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Roundup 3-22-2013

March 22, 2013

Hillsborough County Decides to Talk

After much talk about talks about transportation, this week the Hillsborough County Commission decided, with some prodding, to move on to talks.

Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to begin discussions with the county’s three mayors and other government leaders about future transportation needs.

* * *

The vote specifically directed County Administrator Mike Merrill to schedule and convene a transportation summit involving commissioners, the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, as well as the chairman of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county’s main transit agency.

Other leaders from planning agencies to the heads of the Tampa Port Authority, Tampa International Airport and Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority likely will be asked to join later.

So why did the County pick the Mayors and leaders of the Port, Airport, and Expressway Authority, as well as the leader of HART. (The last probably to guarantee the meeting is fruitless.)

Merrill described them as the “funders and constructors.” They will be urged to discuss what the county’s priorities should be to improve transportation.

(It is once again (unfortunately) necessary to point out that the government leaders are not the “funders” of anything.  The taxpayers are the funders.)

While we are not going to do a Snoopy dance, we have nothing against talking about transportation.  It is preferable to the previous policy of doing nothing and, really, hindering doing something.

On the other hand, despite some celebration in the media coverage, it is not clear what the talks will actually be about.  Maybe we can understand what the talks will be about from some of the quoted comments.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe rattled off a series of worst-of lists — from Forbes magazine to the GPS service TomTom — ranking Hillsborough near the bottom in terms of congestion. And he argued that it’s not just a headache for those who live here but is hampering quality growth and business recruitment.

“We’ve got a PR issue,” Sharpe said. “I know there are folks who say we need to sit tight and wait. I don’t think that’s a strategy at all.”

Indeed, we are at the bottom end on a number of lists, but transportation is not a PR problem.  It is an actual problem.  We do agree that doing nothing is not acceptable.  On the other hand, that still does not explain what exactly the County Commission has in mind by unanimously supporting talks.  Is there any clarification?

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been pushing to renew the transit debate, said he thinks the effort will be successful because the plan will be developed and shaped with input from citizens. Critics of the 2010 referendum and supporters alike say voters turned down the 1-cent sales tax increase for transit because the plan was muddled and developed from the top down.

Sharpe said the policy group can get moving quickly because of extensive research done by a transportation task force several years ago.

“I’m eager to move forward,” Sharpe said. “I come in with no preconceived conditions that I’m looking for other than to recognize what is obvious: We have a serious problem.”

And from a Connect Tampa Bay spokesperson:

Kevin Thurman, executive director of the non-profit Connect Tampa Bay, said everything the pro-transit group hoped for out of the meeting materialized.

“Our coalition wanted to have an open conversation, no preconceived plans, and time lines. They’re all there.”

We understand the “no preconceived” strategy.  It is unlikely that the majority of the County Commission would vote to discuss rail, per se, so don’t say it.  On the other hand, at some point someone has to be clear about what is being considered. Otherwise, the talks, like past efforts at fixing transportation, will get nowhere useful.

Commissioners have specifically said they want to emphasize transportation projects that spur economic development, create jobs and bring a return on investment.

That sounds nice, but what does it mean?

— The Terms of Reference

The truth is that any discussion will be fruitless if it is carried out with flawed or vague terms of reference.  In this case, the County has called these talks and has control of money and the means to increase it.  To our eye, the County has also gone a way to predetermining the outcome of the talks with the requirement that “emphasize transportation projects that spur economic development, create jobs and bring a return on investment.”  While these requirements on their face make a certain amount of sense in some circumstances, the County, through the majority of the County Commission, has previously defined them as supporting subsidizing strip stores and other sprawl.

The reality is that most infrastructure improvements spur some economic development, helping to create jobs, and that development brings some return on investment.  The problem is that the criteria used to measure “economic development” and “return on investment” are not clear.  Moreover, there are pre-existing transportation problems to be solved that will not overtly or directly bring extensive development and returns in the short run but that are still necessary and will still be productive.  Will that be measured?

For any talks to have any chance of being useful, the terms of reference must be more fully understood.  Consequently, we think they merit some discussion and apologize if we are repeating things we have said before. (Then again, Hillsborough County tends to talk in circles, so what can we do?)

—— 1.  The Economic Development Obfuscation

The first item to address is “economic development.”  The idea that transportation spending is tied to “economic development” has become a mantra that is consistently repeated by the County, but what does it mean?  The key is the actual definition of “economic development.”

So far, per the Commissioners, to the County “economic development” is subsidizing sprawl.  (See here  and here) Yet, the County has not explained how its sprawl focused policies will attract high wage jobs or targeted industries.  Furthermore, it has not explained how that policy will attract young professionals and knowledge based industries to Hillsborough County? (Interestingly, the Young Democrats and Young Republicans jointly told the County Commission that transit improvements are necessary and doing so is not a partisan issue.)

Just by way of example, despite goal of making the Bay area the center of medical innovation, there is no lack of places that want to be bio-med innovation centers, including Miami (where the med center is connected to rail and a cosmopolitan area ) and Orlando (where the Medical City will be connected to SunRail either by BRT or light rail and the other medical centers which have SunRail stops). What is to draw those professionals when we do not provide even the base environment and lifestyle choices of other regions, let alone better?  And let us be clear, low taxes are not enough – every other city in Florida and Texas has that, including those with urban, cosmopolitan environments and transit.  And they pretty much all have Bass Pro Shops, too.

We have laid out what we consider real economic development.   A key element of our view is that

The economic reality is that the most efficient job creation for all income levels is to attract high paying jobs because higher wage earners tend to buy more and, thus, provide employment for more people.  This creates a multiplier to any money invested for the original high paying job.  The lower the wages of the attracted jobs, the smaller the multiplier. (Or put another way, a person that makes $50,000 is going to spend more and, therefore, help support more other jobs than a person who makes $24,000.  As such, there is a greater economic impact to the whole economy of the $50,000 job.)  Therefore, spending on higher paying jobs is a better investment and more efficient use of public money.  A good steward of the public purse would recognize that reality and act on it.

We have also noted that business development will bring real estate development.  Therefore, money should be focused on recruiting and retaining high paying jobs (including, but not limited to, manufacturing and technology), not subsidizing suburban developments. Our view of economic development occurs more in places with more urbanized areas with rail transit that provides a wide variety of lifestyle options to those we are trying to attract. (See here, for instance.   And just review all the lists we have posted in the Lists of the Week, including this week.)

If the County now has adopted the proper of economic development definition, rather than its Estuary/Bass Pro Shops definition, it needs to say so.

—— 2. Return on Investment

A related question is what is “return on investment”?  If “return on investment” is measured simply in real estate taxes generated by a subsidized building, obviously subsidizing a building will win.  However, there is more to return on investment.  First, denser, more desirable areas have higher property values and generate more in property tax.  Additionally, beyond the simple value of buildings, there are sales taxes generated not only by the businesses in a building but also by employees of those businesses and their purchases – obviously the more they get paid, the more sales tax they likely generate.  Moreover, those people also generate real estate taxes from the places in which they live.  Once again, the more money they are paid, the more expensive their likely residences and the more tax revenue they will generate.  There are also taxes generated by the goods and services used by the businesses in a given location.  There is also taxes generated by areas being revitalized or other projects that arise because an area’s development/redevelopment.  Finally, the “return on investment” for revitalizing one area may show up in a completely different area. (Say something is built downtown, do you count all the benefits for employees living in Carrollwood or businesses that relocate to Westshore because there is a major business in downtown?)  And how about people attracted to the area by the lifestyle choices and the business they bring?

Another aspect of “return on investment” is money that does not need to be spent.  For instance, urban infill does not require as much infrastructure construction as sprawl.  It also does not require as much maintenance, especially if it is walkable rather than requiring miles of new roads and other services. It also reduces costs by reusing what exists rather than leaving what exists and adding so much more that also needs to be maintained.

Coincidentally, we also came across an article this week about a study of rail subsidies.

One argument against government rail subsidies is that public transportation should pay for its own costs through fares. Setting aside the fact that road users don’t pay their own costs either, cities should certainly strive for user-pay transit systems with high farebox recovery rates. At the same time, many benefits of rail travel come from reducing road externalities — things like pollution or safety hazards — that are harder to calculate in strict financial terms.

Recent work from a research team led by economist Rafael Lalive of the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, addresses this grey area with a creative study of German rail subsidies. In the mid-1990s, Germany implemented a policy reform that increased competition on certain passenger rail lines, resulting in a 28 percent increase in service. Using data from 551 lines, together with data on major road externalities (e.g. car emissions and severe accidents), Lalive and colleagues analyzed the connection between better service and public benefits.

* * *

They then tried to monetize these rail benefits. They estimated the value of road collision prevention at about 1.2 billion euros (75,000 fewer crashes at 16,000 euros apiece) and priced lower nitrogen emissions at about half a billion euros. Together the road externalities eliminated by rail upgrades were worth roughly 1.75 billion euros — just about what the German government had paid in rail subsidies in the first place . . .

* * *

In other words, Germany recouped its public investment in rail through environmental and public health savings alone. That’s before considering farebox revenue, and without even factoring in the time and money saved from reduced congestion. Simply put, the research underscores the fact that there are many ways to justify the public value of a transit project.

It is interesting to note that there is a cost-savings, financial case for (properly run) rail. (While we find this study interesting, we do not rely on it for our support of rail.  The benefits of a proper infrastructure not solely dependent on cars can be seen all over the world and in the United States. Consider that Charlotte had hundreds of millions of new rail centered development DURING the recession. )

“Return on investment” is a great idea, but it is a very ambiguous concept.  When the County says “return on investment” what does it really mean?  Is it just looking at immediate, direct return or does it see the whole picture?

— Dreams of the MPO

Having discussed some of the terms of reference, it is interesting to see how they might apply to the real world.  An easy way to do that is to look at the failure of the County’s past policies and the failure of the County’s present policy to address the past failures.  This was on display this week in a Tribune article on considerations to fix intersections in Hillsborough County.

But what if those motorists could go left by turning right, like getting off on the loop of a freeway exit?

That would eliminate the traffic-choking clog at the left-turn light and reduce the traffic signal at Waters and Dale Mabry to two cycles – one for each of the major thoroughfares – rather than the four now required to allow left turns from each. Traffic could move faster through the intersection in both directions.

That “quadrant intersection” concept is one of 18 strategies the Metropolitan Planning Organization has identified in a new study of how to improve highway safety and relieve traffic congestion.

Other ideas included in the study include reducing speeds along some roads to improve bicyclist and pedestrian safety and design changes for street and highway reconstruction. Redesign ideas range from quadrant intersections to traffic circles to more complicated features like flyovers on some of the area’s most heavily traveled intersections and interchanges.

As an aside – we are all for looking at methods to improve roads and their appearance, though we doubt 1) that there is any space for building loops needed for quadrant intersections and 2) that they would actually eliminate the congestion (more likely is that they would just move congestion from the left lanes to the right lanes.)  We are not even going to comment on “flyovers” at Memorial/Sheldon and Hillsborough.

More to the point:

The MPO creates federally mandated long-range transportation plans but cannot approve or fund projects. That remains up to local, county and state governments and transportation agencies.

In other words, there is no money for these ideas.

According to the Tribune article, most of the worst intersections and stretches of road are in northwest Hillsborough – which is definitely not east of I-75 and so is unlikely to really get any attention from the County.  How is the County going to measure return on investment of fixing a road through a relatively built up area that it has neglected for decades and on which it does seemingly nothing to promote redevelopment and infill?  Does the difficulty in calculating return on investment provide the County an excuse to ignore the “funders” (aka taxpayers) who use that road daily?  How much business is lost by the inadequacy of the roads in question – including businesses that avoid Hillsborough County because such roads raise the overall level of congestion and harm recruiting efforts? (It should be clear that economic development does not rely on just having new businesses in presently empty areas.  In fact, more important is fixing what is already wrong.)

Now, consider that the County wants to change the policy for ranking roads in need of funding from actual need – like people getting hurt and traffic congestion – to “economic development.”  How does that apply to fixing roads in northwest Hillsborough County if there is not a clearly identifiable “economic development” project connected to an improvement? The County criteria seem designed to ignore urban infill and redevelopment, which would allow the County to ignore the roads it has allowed to fail.  Is that really the framework they want to follow and will the talks be governed by them? If not, they should say it clearly.

— If You Don’t Have Money, You Don’t Have S___

And before anyone rejoices too much about the County deigning to talk about the transportation inadequacies of their own making, there are some (we will call them for now) yellow flags. One concern we have is highlighted by this:

Pro-transit forces say light rail should be part of the solution, along with more-frequent bus service and road improvements. Such a comprehensive solution would cost billions of dollars — money county leaders say is not available.

The debate will involve some kind of tax, something commissioners are hesitant to discuss. But Sharpe is optimistic.

If there is not enough money to fix the mess the County, over time, has already made and the Commissioners are not willing to discuss getting more money, what is the point of talking?  What are they trying to accomplish other than saving face?  We shall see how serious they are.

A second concern is this, which we have pointed out before:

“Why I’m confident,” Sharpe said after the meeting, “is if you attack this in an incremental way and realize we have a serious problem with transportation in our county, you’ll be able to deal with the problem and come forward with a solution everyone in our community will be able to accept.”

While we agree that it makes sense to take a problem step by step, it has to be considered comprehensively.  Moreover, there is no way you are going to make everyone happy, which is made clear by the contrasting speakers quotes in the article in which that quote appears. And why is making everyone happy the goal anyway?  Shouldn’t the goal be fixing the problems and making us competitive?

— The Art of the Possible

Another argument that seems to always arise in discussions of transportation issues is that we have to limit our ideas to what is “possible.”  To some degree, that is true.  We need to be mindful of cost and what the voters will accept.  (For instance, we have no problem with the idea that a ½ cent tax referendum might be more successful than a 1 cent referendum and plans should be developed accordingly.)

On the other hand, it is an abdication of the supposed leadership role of politicians to simply accept the lowest common denominator of ideas in the name of what is “possible” and “getting everyone to agree.”  That will just lead to ignoring both the needs of the present and the needs of the future – which has generally been the County policy.

It is accepting only “what is possible” that made the Tampa Bay area settle over and over and has left the Tampa Bay area behind almost all other major metros in transportation infrastructure.  It is also ridiculous to say that what is possible in most other major metropolitan areas including our main competitors – namely rail transit and urban development – is not possible here.  What is needed is a discussion of what we should have, what should be done, what our needs are – then a discussion of a method of obtaining them, even if it takes time.  That is leadership.  While that has been woefully lacking in most sectors of the County (and other) government, hopefully, that will change.  We shall see.

— Conclusion

We are all for getting the discussion about transportation/transit started – it should never have ended.  However, without some clarity of purpose and what is to be discussed, there is a large risk that those talking will speak at cross-purposes.  We cannot afford that.

The fact is that all those people who will be talking live in this area – they already know what they see as necessary.  Why dance around it?  It would be very helpful if people would actually drop catch-phrases and political intrigue and finally speak clearly.

HART – There Is No Accounting For It

In light of the move for countywide talks in Hillsborough County and that HART will be at the table, we noted a couple of things about HART this week.  First, ridership continued to increase.

Both Hillsborough and Pinellas County transit agencies set ridership records in February.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority reported a 4 percent rise in daily ridership last month to 1.2 million trips.

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority ridership increased 1 percent, also to 1.2 million rides.

That is following the trend. We think it is a good sign.  (The more it grows, the closer we come to the resident bus expert’s 2% threshold for rail. )  Then we learned the following:

HART is going to be millions of dollars short of being able to replace its aging fleet in the next few years, agency officials say.

Depending on how much money might be available from federal funding sources, HART’s fleet-replacement plans could fall short from between $8.3 million and $24.7 million for each of the years between 2014 and 2018, the transit board projects committee learned Monday.

The finances could affect plans to replace 91 aging buses and 76 other transport vehicles between 2014 and 2018. One option is to wait longer to replace older vehicles, but that increases maintenance and repair costs.

* * *

HART’s plans to replace 11 buses and 13 minivans this year for $5.9 million are funded and another $5.4 million in available funds will be carried forward to 2014.

But plans to replace 31 buses, eight flex service vehicles and 20 other vehicles for $17.4 million next year will fall $12 million short. Shortfalls of varying amounts will carry through each year through 2018.

So what is the cause of this budgetary shortfall as ridership continues to increase?

About three years ago, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit was forced to begin shifting funds from its capital budget to its operational budget to compensate for shortfalls in running the system.

That was because the transit system’s share of property taxes declined as property values fell and other tax sources began to dry up, including the elimination of congressional earmarks for special funding.

We find this a bit odd.  Were we not told the following in August?

Hillsborough County Community Investment Tax funds are paying for all phases of the 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.

(Funny how the $5.7 million returned to the County is almost the same amount as the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops subsidy.)

So HART is giving money back then claiming poverty.  (Not to mention HART’s refusal to further examine the potential cost savings of merging with PSTA. ) As we said in previously, money is fungible.  We understand that $5.7 million will not cover a $12 million shortfall, but it can cover about half.  If the $5.7 million stayed in the capital budget, HART would have more money to move around and cover the cost of new buses.

Then again, this is HART we are talking about.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of Florida

While Hillsborough County moves at a glacial pace, across the state, the Orlando-Miami railroad is moving forward, though there are issues to be resolved.

“The two-city pair Miami-Orlando is just like the best city pair that you could ask for,” said Husein Cumber, FECI’s executive vice president for corporate development. “Orlando is the most-visited city in the country and Miami has its airport and ports and many other attractions.”

Originally announced in March 2012, All Aboard Florida service was expected to launch in 2014. The start date has been moved back to 2015, Cumber said in a recent interview.

Aside from the delay, the project is on track.

The company’s $1 billion plan features 16 round trips a day from early morning to late evening with stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — with service possibly starting in late 2015. Trains would run hourly and each one-way trip would take about three hours.

In addition, the private company behind the project is seeking a $1.5 billion Federal loan.

We think the 2015 start date is probably a bit optimistic.  To some degree we hope so because that gives time to try to get the Tampa Bay area some connection to the system.  The failure to connect to the Tampa Bay area to more infrastructure will leave us even farther behind our competitors.  Of course, as far as we can tell, the political leadership of the Tampa Bay area is unconcerned.

In A Park Down By The River – Cont.

There was news his week about Riverfront Park:

City Hall is taking the first step on what is expected to be a three-year, $10.5 million makeover of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

“We’re going to make some changes,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said of the 23-acre park, just south of Interstate 275, across the Hillsborough River from the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.

“It’s long overdue. It’s dated. It’s showing its age,” the mayor said. “It’s not really functional, and it really doesn’t showcase the river like it should.”

The city this month issued an invitation to architectural or engineering firms interested in developing a master plan for the park. That will include making sure the public is involved during the planning and coordinating changes with the city’s new InVision Tampa plan.

The deadline for proposals is April 4.

People who live near or use the park will have a say about its future, Buckhorn said.

“Before we do anything at Riverfront or any of the other parks, we’re going to have an ongoing dialogue with the people who are affected by it,” he said.

In Riverfront’s case, he said, that includes the University of Tampa, Tampa Preparatory School and the West Riverfront neighborhood.

It is good to seek proposals (though, as far as we can tell, the document is a Request for Qualifications). Given how important the City says the park is, a full blown design contest would be better.

It is also good to communicate with the neighborhood.  Hopefully the locals’ (and we mean people, not institutions) voice, and other people who use the park who are not necessarily in the immediate neighborhood, will be heard.

We shall see what happens – but, as we have said, whatever it is, the big mound should stay, though it could be made more organic.

List of the Week

Our list this week is the Top Fastest Growing Cities in the US.  Number 1 is Raleigh (considering rail), followed by Austin (rail), Las Vegas (sort of rail), Orlando (building rail), Charlotte (rail), Riverside-San Bernardino (commuter rail), Phoenix (rail), Houston (rail), San Antonio (considering rail here and here), Dallas-Ft. Worth (rail).

And let us be clear – the cities on the growth list are not growing just because most have rail.  There are other factors – for instance they are all SunBelt cities.  However, having a proper transit system helps make them attractive and competitive by giving people alternatives in where and how they want to live.  When people are considering which SunBelt city to which to move, that makes a difference.

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