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Roundup 3-1-2013

March 1, 2013

On the Road to Somewhere, Though Just Where is Not Clear

The last few weeks have seen a number of developments involving the transportation infrastructure in the Tampa Bay area (and no, we don’t mean the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops subsidy).  We thought they were worthy of review:

— The State Plan

The Governor, who hopefully is now aware of the Tampa Bay area, released his proposal for transportation spending recently.  In involves the following:

Florida’s proposed $9.1 billion transportation budget was released Tuesday. On tap in Tampa Bay: $420 million of additional lanes on Interstate 75 in Pasco, Hernando and Sumter counties; $27 million for the expansion of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard; and $69 million to add lanes on the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County. In South Florida, new construction would include $112 million for new lanes on I-75 in Broward County.

We have to admit, that is all needed.  In fact, it is years late. However, it will not fix our problems.

Anything else?

An unprecedented flood of money is getting steered to ports in an attempt to get them primed for the Panama Canal expansion, which should be completed in the next two years. The proposed budget includes $30.6 million for the Port of Miami, $26.7 million for the Port of Tampa, $19.5 million for the Port of Manatee and close to $100 million across the rest of the state.

Because it is not clear what this money will actually do, we reserve comment on it except to say that we have not really heard anything previously of infrastructure plans that actually prepare the Tampa Bay area ports for the expansion of the Panama Canal.  But back to the road spending.

What is the reasoning behind this plan?

In many ways, it’s an approach that’s a throwback to 20th century road politics, where highway construction was viewed as a job creator and a solution to gridlock. While other states have moved to road alternatives like transit and rail, Florida’s spending includes only about $400 million in direct spending on transit, or less than 5 percent. Scott is still remembered for rejecting $2.4 billion in federal dollars that would have paid for a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.

It certainly is a throwback in other areas, but it is pretty much the latest thinking for Hillsborough County – we’ll see about Pinellas County (see below).  Much of the listed transit spending is going to Orlando, where the Governor thinks rail is just fine – as opposed to in the Tampa Bay area where, if his appointments are any indication, rail is a no-no.  In fact, the State’s approach (or lack thereof) to transit can be seen by the following – First, regarding SunRail construction in Orlando:

“Right now we are building the dream,” said Noranne Downs, who runs the Central Florida office of the state Department of Transportation. “We are working on the railroad.”

Building the dream?  Apparently somewhere along I-4 in Polk County (probably just before you get to Florida Poly), one enters an alternative universe (One where Republicans and Democrats work together to move forward with transit, and the Tea Party does not drive all infrastructure decisions. See here and here.  As explained below, it appears another alternative universe may be forming on the west side of the Howard Franklin Bridge.)  Then there is this about Ft. Lauderdale:

Though Scott has not been a supporter of mass transit, his budget does call for $25 million for The Wave, a streetcar in Fort Lauderdale.

Clearly the Governor does support some mass transit, just not in the Tampa Bay area.  Of course, since 2010, local leaders haven’t really been out front and forcing this issue, at least in Hillsborough County.

As the Mayor of Tampa said:

“You can’t construct enough highways to build our way out of congestion,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. “Tampa Bay is the only area of our size without mobility options, be it light rail, bus rapid transit or high occupancy vehicle lanes. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage.”

That is all true. (And apparently the Mayor, like us, does not view HART’s MetroRapid as BRT.) However, Pinellas County might be moving to get real transit, which would leave Hillsborough as the last hold out of the old ways. What does the Mayor propose?

Buckhorn said he and several other cities, such as St. Petersburg and Miami, will lobby the Legislature this year to get permission to ask voters for approval of light rail projects without having to appeal to county voters as well. In 2010, Hillsborough voters rejected a proposed light rail system in Tampa that city residents supported.

In other words, he proposed rather little other than hope.   And regardless of whether the city tax works or not, why not get ahead of the curve and create a plan for what might be done if the city tax passes?  And if the long shot city tax strategy fails, what is Plan B?  Why not work with (and push) the Hillsborough County government to develop a plan that can serve the whole County and metro area?

— Pinellas Referendum Moves Forward

In stark contrast to Hillsborough County, Pinellas County Commission took the first step to putting a transportation referendum on the 2014 ballot.

Pinellas County commissioners on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved putting a question on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot that would ask residents whether they would pay a higher sales tax to support a major overhaul of the transportation system.

Five of the seven commissioners voted to approve putting the referendum on the ballot, marking the beginning of a nearly two-year countdown before the issue comes before voters. Commissioner Norm Roche was the only member of the board to vote against the measure.

While that is positive, it is only a step.  Let’s review what it actually did:

Though Tuesday’s vote represents an important decision for the Pinellas commission, it is not the final word. To secure a place for the referendum on the 2014 ballot, the commission will have to approve ballot language and pass an ordinance several months before the vote.

The referendum would ask residents to vote on whether to raise the county’s sales tax by up to 1 cent — potentially lifting it from 7 to 8 cents to pay for major changes to the public transportation system. The sales tax, which would bring in about $128 million, would replace the property tax that currently funds the county’s transit agency, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Over the next 20 months, transit officials intend to complete their study of the county’s bus system, finish the proposed 24-mile light-rail route and try to win public support for a plan that many residents and business owners are only vaguely aware of.

They will have help from at least two groups, the Suncoast Sierra Club and Connect Tampa Bay, nonprofits that are starting to mount campaigns to motivate residents who support mass transit and persuade those who are open to the idea.

This being the Tampa Bay area, the Pinellas County Commission’s endorsement of direct democracy – allowing the people to decide if they want to tax themselves for specific services – was not without the usual, bizarre controversy.

Opponents have also organized and are seeking an injunction to prevent four commissioners — Ken Welch, Karen Seel, John Morroni and Susan Latvala — from voting on new initiatives, including the transit sales tax referendum, until a term-limits lawsuit is resolved.

We assume the State has validated the elections in question, so we are not going to worry about this lawsuit.  At least the rail opponents are not playing the religion card again. . . yet.  Anything else?

Barbara Haselden, a vocal opponent of the proposed sales tax increase and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said she objects to a vote in 2014 because she does not trust the county’s transit agency to tell residents the truth about the plan’s cost. The PSTA has hired TuckerHall, a Tampa-based public relations firm, to brand and disseminate the plan, worsening her concern that voters will be given only facts supporting the referendum.

“Where is our PR firm? How will the public hear the other side?” she said.

Feel free to hire a PR firm.

As we have consistently said, we are actually impressed with the behavior of Pinellas County so far.  It has engaged in a deliberate and deliberative process, learning lessons from the failed Hillsborough referendum mess.  We are curious to see what the full final plan will be.

— Better Late Than Never, Sort Of

Meanwhile in Hillsborough County, after the County Commission doing nothing for over two years (and really being decidedly unhelpful before that, despite putting the referendum on the ballot), one County Commissioner has peeked above the parapet of the bastion of sprawl and poor planning, but just barely.

Sharpe has scheduled a discussion at the next Hillsborough County Commission meeting March 20 on how his government is going to address growing transportation needs. He said his goal is to craft something that could also be put to voters in 2014, though he stopped short of saying it would include a proposal to pay for rail.

Well, based on last weeks Estuary/Bass Pro vote and the “Economic Prosperity Stakeholders Committee” report, the County already has a transportation policy: giving money to help developers and create more sprawl.  But anyway, what does the Commissioner have to say?

Sharpe is calling for a series of transportation “summits” between commissioners and representatives of the county’s three cities, along with civic groups, to develop a 30-year priority list of road and transit work. He said his hope is to develop something by November that can be taken to voters a year later, paralleling the planned Pinellas vote.

“The objective is for Hillsborough County to be prepared in 2014 to have a very focused conversation about what we’re going to do next on transportation,” Sharpe said. “There’s got to be a way we can do this and have the whole community feeling good about it.”

We have no objection to the summit idea – contingent on who is invited.

We do have an issue with the stated goal of the proposal.  We doubt there is any plan that will have “the whole community feeling good.”  Nor do we think that should be the goal.  (Why should we try to please people who think that all rail transit and urban development is part of a Euro-socialist plot to destroy the American way of life?) The goal of any discussion should be doing what is needed to make our transportation system work and make our area competitive.  Obviously, because it has to be approved by voters, it has to address the needs of most of them, but it does not have to make everyone happy.

As for having something on the ballot in 2014 in Hillsborough County, if that is the goal, why did he wait until 2013 to do anything?  How will there be enough time to really get a full, proper plan prepared for a referendum in a year and a half?  (And what is to stop any referendum from being like last time, when the Commissioner who chaired the Transportation Task Force opposed the referendum after directing the process and voting to put it on the ballot?)

Setting that aside, what does the summit proposer envision?

“We need to have an adult conversation about transportation in our region,” Sharpe said. “But I think we need to be responsible and not talk about funding some grand rail system that is going to be 26 miles. To me, we need to be talking about what is tangible.”

We are in favor of adult conversations (they are sorely lacking) and transportation alternatives that are tangible.  However, since the flying through wormholes does not appear to be a realistic transportation alternative, we are quite sure that all transportation alternatives discussed, including a real rail line, would be tangible. (And it is noteworthy that 26 miles is not that long when you consider that SunRail is 61 miles.)  So what is he really talking about?

Sharpe said his hope now is that the group will consider including a small, limited-use rail line, perhaps linking the airport to the West Shore business district. That would keep costs from swallowing a large chunk of any new tax dollars and allow rail to prove itself.

Frankly, that is just silly.  How is something that small and of “limited use” going to “prove” rail, which has already been proven in every almost every other major metropolitan area.  (and isn’t “limited use” just repeating the main mistake made with the streetcar?) We understand, and support, building a starter line, but it has to be something useful that can be properly expanded – such as downtown, to Westshore, and on to the airport.  And the fact that he has to “hope” that people might consider such a small line is in itself telling.

Yet, setting all that aside, because this is Hillsborough County, even the idea of sitting down to talk transportation is controversial.

County Administrator Mike Merrill (ed. who is not elected) has already suggested revised wording for Sharpe’s proposal that further tamps down any leap to talk of tax increases. He suggests holding a single summit between commissioners and the cities’ mayors to develop a broader strategy for addressing transportation needs before specific projects are discussed.

“The leadership of this community has the responsibility to set the tone,” Merrill said. “If leadership can’t agree, why even have a community conversation?”

We can answer that. Maybe the community can (and should) have a conversation because the “leadership” has already set an unacceptable standard of inaction. And maybe the community should have the conversation because the community has to live with and pay for the lack of leadership.  And maybe the community should have the conversation because the “leadership” is supposed to serve the community (read: “taxpayers”) which pays the “leadership’s” salaries and because the “leadership” serves at the pleasure of the community and should remember it.

To be fair, we are not sure whether the Administrator is speaking for himself or as a spokesman for other Commissioners who feel threatened by the prospect of having to speak with the community at large.  On the other hand, it is irrelevant because the lack of leadership in the County is real, and we need to get on with our future.

Setting all that aside (and we apologize for the large number of thing we have to set aside but we are talking about the Hillsborough County government), given the manifest failure of the County to address the real transportation needs of is actual residents, we think it is good that at least there is talk of talk, no matter how late in the day, vague, and limited. It is a small step, but at least it is a step.

Postscript #1

While not fitting exactly into the above item, it is notable that this week, gas prices in the Tampa Bay area crept very close to the $4/gallon range.

A few gas stations in the Tampa area have passed a grim threshold: $4 per gallon.

Granted, the average price at the pump was about $3.80 for a gallon of regular unleaded as of Friday. But at a few of the pricier locations, the cost topped $4. That compares with an average low of about $3.10 in December, and a peak last summer of about $3.50, according to TampaGasPrices.com.

“We’re paying the most now than we ever have for this time of year,” said AAA Auto Club South gas watcher Jessica Brady, adding that federal forecasters initially expected 2013 would not be a record-breaking year. “At this point, it does look like prices will increase into March.”

That’s because retail prices haven’t yet caught up with higher wholesale prices in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.

While we are paying record prices for gas, the Hillsborough County government has maintained a policy of subsidizing sprawl and car-centric development and planning.  Consequently, we have to drive everywhere on overcrowded and inadequate arterial roads and our incomes are below average.  Leadership, indeed.

Postscript #2

To further emphasize the case against the County’s policies, we also learned this week that, among major metropolitan areas, the Tampa Bay is the worst in terms of the affordability of owning a car.

Comparing median income here to car insurance costs, Interest.com determined that Tampa area residents can afford to spend up to $282 a month on a car. The average new car, however, costs about $600 per month after adding in costs like a down payment, financing and insurance.

Another way to look at it: Tampa Bay drivers, on average, could afford spending $14,516 on a vehicle, but the average price of a new car or light truck last year was $30,550, according to TrueCar. The study did not compare leasing costs.

* * *

“What this research indicates, more than anything, is that a lot of Americans are spending too much money on their cars,” said Mike Sante, managing editor of Interest.com.

To be more exact, despite claims of elitism from Hillsborough County Commissioner who proposed the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops deal:

According to the 2013 Car Affordability Study by Interest.com, only in Washington could the typical household swing the payments, the median income there running $86,680 a year. At the other extreme, Tampa, Fla., was at the bottom of the 25 large cities included in the study, with a median household income of $43,832.

First, it is indicative of the failure of past and present economic development efforts that 1) our average income is the lowest and 2) the burden of owning a car in the Tampa Bay area is highest among major metros.  Second, it is indicative of the failure of planning in Hillsborough County that, while it is more of a burden for people to own and fuel their cars, Hillsborough County fails to provide adequate transportation alternatives and planning to allow people to lessen the use their burden. (Pinellas is also bad, but at least they are slowly moving towards a possible change.)  Finally, it is indicative of the failure of Hillsborough County’s understanding of present economic reality that the County continues to be devoted to a model of economic development that focuses real estate, and sprawl in particular, and subsidizes low paying jobs.  How much more evidence of the incorrectness of their vision does the majority of the County Commission really need?

Downtown Tampa – Is the Channel District Ready for More

This week, the long planned, long dormant Martin apartment project got back on the agenda.

Developers involved with the Grand Central at Kennedy plan to build a 24-story, 316-unit tower with an adjacent retail space large enough for an urban grocery store.

The property would take up a city half-block on the east side of Meridian Avenue, just south of East Twiggs Street, with a wide span of two-story retail space and a tower further to the east.

It would look like this (While there are color renderings, we use this black and white picture because it also shows the 2 story building):

From the Tribune – click on picture for article

Sounds good.  There are also rumors that Publix might go in the retail space. We shall see. Though we have to say the two story building looks rather pathetic.  Even though it would be nice to have a grocery store in the Channel District, we wish it could be more integrated and urban in design.

Regardless, we hope the project gets built.  Yet, there are two points this project brings up. First, aside possibly from the free standing two story building, this is an urban project of the type on which the City should focus, not four story wooden frame, suburban style apartments like these. Second, the Channel District is still cut off from the main part of downtown by empty lots (which can be filled); the flour mill (which still needs to be moved); and, worst of all because it cuts off the residential in the north of downtown from the Channel District, the County government buildings (which we discussed last week).  The City needs to work on all these, especially the last.

And in further news, the Channelside complex mess continues.

Built Environment – Tales of Codes

We often say that Tampa is too obsessed with master plans that are never enacted.  We often urge it to make obvious changes to its code that  push for and allow (and even require) more urban development, pointing out that one does not need to wait years for master plans to make obvious changes.

Interestingly, we found efforts in such leading metropolises as Treasure Island and Sebring (admittedly, in the discussion stage) to change their code to help make their downtowns (downtown Treasure Island?) more urban.  Now we haven’t read the proposed changes.  They may be good or they may be objectionable. But that is not the point. Our point is that others are acting while Tampa dallies.

Change the code.

Economic Development – Something Good-ish

We learned this week that the Tampa Bay area led major Florida metro areas in regional GDP growth in 2011.

The inflation-adjusted gross domestic product for Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater grew 1.6 percent in 2011, the bureau reported. The GDP of Florida’s three other large metro areas — Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Jacksonville — all grew at the same 0.6 percent rate in 2011, less than half that of Tampa Bay’s.

Tampa Bay’s growth in economic output matched the average real GDP growth of 1.6 percent of 366 metro areas nationwide in 2011. Those metro areas grew an average 3.1 percent in 2010.

Growth is good.  Of course, percentage of growth is tricky because it is relative to how large your economy already is and not an absolute number.  Moreover, we think that per capita numbers are more useful.  Also, an explanation of the sectors that grew would be nice.  But that was not reported.

Relative to areas outside Florida, the Tampa Bay area’s number is not quite as good:

Of the 10 largest metropolitan areas, the three with the fastest real GDP growth in 2011 were the Houston metro area (3.7 percent), Dallas-Fort Worth (3.1 percent) and the San Francisco area (2.6 percent). The 10 largest metropolitan areas, accounting for 38 percent of U.S. metropolitan area GDP, averaged 2 percent growth in 2011.

In other words, while acknowledging that we are not a top 10 metro, our growth is even average when compared to larger cities growing larger economies.  So, there is progress, but there is a long way to go.

List of the Week I

Our first list of the week is CBS’s Top 10 Moving Destinations. Leading the list is Atlanta, followed by Dallas-Ft. Worth, Phoenix, Orlando (and note they indicate the state after Orlando but not most of the other cities), Chicago, Houston, Denver, Seattle, Charlotte (they use the state here, too), and Sarasota.  The Tampa Bay metro area is absent (sure, Sarasota is in the area but not the official metro area).  Must be because we don’t have a Bass Pro Shop. Or maybe we need a Trader Joes – we probably should give them a few million dollars.

List of the Week II

Our second list of the week is the Wall Street Journal’s list of the 10 best suburbs. Number one is Cherry Hills Village, Colo. (Denver); followed by Clyde Hill, Wash (Seattle); Haworth, N.J. (near NYC); Englewood Cliffs, N.J. (near NYC); Wolf Trap, Va. (near DC); Ho-Ho-Kus, N.J. (near NYC); Indian Hills, Ky. (Louisville); East Grand Rapids, Mich. (Grand Rapids); Rossmoor, Calif. (near LA); and Huntington Woods, Mich. (Detroit).  Florida, including eastern Hillsborough County, was shut out.

List of the Week III

Our third list of the week is the Wall Street Journal’s 10 Best cities to Retire in. Number one is Asheville, followed by Sarasota, Venice (FL), Austin, Prescott (AZ), Beaufort (SC), Naples (FL), Ft. Myers, San Diego, and San Antonio.  Once again, the Tampa Bay metro area is shut out.

 

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