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Roundup 12-21-2012

December 21, 2012

Please note that Tampasphere will take next week off.  Enjoy the Holidays.

The Republic of HART

This week saw a number of interesting articles on transit.  First up is an article from the Times about how the usual suspects on the HART Board want to revisit the decision of HART to ask for further study of consolidation/merger.

Seven days ago, the governing boards of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority held a meeting to discuss merging their agencies. Both sides voted to ask the state to pay for a new consolidation study.

But now some HART board members are rebelling against taking even that small step.

So what is their objection to seeing if more money can be saved by a consolidation/merger?  Well, it is not exactly clear but let’s see what we can divine.  First, the one of the two Tea Party board members:

The HART members were reacting to last week’s joint meeting with PSTA. Both sides questioned a study that said consolidation could save $2.4 million a year. After three hours of debate, the only thing both sides could agree on was to ask for another study.

Then came Monday’s meeting, during which HART members spoke as though the agency was being threatened by outside political forces. Latvala, who spoke at last week’s joint meeting, was frequently mentioned.

“I was shocked … when he suggested, almost threatened, that there would be a political price for those” who opposed merging, said HART board member Josh Burgin.

Not exactly:

Latvala said that’s not what he said: “I didn’t say anything that could be construed like that, other than to say when we vote against things to save the taxpayers money, we have to pay the consequences as elected officials. Josh Burgin isn’t an elected official. He doesn’t have to face any consequences.”

It is worth noting that not only is the complaining Board member not elected, he lost a countywide election (see here and here).

What else do they complain about? The same old.

HART board members also criticized a proposal to combine the agencies using what’s known as joint powers authority. That framework would let HART and PSTA combine staff, resources and headquarters but still set their own rates and routes.

To the HART rebels, that concept is a threat to their sovereignty — and a stalking horse for bringing light rail to the Tampa Bay area without letting the electorate vote on it. Hillsborough County voters rejected a light rail referendum in 2010.

“It became clear through the senator’s comments that the motivations … are not concerned about cost-effectiveness,” said board member Steven Polzin. “They’re concerned about the symbolism of having a big regional agency that can have light rail.”

Where to start?  First, we are not sure if the word “sovereignty” is the reporter’s word or was used by the Board members, but HART is not sovereign.  HART is a local government agency. Countries have sovereignty.  States, to some degree, have sovereignty.  Citizens has some sovereignty, especially if you are reading 17th and 18th century British political philosophy.  HART has no sovereignty.

Second, the purpose of the Board is not to protect the Board, it is to run HART in the most efficient way to deliver needed services to the taxpayers – which is the subject of the study the complainers do not want.  Despite the protestations of our resident bus expert, the only thing that is clear is that the Senator is looking to see if money can be saved and transit made more efficient with a consolidate/merged HART/PSTA – which is what the Board should be doing without any prompting.

The Senator who favors looking at the consolidation/merger study sums up the reality of all the kvetching:

Latvala said the HART board members are victims of their own parochialism. He said the only way to fund light rail is with a sales tax referendum — and board members know that.

He said the HART rebels are really scared of what the second study — a “desk audit” that would look closely at staff operations — might reveal.

“I think it will show two to three times the savings estimated in the first (study),” Latvala said. “That’s what they’re afraid of. They know they can’t justify keeping two separate entities and having that kind of savings ignored, so they don’t want anyone to know how much that is.”

At least the PSTA Board seems ready to perform its role properly:

PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller said that’s not the intent of the “joint powers authority” idea.

“I heard they condemned that idea as a way to ‘circumvent’ the voters of Hillsborough County,” Miller said. “I don’t believe that was the intent of the consultant.”

* * *

Miller said PSTA’s board members still support studying consolidation. But now he has no idea what’s next for consolidation when the HART and PSTA boards meet again on Jan. 14.

The reality is that the complaints of these Board members are hysterical – in both senses of the word.  At least the complaints expose clearly that the complainers are not interested in the proper running of government.  Unfortunately, someone put them in a position of power and those people should also be held responsible.

The City Tax

The second of our of transit articles is from the Tribune and deals with the push to allow cities to hold their own tax referenda – and effort that is not surprising given the functioning of agencies like HART.

Current law allows only counties to hold such a vote. In 2010, Hillsborough held a referendum to add 1 cent to the county sales tax for an array of transportation projects including roads, bus service expansion and light rail.

* * *

Beth Alden, assistant executive director of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, told the county’s legislative delegation Tuesday that local governments are falling further and further behind in addressing their transportation deficits. Declining gas tax revenues are a big reason for the trend, Alden said.

* * *

Alden handed the delegation a draft law prepared by the statewide MPO Advisory Council that would allow cities with more than 150,000 residents to hold referendums on sales tax increases of up to 1 cent.

“The MPO supports allowing the city of Tampa to place such a question before its voters,” Alden said. http://www2.tbo.com/news/news/2012/dec/17/planners-push-lawmakers-to-allow-tampa-transit-tax-ar-584749/

The Mayor of Tampa supports the move:

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has voiced his support for such a change, said the MPO declaration was a step in the right direction.

“It gives municipalities the ability to control their own destiny,” Buckhorn said. “And it allows residents of large cities to choose for themselves what their quality of life will be and not be held hostage by a much larger county populace.”

Tampa has an Imperial Mayoralty form of government, so, of course, mayors would want the money to come under their control.  (Yes, the Council has to approve budgets, but it is called “strong mayor” for a reason). However, as we have said before , we have decidedly mixed feelings about this strategy.  As we said before:

We understand the logic behind this effort, and, to some degree, agree with it.  However, having such a referendum, rather than getting countywide approval for transit is likely a recipe for long-term problems for funding transit in the area.  Eventually, the counties will have to be brought into the process.  Tampa does not exist in a vacuum – either physically or economically.

This from the article does not assuage our concerns:

The draft law would also allow such referendums to be held by a consortium of cities with a total population of 150,000, or by cities that are the largest municipalities in their counties. If a city passes a transportation tax for less than a penny, the county in which it is located could hold a separate referendum as long as the two levies don’t add up to more than 1 cent per dollar.

Maybe it is just the article, but this seems very confused.  It seems to read that if Tampa raised sales tax by ½ cent, then Hillsborough would be limited to ½ cent in the future, unless Tampa removed its increase.  We have no idea why that should be the case.  Why should Tampa be able to limit Hillsborough County?  What if Tampa makes a starter line and Hillsborough decides to expand it, why should it be limited?

[Given all this city tax talk, we wonder whether it is coincidental that the MPO proposal for rail that has been rolled out recently is exclusively within the City. It is also interesting that the proposal revives a 15 year old idea of using diesel trains. see the RegioSprinter experiment in 1997. here and here and see this picture from 1997:

RegioSprinter at the Poe Garage stop, Railfest ’97
From HART’s facebook page – click on picture for album

Though we are not sure diesel is the fuel for the future.]

While we understand the frustration with certain segments of the County and agencies like HART, the City-only idea still does not seem well thought out.  We still think it will cause longer term trouble, and we favor a well thought out and presented idea that can win approval in the whole county.

Free at Last

It appears that the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) has somehow gotten free of FDOT.

After years of battling its legislative doom, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority received its financial freedom from the state Thursday.

A $455 million bond deal caps the authority’s negotiations to repay its debts and be the sole owner of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and other assets.

“We’ve been working toward this for the past five years,” said Susan Chrzan, a spokeswoman for the agency. “It means the money that comes off the tolls stays here locally.”

With the bond sale, the authority will continue to pay its debts, maintain the roadways under its control and do something new: open a savings account, Chrzan said. 

We are a bit confused about how much freedom from threat THEA now actually enjoys. We get that the money owed FDOT got paid off.  Of course, the bonds financing that will have to be paid – so there is still debt, just not to FDOT.  We also are unsure that this saves THEA from the legislature pushing it into FDOT – though if FDOT did eat THEA it would be responsible for the bonds that just got the money to pay THEA’s debt to FDOT.  Rather circular, but with our legislature, who knows? (Or we could be missing something) Then again, this is good:

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said the DOT changed its position and entered into talks with the expressway authority earlier this year.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “I was involved in the conversations and the state has been extremely helpful. It’s a win-win.”

Of course, when he is rotated out of the Speaker position, all bets are off again.

Without getting much more in depth than that, we think it good to have THEA to represent and respond to our local needs, as opposed to FDOT, which seems either very slow or unresponsive – especially relative to the rest of the state.  We think it is good to keep the money here, rather than use it to build roads in Miami and Orlando. We shall see.

One thing is we kind of wish THEA was more regional. . .

Godspeed Connect TampaBay

Our final transit article is from the Tribune and unveils a transportation advocacy group.

Leaders of a new nonprofit group, Connect Tampa Bay, say they want to give average citizens a voice in coming debates over public transportation in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

The group has come together during the two years since Hillsborough County voters said no to a penny-a-dollar sales tax for transportation projects. Though the tax was soundly defeated, people here still want more transportation options, said Brian Willis, president of Connect Tampa Bay.

“We’ve been sort of talking together and with local leaders about how do we move forward with modern transportation in the Tampa Bay area,” said Willis, who served on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority citizen advisory committee.

A good start.

“Nobody else is stepping up,” he said. “If nobody’s going to lead, then we’re going to lead with a grassroots transportation organization.”

Pretty much.

The group’s executive director, Kevin Thurman, agreed, saying the referendum’s defeat didn’t mean people’s minds were closed to new investments in transportation projects.

“I think the important thing that happened over the last two years is we’ve gone from saying, ‘OK, people shot down the referendum,’ to realizing, no that’s not true,” Thurman said. “It was just that specific plan at that specific time that people didn’t want.”

Right on point. Who are the other directors?

Besides Willis and Thurman, the other directors of the organization are Brian Seel, who works in the construction industry, and Brandie Miklus, a certified urban planner.

This makes us very happy.  It is good to have young, engaged people step into the debate.  While their website does not have content (yet), you can join their (e)mailing list at www.ConnectTB.com.

The main concern is that this group needs to be very careful not to get caught up in the self-destructive politics that have doomed so many other efforts.  They need to stay true to their goal and hold ALL politicians to account for their actions – not their rhetoric.  If they become part of a faction, they will lose their effectiveness.

And, please, do not settle.

Port – Reeling in a New Director

It seems that the leading candidate for Director of the Port has agreed to a deal.

The Tampa Port Authority will pay its next port director $350,000 a year, nearly $100,000 more than the previous director.

The port authority on Tuesday unanimously approved an employment contract for Paul Anderson, who is the outgoing chief executive of the Jacksonville Port Authority. His base salary will be $99,000 more than former director Richard Wainio, who made $251,000.

Port board members approved the contract unanimously and had little debate about it Tuesday morning. Board Chairman William “Hoe” Brown said Anderson will use his many industry contacts to expand importing and exporting at the Port of Tampa and, hopefully, help create jobs.

Of course, that is quite a high salary so we expect him to earn it with results. It is much higher than the Miami Port head, but then there is much work to do here – we are far behind. (Here is a comparison of salaries for leaders of area public institutions.) Hopefully, the salary will prove justified.

In other port news, the Biz Journal reported that there would be new container service:”

Mediterranean Shipping Co. will begin operating at the Port of Tampa early next year.

The service is operated in partnership with Zim Integrated Shipping Services, the port’s long-term global container carrier.

This seems to be good, though from the article it is not clear if “new service” meant more ships or simply the company already serving Tampa (Zim) made an agreement to transship from Mediterranean Shipping. What is clear is this:

Tampa received 39,632 TEUs of container traffic in 2011, far less than the Florida-leading Port of Miami at nearly 907,000 TEUs.

Like we said, much work to do.  And also this:

Eight ships will sail to the Caribbean, Bahamas and Florida from five homeports, including Tampa, during Norwegian Cruise Line’s fall and winter 2014/2015 seasons.

Norwegian Sun, a 1,936-passenger vessel, will debut in Tampa, replacing Norwegian Dawn, a 2,224-passenger ship.

Shrinking is not growing.  Much work to do indeed, but hopefully the new Director will, like the TIA Director, change the culture and make progress.

Public Art and Respecting a Memory

There is some new public art in the Westshore area.

A sculpture called“Kinetic Ring” has been installed southwest of Westshore Plaza at the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Memorial Highway.

As the Mayor tells us:

“The corner occupied by ‘Kinetic Ring’ is a highly traveled gateway for visitors traveling from the airport and area residents driving into Tampa,” Buckhorn said of the artwork, a joint effort by the Westshore Alliance and the Westshore Residential Neighborhood Improvement Committee.

The groups “understand how important it is that we utilize these gateways and make them appealing for visitors and potential businesses,” Buckhorn said. “This is a great example of how public-private partnerships make our community a better place.”

We are all for public art and the piece is actually nice.  There is one problem, though. When the City received Word Trade Center steel, we thought it should be put in MacDill Park rather than just kind of dumped unceremoniously on Bayshore near Bay-to-Bay out of respect for the military, and the victims.  We specifically pointed to the War Memorial in Westshore as a bad example of placement. As we said then:

Frankly, it is hard to imagine a less moving place to honor the fallen, except maybe here [there is a picture of the memorial]

This memorial is stuck at the intersection of Kennedy and Memorial Hwy (State Road 60), though it at least got a sidewalk and some landscaping so the multitudes of passers-by who don’t even notice the memorial can continue to not walk to it.

Well, the City does not share our lack of imagination. Here is a picture of the Kinetic Ring detracting even more from the memorial (which is on the right):

From the Tampa Bay Business Journal – click on picture for article

Well done.

Economic Development – Could Be

The Times ran a business column about economic development this week.  It was an upbeat story about all the potential jobs that could come to the Tampa Bay area if things break our way.  We thought we would mention it because it is interesting.  However, because it mostly exists in the hypothetical realm, we leave it for you to read. See here.

You can also read this article, which is about the same tone, regarding Time Warner in Tampa. (We are all for Time Warner’s expanded presence in Tampa, but we feel obliged to note the article seems to revel in Tampa getting the expansion over Atlanta, and it is good.  But this was the same week that an Atlanta company announced it is buying the New York Stock Exchange. The two areas seem to exist in completely different universes – which is also evident in all the settling that goes on here.)

Courthouse Hotel

There was an interesting story in the Tribune about the renovation of the old Federal Courthouse.  The really interesting thing about it was that in terms of renovations, nothing has happened yet.

If all goes well, the empty former federal courthouse will soon start transforming into a sleek, boutique Le Meridien hotel.

A few details need working out, as nearly every federal agency in existence has had to sign off on the transfer, even the Federal Aviation Administration. Developers plan a hotel with 110 rooms, each with soaring 13-foot ceilings and tall windows. Renovations could cost more than $22 million.

Until then, the building stands eerily empty, and would make a good end-of-the-world movie set, with abandoned documents left on witness stands, security cameras still working and steel benches in basement jail cells still sparkling clean.

We want the Courthouse to be renovated.  We want this project to go forward.  We also understand there is a bureaucracy to navigate and issues to resolve.  But we also have been around here long enough to know that the celebration of announcements and back slapping of political leaders often fades away to nothingness. (maybe one day we will post a fraction of all the plans that never happened.)  We just hope everything gets worked out and the project moves forward.  (And the same with this project.)

List of the Week

Our list of the week is the World’s Best Places to Live 2012. The list apparently answers the question “Can there be a city that is crime and pollution free, with excellent public transport and great schools to boast?” And apparently that answer is in Teutonic states and not in the US.  The list:

1. Vienna, Austria

2. Zurich, Switzerland

3. Auckland, New Zealand

4. Munich, Germany

5. Vancouver, Canada

6. Dusseldorf, Germany

7. Frankfurt, Germany

8. Geneva, Switzerland

9. Copenhagen, Denmark

10. (Tied) Bern, Switzerland

10. (Tied) Sydney, Australia

We would also point out that most of the cities in the US that show up on the best cities lists are those that come closer to being like the cities on the list.  Needless to say, the Tampa Bay area could not be farther from the cities on this list.

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