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Roundup 8-10-2012

August 10, 2012

HART Giveth and HART Taketh Away

This week has seen a number of interesting articles about HART.  First, the HART board finally approved the long-expected service cuts and fare increases, despite seemingly ever-increasing demand.

Bus riders in Hillsborough County will pay more starting in November with the majority of passengers seeing a fare increase of about 6 percent.

Fares for riders who use cash for one-way trips will pay an average of 12.6 percent more.

* * *

HART officials expect the fare increase to produce $886,000 in additional revenue that is intended to cover rising fuel costs, new services and inflation. The board reviews fares every two years.

Are there any exceptions?

The increase passed unanimously, but Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman unsuccessfully tried to persuade fellow HART board members to exempt the specialized paratransit service used by seniors and people with disabilities.

Exempting those riders would have reduced the revenue boost by about $50,000.

“I’m just trying to give the people a break,” she said. “The difference in revenue would not make a huge impact.”

Other members disagreed.

“Every $50,000 has consequences,” said member Steven Polzin. The lost money would have to come from elsewhere in the agency budget, he said, and HART should not begin exempting different groups from fare increases.

Indeed, every $50,000 is $50,000.  It is $50,000 whether it is a government grant to CUTR at USF or $50,000 to people who really don’t have the money. We are still confused about accounting at HART (which we have mentioned before).  We are told:

Hillsborough County Community Investment Tax funds are paying for all phases of the [MetroRapid] project: $31 million for design, land acquisition and construction; $1.75 million for a Fletcher Avenue Park-n-Ride station; and $2 million for the traffic signal equipment, which begins testing this fall.

MetroRapid is under budget by $5.7 million, money that will be reallocated to Hillsborough County for infrastructure needs.

And yet, the same article tells us:

Initially, the service will be offered between the northeast suburbs and downtown. An east-west route is envisioned, but not funded.

We ask again, since money is fungible even if categorized, if HART is low on money and has to raise fares and HART cannot find funding for its projects, why exactly is it giving back money that can be used for its projects? (Isn’t the second phase an infrastructure project?) If every $50,000 is so important, what about every $5.7 million?

HART – No Magic Bus

This week also saw the groundbreaking for the first stop of MetroRapid, HART’s fancier bus line.  We were going to write a long piece rehashing all the issues with MetroRapid, but that is not necessary – the coverage does it for us if you look closely enough.  The point is that we want MetroRapid to be successful, we just reject the idea that MetroRapid is in any way a substitute for rail.

To the articles (we add all the emphasis):

MetroRapid won’t have the segregated traffic lanes of a full-blown BRT system. But it will feature more than 60 enhanced passenger stations (ed: otherwise known as “bus stops”) between downtown Tampa and Hidden River Corporate Park at Interstate 75. A traffic signal priority system will keep buses moving through green lights, shaving about 15 percent off the commute time as riders enjoy Wi-Fi and other amenities.

Or even more bluntly:

The buses themselves will be the same as the rest of the fleet, though they will have distinctive branding, which HART calls MetroRapid. They also will use specially designed bus stations meant to get passengers on and off more quickly.

So it really is just a bus with a nice (maybe) paint job. Moreover:

The major downside will be that a new “MetroRapid” bus won’t be able to avoid the old traffic jams.

In other words, they are normal buses with fewer stops that will get stuck in traffic.

The coverage also makes clear that MetroRapid will not bring the transformational development that rail would:

The report found that project sponsors, local officials and transit experts nationwide believed rail transit is a better economic development catalyst than bus rapid transit, but that opinion was not universal.

(Of course the opinion is not universal.  No opinion is universal, especially when there are bus companies and their hired experts trying to sell people on buses).

Yes, near a bus stop, there may be economic opportunity (like a new Family Dollar), but rail creates transformational opportunities, as pointed out by the Business Journal:

It’s [ed. MetroRapid’s] not the sexy version of TOD associated with big-ticket light rail transit projects, such as in Charlotte, N.C., and other cities. There, light rail stations have attracted new multifamily, retail and office construction, creating jobs, increasing real estate values and boosting property tax revenue.

In other words, the development opportunities for MetroRapid are limited and not likely to be very transformative.

Finally, there is this aspiration:

“We are taking a really big step,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman said Monday at a ceremonial groundbreaking for a station on Nebraska Avenue. “We are going to show it is cool to ride the bus.”

Umm, not really, even if by “big step” you mean one has to walk farther to get to MetroRapid because there aren’t as many stops.  Basically, the bus will speed you up because it stops at fewer places, but it is still in traffic and is still a bus

Once again – we do not wish MetroRapid to fail.  We want it to succeed.  However, we do not buy into any hype that it is a substitute for rail, that it will really bring urban development or that it is a solution to our transportation problems.  It is a fancy bus.  That is all it is, and that is not enough.

TampaHeights – Second Thoughts

A few weeks ago we said we supported scrapping the old plans for the Heights project in Tampa Heights because they were going nowhere and it would be better to get a new developer going forward.  Then we saw the following and realized maybe we were a bit hasty:

City staff members urged the council to put the old plan behind and hit the reset button in hopes of creating something more in line with the current housing market.

In our experience, when someone in the Tampa Bay area utters this simple phrase: “more in line with the current housing market,” they mean settling for something that is generically exurban.  It never means building better, denser, more urban development.  It means abandoning urban design, density, logic, and basically anything else positive for a city and building something more appropriate for Mulberry.

If the market is not ready, then wait.

Preliminary InVision

The InVision preliminary report is floating around (see here) We will say it is interesting, if unoriginal.  It also seems a bit obsessed with two things: focus on the river and making it very hard to drive in and near downtown in the name of walkability (starting page 43 or so).  We have written about both of these pretty extensively.  We have already written about the issues of focusing on the river.

We have also written about removing lanes on downtown roads.  However, since the report devotes a lot of space to it, we feel obligated to again question the idea that removing lanes of traffic in the name of walkability based on the premise that crossing three lanes is a big deal because it isn’t.  The roads in downtown Tampa are not impediments to walking – especially if there are decent crosswalks (though the lack of urban design is). People have walked along wide streets in cities for generations.  People do not avoid walking on Market Street in San Francisco, Market Street in Philadelphia, Michigan Avenue in Chicago, downtown Pittsburgh   or basically any major street in Manhattan because those roads have more than two lanes.  (or Houston , Charlotte or Seattle and on and on) In fact, we are willing to venture that most of the people involved in the InVision discussions have crossed some or all of those streets a number of times on trips without a thought.  Moreover, they have probably walked down them and enjoyed them, maybe even stayed at hotels on them.

When considering making it hard to drive downtown, it needs to be understood that people will not come downtown if it takes them forever to get around downtown – it is not like they can take the train and walk downtown (like they can in most of the cities cited above).

Ask yourself, if you can’t get in and out of  your office, why would you rent the space downtown rather than in Westshore?  And ask yourself this – if people from all over the area can’t get to the Forum or convention center (or a possible future baseball stadium), will they ever go?

Now, we understand that in certain areas narrow roads are ok (say within a future Heights complex), but to constrict an already constricted grid before doing anything about making sure buildings are urban and people can actually get to and around the area is folly.

The bottom line (which is no surprise) is that as long as Tampa settles for poorly planned and designed projects, has poor transit options, and does not develop a diverse economy creating demand, master plans will accomplish little. (Just like the master plan in 2004).

And remember – downtown is supposed to be the heart of a city, not just another neighborhood in South Tampa.

Rays

Speaking of baseball stadiums, after Hillsborough County’s invitation to speak with the Rays, the Pinellas County Commission now wants to speak with the Rays, too. Some county commissioners summed it up best:

“We want the Rays,” Latvala said. “And we want them to stay in the region. And if it’s not working in St. Petersburg, let’s move them where it does work.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Chairman Ken Hagan, who led his board last week to request a similar meeting with the Rays, applauded the Pinellas invitation.

“I’m delighted to hear this news,” Hagan said. “All that I’ve been trying to do is to create opportunities for a regional discussion. I am very pleased to see that Pinellas County sees the value in speaking with the Rays.”

Asked if he means that he’ll be pleased with a solution in Pinellas, he said: “Absolutely.”

And somewhat bizarrely, a Pinellas group also came out with a (sort of) plan this week for a stadium in the Gateway area.   You can read here, here, and here  for the details. Apparently, this was in the works for sometime but was not revealed.  We have no opinion about the plan yet because the full plan has not been revealed.

However, the real key is this:

The Rays have not talked to LeClair or any of his colleagues about a stadium in Carillon, said Michael Kalt, a Rays vice president.

Kalt reiterated Wednesday the team’s position that it will not engage in stadium discussions restricted to Pinellas County.

“Over the years, we’ve heard and read about many developers who would like to include a baseball stadium in their plans,” Kalt said. “Our position remains the same — we will consider any potential ballpark site in Tampa Bay, but only as part of a process that considers every ballpark site in Tampa Bay.”

In other words, the proposal is interesting but not yet really relevant.

One thing we will say: if  Tampa is determined to choke its downtown off from the metro area, maybe a Pinellas solution is better.

TempleTerrace Downtown Project– Just let it die

The downtown Temple Terrace project which we discussed many months ago continues its death throes.

The City Council and developer seem at an impasse over whether to have glass-fronted retail stores on the first floor of apartments set to be built on the property. The majority of the council wants them, but the developer says they’re not feasible.

The disagreement has stalled progress on the ambitious downtown project, which besides apartments and retail stores would include restaurants, offices, a library, park and performing arts center built on 30 acres on the southeast corner of Bullard Parkway and 56th Street.

If the developer does not want to build what you want them to build, wait.  It really is not that hard.  You only have one chance to do it right for a generation (or two).

Having seen what the project was actually going to look like, we are not surprised it is wallowing.  Maybe if Temple Terrace had worked to have a good project rather than settling, it would not be having these problems.

Coming Out Watch

Given all the hype regarding the RNC and how it will show the Tampa Bay area to the world, we decided to keep track of some of the stories from beyond the Bay.  We are not going to summarize them, and we do not claim it is a comprehensive list (If you find some more, email us the link).  You can check them out.

July 22: NY Times

July 26: NY Times

Aug 7: Independent (UK)

Aug 4: AP

Aug 8 NPR:

List of the Week

This week’s list is of bad town names. Fortunately, and somewhat shockingly, none are from Florida.

The winner is Toad Suck, Arkansas.

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