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Roundup 5-11-2012

May 11, 2012

That Was Fast, Part II

As we noted last week, after our April 27 discussion of transportation spending and how Orlando than Tampa Bay does so much better in that regard, there appeared an article in the Times regarding Tampa Bay area leaders regarding the same issue.  This week, the Tribune ran an article, too. Once again, we do not know exactly when the area leaders decided to act, though the Tribune article references a meeting on April 27 and then a meeting one week later.  Then again, we do not really care about why people decided to start talking about this issue, we just want action.

One issue that we mentioned was FDOT’s idea of tolling all of the Howard Frankland bridge when it gets replaced – as opposed to Orlando having only express lanes tolled on I-4.  The discussion in now in the papers:

Nobody likes the state Department of Transportation’s idea of making the Howard Frankland Bridge a toll road to subsidize the cost of its replacement. But what about toll lanes for those willing to pay more for a faster route?

Tampa Bay transportation officials are talking about just that with the state, said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, or TBARTA. The idea would be to let people pay a little something to drive on an express lane that bypasses several exits.

Not optimal (which is free like most interstates), but a possible compromise.  The trick is not just to talk about it.  The trick is to make it stick.  To do that, the regional representatives unite in reality not just rhetoric.

We Don’t Have Enough Money?  Who Could Have Expected That?

Speaking of transportations, Hillsborough County announced this week that a number of road projects have to be put on hold because the community investment tax money will not cover them.

Hillsborough County government is shelving new road projects for the foreseeable future because of years of decline in money raised from a voter-approved sales tax.

The county’s share of the half-cent Community Investment Tax, approved by voters in 1996, has decreased almost 17 percent from a peak of $49.6 million in 2007. The low point came in 2010, when money from the tax bottomed out at $41.2 million. The tax can only be used for building projects, including schools, fire stations and roads.

Tax collections rebounded almost 5 percent last year, a trend that mostly has continued during the first several months of this budget year, which began Oct. 1.

But the overall downward trend, brought on by the recession and associated housing crash, has diminished the county’s borrowing power. Moody’s Investors Service acknowledged the county’s predicament when it recently downgraded the county’s CIT bonds by two notches.

Set to expire in 2026, the Community Investment Tax can’t pay back future bond issues to finance roads and other projects.

Surprise. After decades of a real estate based economy specializing in seemingly unregulated, inefficient sprawl and chronically low, developer-friendly impact fees, who could have foreseen that a bubble would burst (again), hurting the economy and sapping the county of transportation funding to fix up deliberately overburdened and underfunded roads?

Mind you, we are not blaming the planning staff, though there could definitely been better planning.  The main decisions were political.  Choices were made by the politicians and those who voted for and funded them. (see offering $15 million dollars in incentives for Bass Pro Shops– including $8-10 million in road improvements – while cutting road projects due to funding issues) Now, the logical, predictable, and obvious consequences of those choices are with us.

The bottom line: The County can’t afford to subsidize sprawl anymore.

So how do we solve this?

The county will continue working on road projects already in the pipeline. A 6-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax provides some money for roads, but much of that goes to maintenance. County commissioners could levy an additional 5 cents per gallon, but Merrill said the volatility of gas prices makes the tax unreliable, a situation that will worsen as alternative fuels become more common.

Last week, in a meeting hosted by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Merrill and other local leaders talked with David Agnew, director of intergovernmental affairs for the White House. Merrill said Agnew asked attendees what local governments needed the most.

“Everybody at the table said the same thing: that the federal government needs to come up with more money for transportation,” Merrill said, “and more importantly, not funnel all of it through the state, because the state then takes it, carves it up and pushes it elsewhere, and we get the scraps.”

In other words – beg.

What is odd is that no one seems to be speaking about development patterns which create transportation inefficiency.  Hillsborough County needs (and should have had) a completely different development pattern – one that does not require a car to go everywhere.  Even when the next boom comes, it will be followed by a crash and, if we do not diversify our economy, we will once again crash harder than others.

We cannot afford our past economic development strategy, and we cannot afford the sprawl. (Too bad about that transportation referendum).

HART – Success is Failure

We learned this week that increased ridership is hurting HART.

Contrary to appearances at the beginning and end of the trip, the 35-seat bus was mostly full during much of the ride, another example of HART’s continuing, record-setting ridership. Bus ridership in March set a HART record of 1.3 million passengers, 5 percent higher than the previous March.

“The full buses are killing us,” HART chief executive Philip Hale recently told members of his board of directors at a streetcar meeting. “Bus ridership is far exceeding our capacity.”

Hale was referring to record ridership at a time when HART’s budgets are being trimmed, mostly because the property tax revenue that supports the bus system continues to decline.

The combination of more riders and less funding puts more stress than ever on planning, scheduling and running on time.

It seems a little counterintuitive that HART is being harmed by success, though we can understand the point.  The stated problem is that tax support is not sufficient to pay for services.  The cause – our undiversified economy. Then there is this:

If HART could trim five minutes from its schedules on all of its daily bus runs, it would be able to save $3 million annually, said Steve Feigenbaum, the bus system’s manager of service planning.

That’s not practical to do in a time of increasing ridership; more passengers mean more stops, lengthening travel time on Tampa’s vehicularly challenged streets.

Maybe HART could have trimmed 5 minutes off its routes and saved $3 million if it did not have to serve the completely sprawled out development in Hillsborough County.  But, alas, what is done is done.  Learn from the mistakes of the past.

Not enough money for roads.  Not enough money for buses. It is a shame that the referendum in 2010 failed.  Of course, since there are now at least two Tea Party members of the HART board, we can assume that they are pleased, as are the people who put them on the board.

Record Pinellas Tourism . . .

On the bright side, this week we learned that Pinellas County saw record numbers of tourists.

The result: March was the most lucrative month for tourism tax dollars in Pinellas County history.

* * *

In general, tourism dipped as the recession took hold and took another hit after the BP oil spill in 2010 scared tourists away from Florida.

The rebound in Pinellas County has been building for a while. Last year’s tourism tax dollars were up 7.5 percent. In fact seven of the past 12 months have been among the highest ever recorded for those months. And since October, the tourism tax dollar tally is already up 12.6 percent.

That is excellent news.  While we do not want a tourism based economy (because we want a diverse economy), it is a very good thing.

. . . Is Under Threat

But, then there is this:

Pinellas County tourism officials on Wednesday urged business leaders to pay more attention to cuts in infrastructure spending because of the impact they could have on the tourism industry.

* * *

“We must maintain the assets of the community,” added Tim Bogott, chief executive of the Trade Winds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach. “We can’t let them deteriorate.”

* * *

In addition, members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority have warned that without the improvements, transportation, tourism and economic development in the region will suffer.

So true.  People have to be able to get to the beach – and elsewhere.  They are not going to come here if they have to sit in traffic for hours to get there.  Developing infrastructure is an investment.  It is simple logic.

Still, Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who chairs the tourism council, called on local business leaders to “step up” at government meetings and counter the voices of “naysayers and vote no-ers” opposed to government spending.

* * *

The warnings echoed comments in recent months from regional economic development leaders who, behind the scenes, have discussed the need to provide “political cover” for elected officials interested in working toward infrastructure investment.

What could they be talking about? Maybe these folks:

Inside, Barbara Haselden from the South Pinellas 912 Patriots tea party group stood before an audience of about 60 last Sunday and opened the meeting about light rail.

* * *

Haselden called the meeting an “educational forum” about rail. Using a PowerPoint presentation with PSTA charts, she recounted the origins of the authority and how its property tax revenue rose with escalating property values and declined as values dropped. She described the proposal to ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax to expand bus service and build 24 miles of light rail from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater.

Namely, the Tea Party. From another article:

Opponents of light rail sharply criticized the transit service at a forum April 29, saying that there are more efficient and less expensive ways to resolve traffic gridlock.

* * *

The South Pinellas 912 brought in speakers who took issue with light rail and other transit projects in other areas, citing poor ridership, large construction and maintenance costs and heavy federal government subsidies.

              So What Is Their Solution?

So, rail is out.  What do they propose to relieve congestion?

“You can build your way out of congestion,” he said. “Maryland’s intercounty connector is electronic tolling so you don’t have to stop. It has reduced by half the daily commute. … Just across the bay you have the Selmon Crosstown Exressway – reversible lanes, electronic tolling, financed 100 percent with user fees. It’s elevated in the medians so there wasn’t eminent domain,” Brady said.

Um.  If you mean just building roads, no, you can’t.

We accept that the Selmon is a well executed, successful plan, but it is not a surface road.  Plainly, local roads, which are overburdened are not going to be tolled, nor is the redeveloped and completely subsidized US 19.  No one is seriously considering double decking the completely subsidized Dale Mabry and SR 60 either.

Regarding the Maryland Intercounty Connector, last we checked Maryland/DC/Northern VA had the worst traffic in the US and the Intercounty Connector just opened and is out in the suburbs – not in the fully built up area.   Depending on who is talking, it also seems to have lower than estimated traffic. Not exactly the best example for Florida’s densest county.  (And funny that the Governor of Maryland wants more rail money.)

Even more elucidating is this paragraph from the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance blog in November 2011 regarding the above-referenced Intercounty Connector, which appears to be the origin of the Tea Party speaker’s comment:

As it turns out, we can “build our way” out of congestion, just as we did with the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge, if we are smart about adding the right kind of road and transit capacity where it is needed most, and listen to what the study data show works best when it comes to providing real traffic relief.  (emphasis added)

Let’s face it. You can reduce some congestion with roads for a while, and then they get congested again.  The Veterans Expressway was empty when it first opened and now it has to be expanded.  Moreover,  in built up areas, accumulating the land to expand roads is expensive and antagonizes voters.

So we can’t have rail and what they tell us about roads is not true.  What is the alternative they want?  It must be buses.

Well, no.

She talked of an overspending bus system that few residents use that now wants to raise taxes for a rail system nobody wants. It was not made clear that the bus system has record ridership despite cutting back service because of declining revenues. Or that the existing transit property tax would be eliminated if voters approved the 1-cent sales tax. Or that a significant amount of the money generated by the sales tax would be paid by tourists, not residents.

And this:

Haselden said the county’s bus system is headed for insolvency in the next few years.

So they don’t want buses, either.  (Question: if HART and PSTA are so inefficiently run and useless, why does the Tea Party member on the HART board oppose examining consolidation of the tax funded entities?)  Anyway, buses travel on the congested roads.

The truth is the 912 folks and their fellow travelers offer no solutions.  (See “A Spectre is Haunting Pinellas” next)  They are exactly the type of people of whom the county commissioner spoke. They are the party of “No.” They will not help the economy.  They will not help education.  They will not help transportation.  They will accelerate the brain drain.

As the Maryland blog says: You need to build roads AND transit.  You also need good planning.  They are against it.

The problem for the region is that it is always easier to cast a vote against something that seems free (even if it will cost you in the end) rather than vote for something that will cost you money.  Without making a proper case for a proper plan, the chances of success in getting support to fix our infrastructure are small. (See 2010 Hillsborough Referendum)

But there is something to build on. As of now at least, St. Pete voters like the rail idea (though polls are notoriously inexact on an issue like this).

             One Final Note

Much of the argument against rail is that it is not technology of the future; it is a technology of the past. (Something like this: “Light Rail is a 19th century answer to a 21st century concern.”) In point of fact, getting rid of rail and just paving roads was a solution from the 1950’s – the strategy that led to many of our present 21st century problems.

We admit, though, in one sense, it is true – rail existed in the 19th century.  But, then, so did cars, ships, and roads.  In fact, the Romans built roads and ships.  The Romans had sewers and water supply systems, too. (Sewers are so passé.)

So what?  Is that a reason not to use them in their modern form?  Most developed and developing countries – as well as most of our competitor cities in the United States, including the South – have a combination of roads, buses and rail, or are working toward them.  (See “List of the Week” below)

It is highly unlikely that Pinellas 912 is in the vanguard of transportation enlightenment.

A Spectre Is Haunting Pinellas

A few weeks ago, there was an article in the Times about a building in downtown Palm Harbor. Frankly, the article was rather convoluted, but the part relevant to our comment involved Pinellas County using a transferable development rights to allow a building that would not normally be allowed while maintaining the planned density.  It is a reasonable, legal balance of the needs of the property owners and the community – in other words: planning.

Needless to say, some at the meeting were not pleased.  Some who were displeased were reasonable. Others, not so much (To understand it fully, we have to quote it all. Our apologies):

“You all are a disappointment to people who love freedom,” Deb Caso said. “That is communism. That’s what it is. When are you going to realize what communism is? … When the government is in control of everything, it’s communism. There’s no freedom with TDR. … Your vision isn’t that of a free people.”

She referred to Agenda 21, the rules of the historic district and the possibility that a building could be placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which she saw as control of private property by government and the UN.

“Control of land and social engineering, that’s what’s happening here,” Caso said. As for the UN’s plan for sustainable development: “We don’t want to save everything for our future. We need to live now and we need our children unindoctrinated from this globalism and green crap. That’s putting it politely.”

Tony Caso said, “I see we have one commissioner with a brain that listens and every one else is asleep as usual. … Thank you for destroying the town of old Palm Harbor. … Commissioner Roche tried to steer you in the right direction. You don’t even want to listen to one of your own.”

Tony Caso, like others, vowed to have their revenge at the ballot box. “The people are tired of being stepped on and we will push back,” he said. “That’s not a threat. That’s a promise.”

Tony Caso said the commissioners should not underestimate the local tea party and other similar movements that have “thousands of members in this county. … We have boots on the ground and we know how to knock on doors.”

There is much we could say – such as we are sure the speakers would consider an ammonia plant right next to their house a “blessing of liberty.”  But what really comes to mind is the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, namely Alexander Hamilton, one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.  (In other words, someone the Tea Party should hold in high esteem, though he did go to Columbia (King’s College, at the time)).

Zeal for liberty became predominant and excessive. In forming our confederation, this passion alone seemed to actuate us, and we appear to have had no other view than to secure ourselves from despotism. The object certainly was a valuable one. But Sir, there is another object, equally important, and which our enthusiasm rendered us little capable of regarding. I mean the principle of strength and stability in the organizing of our government, and of vigor in its operation.

And, even more aptly:

The same state of passions which fits the multitude … for opposition to tyranny and oppression, very naturally leads them to contempt and disregard of all authority….When the minds of those are loosed from their attachments to ancient establishments and course, they seem to grow giddy and are apt more-or-less to turn into anarchy.

The Founders were wise, indeed.

A Gandy Idea

This week, a local group presented a proposal to save the “Friendship Trail” – the old Gandy bridge span. The Hillsborough County commission had basically given up on saving the bridge but now may reconsider the pending demolition. You can examine the plan here.

There are a few things we like about this.  First, it attempts to save a regional asset, unlike so many old buildings and other assets that have been demolished only to be regretted. (Like, say, the old Hillsborough Courthouse that now, ironically, exists only as the County logo)

Old Hillsborough County Courthouse – from the Florida Department of State

Second, it has creative elements that try to lower the cost and extend the life of the bridge.  Third, they want to raise money most of the money to save the bridge from donations.  If the community wants it, the community can save it.

It is nice to see people who care with vision developing a plan and trying to execute it.

List of the Week

Our list this week is a Forbes list of the “fastest growing cities” in the US. The article describes the basic methodology, which includes more than just population growth.

Number one is Austin, followed by the usual suspects, like (in no specific order) Houston, Dallas, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle, and Raleigh – and a few unusual ones. Needless to say, there are no Florida cities on the list.

One thing of note – 8 out of 10 of the cities have rail transit.  Only San Antonio and Raleigh do not have rail, but Raleigh is moving towards it.

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