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Roundup 3-29-2013

March 29, 2013

State of the City

The Mayor of Tampa delivered the annual State of the City speech this week.  The speech was accompanied by this swell (and hopefully not very expensive) logo:

From the City of Tampa website – click on link for webpage Let’s see how long this logo sticks around


Like the annual State of the Union, State of the City speeches are mostly rhetorical puffery lacking substance. This one was no different:

The speech lacked any specific plans or details, but indicated that Buckhorn was serious about bringing a light rail transportation system to Tampa.

Nice to know he is serious. How do we know he is serious?

“We can be a region with a first-class transportation system,” Buckhorn said during his second state of the city speech on Tuesday. “We need mobility options now. That means bus rapid transit, that means (high-occupancy vehicle lanes), and it darn sure means rail.

“Tallahassee needs to let cities decide for themselves what their future’s going to look like,” said Buckhorn, who has lobbied the Legislature to let Florida’s largest cities hold their own sales tax referendums. That could give Tampa a second chance at the kind of transit referendum that was defeated in unincorporated Hillsborough three years ago even as it won precincts inside the city.

Indeed, we need a first-class transportation system in the region, and it is good that the Mayor is talking about it.  Unfortunately, the Mayor advocates the least regional alternative of all – the City tax/city based system.  And if he wants a regional system, why did the Mayor punt during the HART/PSTA discussions?  Why did he not support TBARTA – a regional organization – becoming involved? More importantly, aside from saying we need a system, what exactly does the Mayor intend? Where does he want light rail to go? And what is plan B when the Mayor doesn’t get his City tax?  And how is this level of planning different from his predecessor?  Rhetorical support is fine (and necessary), but to be serious you actually have to do something more than talk.

Then there was this – the headline grabber:

Buckhorn went on to allude to Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to turn away $2 billion from the Obama administration to build high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando.

“Don’t tell me that I have to listen to the mayor of Detroit thank me because he’s building his light rail system with our money,” Buckhorn said. “If folks in Tallahassee don’t want to support us, we’ll find folks in Tallahassee that will.”

As rhetoric goes, not bad.  As for being based in fact, not so much.  (Detroit is not using high speed rail money to build its streetcar; that money went to other high speed rail plans.  Detroit is only getting $25 million in federal funds, which is less than $2 billion. )  One thing this area does not need is more rhetoric confusing light rail and high speed rail. We need clarity in language and planning. (Like Pinellas seems to be developing.)  We need a concerted effort to convince people that rail is useful and necessary.  Why would the Mayor go out of his way to foster confusion if he is serious about actually building rail?

And we also do not need transit to be a partisan issue.  The Young Democrats and Young Republicans agree.  Why is the Mayor messing with that?

Setting that aside, other things discussed by the Mayor included:

• The improvement of the city’s relationship with Hillsborough County officials. (“Never been better,” Buckhorn said.) 

We are all for improved relations between the City and the County.  On the other hand, the improvement should not be at the expense of actually getting things done.  And if relations are so good and the Mayor really thinks we need a comprehensive transit plan, why are we just now getting to have a conversation about transit in Hillsborough County?

• The opportunities to become a gateway to Latin America offered by the expansion of the Panama Canal and international flights to Tampa International Airport. (“I’m not playing second fiddle to Miami. It’s our turn.”)

Confidence is good, but the fact is that right now Tampa is playing second fiddle to Miami (and in many ways Orlando, too.  Miami is trying to double their container traffic which already dwarfs ours.   We won’t even bother talking about Miami’s air connections to Latin America.  Mayor, you are playing major catch-up.). On the other hand, we welcome competing with Miami and other areas. (And why just focus on Latin America?)  Tampa should be a gateway to Latin America. It is good that the Mayor is on board with all the other people who have been working for years to develop international trade, like here (or maybe he just likes to tango) Also, hopefully the Mayor realizes how far behind the Tampa Bay area was allowed to become (especially in the Port and Airport) and will refrain from irrationally impeding further efforts to keep the talent necessary to catch up with our competitors.   And, now that a local Congresswoman has taken the local lead, maybe the Mayor will change his stance against trading with the closest Latin American country to Tampa, namely Cuba.

• The welcome re-emergence of interest in downtown. (“It’s an exciting time. Three new residential towers have been announced in the last three months.”)

Indeed, though two of the announced towers are revisions of plans that got stalled in the recession.  Having been through these cycles many times, we are curious to see what will get built and if the City will ever get around to changing the code to make sure it is urban. (unlike the Channelside project of suburban style apartments that the Mayor lauded. )   Downtown is improving, but it can still be messed up rather easily.

• The need to make Tampa competitive with vibrant, tech-savvy Sunbelt cities like San Diego, Austin and Raleigh-Durham, N.C. (“We’re not fighting with St. Petersburg. We’re not even competing with Orlando. … I am not losing my two little girls to Charlotte, N.C. I will be darned to let that happen.”)

Right, Tampa is not competing with St. Pete (though, unfortunately, in many ways at least the government of St. Pete is competing with Tampa).  Wrong, the Tampa Bay area is competing with Orlando for business, for flights, for Latin American connections, for biomed, for population, for state and federal funds, etc.  And, yes, we are competing with other Sunbelt cities, but not just Sunbelt cities. The bottom line is talking about competing is good.  What is the plan (especially beyond real estate)?

• The goal of making the Hillsborough River the center of downtown activity. (“For too long, we’ve turned our back on the river. … For too long, we’ve failed to realize that that river is the best asset we have as a community.”)

Attaching downtown to the river is fine, and Curtis Hixon Park is great (hint: don’t mess it up).  Of course, downtown activity will develop its own way regardless of what the Mayor wants, and Channelside, where two of the announced apartment towers are planned, is nowhere near the river. It would be good if the Mayor were also concerned with design and planning in other parts of the City, which really does not appear to be the case.

• And the importance of reducing blight in inner-city neighborhoods hit hard by the housing crash and foreclosure crisis. (“As Jackson Heights goes, so goes, Palma Ceia. As College Hill goes, so goes Culbreath Isles. As East Tampa and West Tampa go, so goes New Tampa.”)

We totally agree.  It follows that he should explain why the City seems to have no interest in having good design built on Dale Mabry or most other parts of the City. He should explain his inaction on getting a proper code in place. (We are also curious why, despite an ordinance, there are panhandlers all over the City except, as far as we can tell, in South Tampa. They may be there too, but we haven’t seen them.)

In fact, there was a lot positive about the speech, even if it was just rhetoric.  The fact that the Mayor clearly stated he wants rail is good. The fact that the Mayor mentioned international trade, specifically international flights, and international competition is a real positive.  It shows a real transformation in the political culture has taken place since the last administration, and the Mayor feels the need to address it.  The Mayor may be late to game on these issues (for instance he as not part of the discussion about changing airport directors and focusing on international flights), but at least he is getting himself on the right side rhetorically.

And he was really right about this:

“We don’t have to settle anymore,” Buckhorn said. “We don’t have to aspire to second best. …Tampa, it’s time to dream big. It’s time to think big.”

(Sounds familiar?)

The question is: if it doesn’t have to settle, why does the City keep doing it?

Actions speak much louder than words.  The words are pretty good.  The jury is definitively still out on the actions.

And change the code.

HART – There Is No Accounting for It – Cont

Last week we reported on HART saying they do not have money to upgrade buses in the future.  This week, we learned that HART also failed to plan properly for its east-west “MetroRapid” service.

HART’s new speedy bus service will be whisking riders by late spring on a 17-mile route from downtown Tampa to Telecom Park near Interstate 75, using traffic signal-changing technology to cut trip times by 10 to 15 percent.

A more east-west route from Tampa International Airport to Temple Terrace, though, remains years away. Crucial issues like funding and specifics such as whether the route would service Hillsborough Community College’s Dale Mabry campus remain unresolved.

First, what is unresolved?  Why wouldn’t it service HCC’s Dale Mabry Campus?

A consultant’s study for HART indicated a loop through West Shore would add no significant ridership but add significant travel time. 

If it is such an attractive and efficient service, why would there be no additional riders to/from a place like HCC?  Why do you need a loop through HCC rather than a stop on Dale Mabry or Tampa Bay near the campus that would add almost no travel time?  How much was the consultant paid?

Anyway, back to HART’s unique style of accounting:

Money is likely to be the deciding factor in when an east-west corridor will hook up with the north-south MetroRapid routes that are scheduled to begin full service June 10.

HART staff and consultants are working on a development and partial design study for an east-west route. Capital costs for the route are estimated at $22 million.

But unlike the north-south route, which is being built and equipped with $25 million in Hillsborough County transportation grants, no funding appears readily or easily available for MetroRapid East-West.

Planners and lobbyists are checking into potential state and federal funding sources, a more difficult and time-consuming process than when Hillsborough County financially backed the north-south plan.

Odd.  No funding available? As we pointed out last week, HART gave back millions (including $5.7 million for the MetroRapid, around $ 9 million in total by some accounts) back to the County because they apparently did not need it.  (And we apologize for some links – the Tribune’s revamped website inexplicably killed the old links to their articles.  You can find the info elsewhere here)

This is all very strange because:

“I almost wish East-West MetroRapid were going into operation before North-South MetroRapid,” Hillsborough County and HART commissioner Sandy Murman said at a transit meeting last week.

“I see so many benefits,” she said, referring to serving the airport, HCC, West Shore and St. Joseph’s Hospital. “We will have to work hard in getting the money.”

(So, essentially she sent money from herself to herself and now wishes she had given herself the money back.) If there are so many benefits, why did HART give the money back? If it did not give away money it needed to create a false veneer of thrift, HART would not have to work quite as hard raising money.

We understand that funding is limited and the $5 million to $9 million given back will only cover a limited number of things.  There is still a need for more transit funding. We also think saving money is fine (good, in fact), but it is not saving money to give money away then say you need more money.  It is just silly and a disservice to the owners of HART – the residents of Hillsborough County.  The whole thing is laughable.

On the other hand, at this point, what do you expect?

Hillsborough County Transportation – The Wait

We thought it was interesting this week that venerable local columnists for both the Times and Tribune  weighed in on the upcoming transportation talks and, though differing in styles, said pretty much the same thing, from the Times:

How to put this as gently and diplomatically as possible: Could everyone please, please, please just shut up and get this thing built before I’m 103?

From the Tribune:

You can only wish them the best, but at the same time remember to keep your gas tank full in case you get caught in that gridlock outside your driveway.

It isn’t going away anytime soon.

For us, seeing is believing, and we haven’t seen anything yet.

Reshaping the Urban Environment

We found this interesting article about how a combination of rail development and changed building design requirements is transforming Denver. See here. You should read it. As the article itself says, no one is saying that Denver does not have sprawl; it does.  However, it is changing.  Notably, Mr. Mayor, it also routinely shows up on lists of places people want to be and should go.  In other words, it is our competition.

We often have heard that rail will not work in the Tampa Bay area because the area is not dense enough.  We also hear that this area must settle for suburban sprawl designs, even in the central part of the cities, because that is what the market dictates. Articles like this indicate why neither point is really valid.

Change the code.

When the Walls Came Tumbling Down

This week, Tampa’s snappily named Nehemiah Project moved on.

City officials have approved demolition permits for a half-dozen houses on Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s redevelopment agenda for Sulphur Springs.

The new permits bring to nine the number of demolitions scheduled in the community since Buckhorn announced his Nehemiah Project in January.

Of those, one demolition has been finished and two are set for this week, said Jake Slater, head of the city’s Neighborhood Services Department. The department combines Code Enforcement and the former Clean City division.

Buckhorn plans to tear down 51 abandoned or derelict houses in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Buckhorn announced his plans by climbing aboard an excavator Jan. 28 and knocking the front off of a foreclosed house on North Brooks Street.

He is following a path blazed by former Mayor Pam Iorio, who used federal housing funds to buy and tear down about a dozen houses. Those properties remain in city hands.

The owners of the homes can work with the City to avoid demolitions by fixing up their properties.  In theory, we have no problem with the policy.  However, we do have a concern shared by others.

Buckhorn says his Nehemiah Project will clear the neighborhood of havens for drug dealers, prostitutes and crime. Urban planners say vacant lots create their own problems by fracturing a community’s social fabric.

Today, Sulphur Springs has more than 150 vacant properties, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s Office. By the time the Nehemiah Project ends this summer, about 12 percent of Sulphur Springs’ single-family residential lots will be vacant.

Councilman Frank Reddick, whose district includes Sulphur Springs, worries the empty lots will become dumping grounds.

“I would just hope the city, when they finish demolishing those properties, they work with a developer or nonprofit to rebuild that community,” Reddick said. “You can’t just demolish houses and not have a plan to see those homes rebuilt.”

In other words – what is the plan for the empty lots?  The policy is named after Nehemiah, but Nehemiah rebuilt what others had destroyed.   (If the project is just to tear buildings down and walk away, just call it the Nebuchadnezzar Project.)

We do not want to see a replay of the “urban renewal” policies that messed up Ybor City for decades.  Removed the blight, but there needs to be a plan for rebuilding/renewal.  And it needs to be publicly stated.

Someone Has To Pay For the Subsidies

We learned this week that while the economy is starting to do better and revenue should increase, the Hillsborough County Commission is not satisfied:

Hillsborough County commissioners have been loath to even talk about raising taxes of any sort during the economic doldrums.

With things looking up, they plan to at least explore raising user fees for things ranging from charges for an ambulance trip to an annual assessment that goes toward fixing flooding problems.

So who will they hit with “fees” rather than “taxes” while they subsidize developers?

Commissioners did that Wednesday. While they offered no explicit endorsement of any particular fee hike, they generally expressed willingness to have Merrill and his staff bring back suggestions in several areas.

• Ambulance transports.

* * *

• New programs in county parks.

* * *

• Stormwater fees.

Classic – the injured, the kids, and the flooded.  But make sure developers don’t pay any impact fees.  That would be unconscionable.

Visit Pinellas – Lots of Other People Did

Pinellas tourism is going strong:

The county had a record number of visitors, including a record number of first-time visitors, who generated a record economic impact. That’s according to Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, the county agency responsible for promoting Pinellas tourism.

But the news is even better than that to the agency’s director, D.T. Minich. Why? The gains were seen across the board — European and domestic visitors, room rates and hotel occupancy levels — signaling that most tourism sectors did well in 2012.

A record 5,435,000 people visited Pinellas County in 2012, according to Research Data Services Inc. That’s 200,000 more people, or 4 percent more people than visited in 2011. That also includes 1.1 million first-time visitors to Pinellas’ beaches, another new record.

Room rates rose by 8 percent in 2012, the agency said, nearly doubling the rise in statewide average room prices of 4 percent. Occupancy was also strong, 70 percent in the Pinellas area compared to 65 percent in the rest of the state.

The estimated economic impact of tourism in 2012 was valued at $7.8 billion. That’s $521 million more than Pinellas tourism generated in 2011, setting another new record for the county.

That is all good.  What else can you say?

List of the Week I

Our first list of the week is Gallup’s Well-Being Index.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index score is an average of six sub-indexes, which individually examine life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors, and access to basic necessities. The overall score and each of the six sub-index scores are calculated on a scale from 0 to 100, where a score of 100 represents the ideal. Gallup and Healthways have been tracking these measures daily since January 2008.

We will ignore the smaller metros, where Lincoln, NE was the overall winner.  Looking at the big metros, the top five metros for wellbeing were Washington, DC; Northern San Francisco Bay Area; San Jose, CA; Denver; and Minneapolis-St. Paul.  The bottom five were, in descending order: Riverside, CA; Louisville, KY; Providence, RI; Las Vegas; and – coming in worst of any major metro – the Tampa Bay area.

List of the Week II

Our second list of the week is a Business Journal ranking of the best places for young people, which would seem to be subject close to the Tampa Mayor’s heart.  see also here  The top 10 areas were: Austin, San Joes, Washington, Boston, Houston, Durham (NC), OKC, Des Moines, Denver, and Raleigh.

The Tampa Bay area came in 74th out of 102, just behind Orlando at 73. Jacksonville was 81st. Miami-Ft Lauderdale came in 91st. Lakeland was 97, followed by Palm Bay-Melbourne and Sarasota-Bradenton.   Bringing up the rear was Ft. Myers.

All in all, quite a pathetic showing for Florida as a whole, and, looking at both lists, the Tampa Bay area in particular.

Nice speeches are not going to cut it.

One Comment leave one →
  1. B Wills permalink
    March 29, 2013 1:49 PM

    Regarding “Reshaping the Urban Environment”, this is an illustration of why, if rail is ever done here, it must be an elevated regional METRO system. If you route rail lines through the middle of nowhere, because it is cheaper, you eventually create blight in the previous high-activity corridors, and you pay to subsidize operating expenses for decades while you wait for density to develop along the new rail route. Routing rail along already somewhat dense corridors builds on density that is already in place, and redevelopment just makes it more dense over time which further supports the argument for rail. A rail system must be faster than driving the same route by a large margin, in order to be successful.

    Tampa Bay needs a METRO aligned above existing high-activity corridors and crossing the bay @ 75-80 mph to link USF, Busch Gardens, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Airport, downtown Tampa, Ybor City, Westshore, the major malls, downtown St. Pete, Feather Sound/Carillon, and the beaches, with local & express service + feeder bus service.

    We do not need low-speed streetcars/trams mixed with car traffic, or light rail isolated in highway medians.

    Initial capital cost of elevation along developed corridors will be more, but the number of riders attracted to the system from day one will be larger and result in more farebox recovery of ongoing operating expenses. Economics of redevelopment will quickly become compelling along these corridors, density will rise, and in turn, ridership will rise further. Better to pay more up-front for a better system that attracts far more riders on day one vs. doing it on the cheap, and then having to subsidize operating expenses for decades because there are not enough riders.

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