning Council] says he recently was visited by members of the German Parliament looking for places to invest in sustainable development in the US.  He says the Germans consider Central Florida to be a loser region without the commuter train project.

When people talk about rail and jobs, this should be kept in mind.  Like it or not, that is how people who we would like to invest in our region view things.

The Rays, Regionalism, and Getting to the Point

Like we said, this is a relatively quiet week.  On Thursday, the Rays were playing the Angels at Tropicana Field at 1 pm.  Daytime games during the work week, especially during the school year, are classically sparsely attended.

Well, we had a relatively quiet Thursday schedule, except for some things later in the day, so it occurred to us that it might be nice to take in a game.  Unfortunately, given the location of the Trop, there was no way we could work out the timing.

We want to be very clear about why we did not go to the game.  It was not the cost – we could get reasonably priced tickets. Contrary to what the Mayor a St. Pete thinks, it was not because of lack of marketing. We already wanted to go. We did not to be convinced.

There was one deciding factor: Location.  Period.

(It is noteworthy that, while the Rays are Tampa Bay’s most popular team, the Lightning for the 2011-2012 season, when they missed the permissive NHL playoffs, averaged attendance of 18,468 while the Rays in 2011, making the much more limited MLB playoffs, averaged attendance of 18,878.  We do note that attendance in the young season is up, which is good, but it is early.)

It is well past time St. Pete stops dancing around the real reason for the Rays attendance issues.  The Rays need to either be in north St. Pete or in Tampa – and they should get to examine both.  Having this issue drag out helps neither St. Pete nor the Tampa Bay area as a whole.

Cuba and the State Contracts

This week, there was a developing controversy regarding a bill pushed by Southeast Florida legislators that would bar state contracts to companies that do business with Cuba (or Syria) (You can find the bill here).  The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill.

This is in line with other business interests:

The warnings from economic powerhouses Canada and Brazil pit mighty business interests against the Miami-Dade lawmakers who authored the bill and the near-majority of legislators who voted for it, placing Florida’s pro-business governor in a political bind.

The frustrated business lobbies have made their concerns known to Gov. Rick Scott, who has until May 5 to sign or veto the legislation, which was formally sent to him Friday. He could also let the measure become law without his signature.

Florida Chamber President Mark Wilson told The Miami Herald he received an unusual phone call from the office of the Canadian ambassador to the United States, which is concerned that the law would affect a slew of Canadian companies that work in both Florida and Cuba.

Wilson said the companies told the Canadian government “that they will not be making any more investments in Florida for fear they might get hit by this.”

The only thing this bill will do is harm Florida’s economy, including Tampa Bay’s, while providing no real benefit.  Brazilian and Canadian (and British, German, etc) companies have 49 other states in which to invest if they have trouble with Florida.  Frankly, it is bizarre that the legislature would pick a fight with Brazil and Canada, given their importance in Florida business and tourism and our fragile economy.  Signing it would simply show that Florida is not open for business.

List of the Week

This week’s list is of America’s Greenest Cities. How exactly they figure what is the greenest city is unclear, though they give some numbers without explanation of their provenance.

There are some cities you would expect, like San Francisco, Portland, and Boston.  There are also some odd ones, like Buffalo (?). Honolulu is #1. Orlando is #18.  Miami is #21.  Gainesville is #23. However, as you may have guessed, the Tampa Bay area is completely absent.


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