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Roundup 4-5-2013

April 5, 2013

How Many Things Can You Jam Into a Highway Median – Part I

This week, despite the recently announced countywide talks on transportation, the piecemeal approach to transportation ideas and seemingly unquestioning coverage continued.  The Expressway Authority and HART introduced us to “bus toll lanes.” (You can see the report here)

Imagine riding a premium bus to work that travels swiftly along a corridor added to local freeways, which could also serve motorists willing to pay a toll to avoid congestion on the adjacent lanes in place today.

Transportation planners today unveiled a “Bus Toll Lanes” concept for Hillsborough County that could make transit more competitive through a partnership between transit and toll agencies.

Transit agencies would seek revenue from federal grants and issuing bonds to finance additions to highways and purchase buses, with the promise of collecting bus fares and tolls from motorists to eventually cover capital and operating costs.

* * *

Bus Toll Lanes could provide three options: express bus service in special lanes financed by transit backed initiatives; motorists using personal vehicles in the expanded capacity; and the continuation of motorists using their personal vehicles in existing general purpose lanes.

(Yes, imagine . . . a premium bus.) In other words, lanes would be added that are both variable rate toll lanes – “Lexus lanes” – and a route for express buses.  Setting aside our concern over the uncapped cost to drivers of “Lexus lanes,” it is an interesting idea, though we see one immediate issue – where will the buses stop? (Or, to say it another way, does this idea even have a purpose in the greater scheme of getting people around the Tampa Bay area?) We have previously reported on plans for brt in the interstate median. If their route is a “Lexus lane” in the interstate median, where are the stops going to be and how much space will they take from the “Lexus lanes”?  (If the buses have to get off the interstate to stop and then get back on, they will not be express or brt buses.)

So where would these routes be?

No routes are recommended in the current stage of the report, but the study identified three possible Bus Toll Lane networks along Hillsborough’s interstates, toll roads and Dale Mabry Highway.

In other words, no one is willing to actually commit to any idea, but . . . .

And let’s consider one idea: Dale Mabry.  How exactly are you going to build a “Lexus lane” on Dale Mabry?  Well, this is how the report (see here) portrays it:

From the THEA/HART report – click on picture for report

Setting aside the risk of drowning all the drivers in summer rain storms, how many lanes are they planning to take away from normal traffic on Dale Mabry (see rendering on the right above ? And overpasses all the way down Dale Mabry? And what about people who want to turn left into one of the multitude of sprawling establishments along Dale Mabry? (Good luck getting the businesses to go along with this idea.)

Also interesting is that the calculations in the report are all for an imaginary city – why not make them for an actual city? (Not to mention that the report speaks of transit oriented developments – but what development is going to occur with buses zipping by in “Lexus lanes” without a place to stop?)

We are all for looking at new ideas and alternative funding solutions for transportation.  Maybe this idea would work in some contexts.  In fact, the idea of letting express buses drive in the “Lexus lane” seems kind of obvious, like high priced, tolled HOV lanes. However, this concept hardly rates the obligatory breathless comments like this:

“I feel this is a shot of Red Bull,” Hillsborough Area Transit Authority board member and county commissioner Sandy Murman said. “We need to talk about new concepts.[“]

But setting that aside for the moment, the biggest problem is that there is no explanation of how this idea fits into a comprehensive plan, how it helps or hurts other plans, how it would work with anything done in Pinellas, how the bus routes would work, how it fits with the MPO’s ideas, how it fits with the Mayor of Tampa’s hidden ideas, and if anyone would ride it.  Nevertheless, it is portrayed as a potential game changer. In other words, business as usual.

How Many Things Can You Jam Into a Highway Median – Part II

Continuing the theme of disjointed planning, enter FDOT:

State planners also think [Westshore is] the perfect area to build the transportation hub of the future — be it light rail, bus rapid transit or a combination — that could one day link Pinellas to Hillsborough and eventually Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The project is called the Westshore Multimodal Center. A Florida Department of Transportation feasibility study determined that such a hub will be needed to link whatever mass transit systems — what FDOT calls “premium transit” systems — that leaders and voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties decide to one day build in the bay area.

* * *

There are two components of the Westshore multimodal project. One is a platform that would be built between the interstate from N Trask Street to N Manhattan Avenue. That’s where people would get on or off the “premium transit” system that would be built between north and southbound I-275.

The second component is a combination light rail/bus station/parking garage that would allow riders to park and use the “premium transit” system of the future. It would be built alongside the interstate, and a walkway of some kind would be built over the lanes, linking the station to the platform.

The FDOT specs call for a 10,000-square-foot building at least two stories tall that would have at least 750 parking spaces. It would ideally have space for administrative offices, restaurants and retail, bike racks and lockers and be pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

FDOT has chosen four sites near I-275 for the Westshore center. The next step, in the coming years, is to fund a study to pare them down to one. The sites are: the north parking garage of Westshore Plaza; the Charley’s Steakhouse property at 4444 W Cypress St.; a Jefferson High School parking lot; and parking garages along Trask and Cypress streets.

The center won’t be built, of course, until both sides of the bay adopt some kind of mass transit system. The plan is in place for when — or if — that time comes.

These are the mentioned potential locations:

From the Times – click on map for article
Caption: SITE A: Westshore Plaza north parking garage: It’s right next to the interstate and could redefine the mall. But the mall garage would have to come down and it’s the furthest from the platform, making it expensive. SITE C: Charley’s Steakhouse: The parcel at 4444 W Cypress St. is the closest to the interstate and would be the shortest distance to the platform. That makes it more cost-effective, but its small footprint is bad for expansion. SITE D: Jefferson High School: The south parking lot offers 10 L-shaped acres that are close to the platform. But it’s a school that must be secured from the nearby station. FDOT also would have to build the students a new garage of their own. SITE S: Trask and Cypress Streets Parking Garages: It has good access for motorists and is near hotels. But it’s far from the platform and FDOT would have to replace lost parking.

Once again, we are all for people thinking and talking about ideas, and we are for a multimodal center.  However, we are not for disjointed speculation and, more importantly, this is putting the cart way before the horse.  Setting aside some obvious questions (like how would this idea work with “bus toll lanes” and why is there a park and ride garage in the middle of a business district that is likely to be a destination rather than an origination point for people with cars) there are bigger questions –

Since nothing has actually been planned and approved in yet, how does FDOT know that Westshore will be the logical hub of whatever transit system may be built – if one is built?  Why decide where to put the “hub” before anyone has decided how, where, and what of the system itself?  Why is there an assumption that any system will run through the interstate median – which is not a logical place to have the most effective transit?  Why is the “hub” for transit for a major metropolitan area going to be squeezed into a relatively small lot with basically no room for expansion vertically and horizontally as the system develops?  If there is ever intercity or commuter rail to Tampa, how will it get to the “hub” (it gets to Miami’s Intermodal Center and is planned to get to anything built in Orlando)?

Frankly, it makes no sense to predetermine the hub of a system that has not even been proposed.  But at least we now know why the airport connection mysteriously moved from a logical place – the south end of the airport – to some random spot near the interstate.

TIA – Master Planning

The Hillsborough Aviation authority unanimously approved the new TIA master plan this week.

From the Times – click on picture for article

Change will come quickly. The first phase is set for completion in fall 2017.

“This is not a plan five years on the shelf,” Lopano said. “This is a plan of action that starts today.”

• • •

The first phase is the decongestion phase, as the airport tries to reduce traffic and parking congestion and free space in the main terminal for the next phases.

* * *

TIA will also build a consolidated rental car facility, or ConRAC, along the southern edge of its property, near the economy parking garage and airport post office. A new automated people mover will link passengers to the main terminal and the new rental facility 1.3 miles away.

The facility will serve two functions: moving the rental car counters and cars from the main terminal frees space for future expansion and opens up the parking garage. It will free 1,200 long-term garage parking spaces and get 8,500 rental cars off the road a day. Then the airport will build out the four corners of the third-floor transfer level, adding 50,319 square feet.

Lopano has called the new 2.3 million square foot facility an “airtropolis” — a hub the airport could commercially develop with restaurant and retail space, car rental counters and a parking garage, maybe even a new airport hotel. The nearby mall, International Plaza, is 1.2 million square feet.

Not only would the facility generate new car rental and concession revenue, but Lopano said the airport could benefit by letting the private sector run it.

“We could sit back and reap the benefits,” Lopano said.

Projected cost of this phase: $841 million. It should be done by fall 2017.

Looks like this:

From the Times – click on picture for article

From http://www.tampabay.com/news/business/airlines/new-vision-for-tampa-international-airport-cleared-for-takeoff/2113102

The new plan is an alternative to an old plan that was not flexible enough to handle new realities without either leaving the airport overcrowded or spending very large sums of money.

The new master plan sets the stage for three phases of construction and expansion by 2041, Lopano said. It will also allow TIA to make more money.

The airport has spent the past two years paying down its debts so it can fund the new master plan with revenue bonds, Lopano said. It will also seek out federal and state grant money and public-private partnerships for funding.

* * *

Dr. Joseph Diaco, a board member, likes this master plan much better than the old one. That called for building a new terminal for billions of dollars. But after the recession, TIA no longer has the passenger numbers to justify that.

“This is amazing,” Diaco said. “The planning is meticulous. It’s tremendous that we don’t have to go build another terminal, which costs twice the money.”

You can read more about the possible expansion in the article.

We are all for this master plan.  As we have pointed out – when you have one owner a master plan can make sense.  We like that the plan takes a staged, conservative approach to expansion while being true to the airport’s original, innovative design concept of limited walking distance and using people movers.

One thing of note:

Lopano also talked about plans to expand the airport beyond the airport itself, connecting it to whatever mass transit systems emerge in the bay area.

TIA hopes to connect the new automated people mover to the proposed Westshore Multimodal Center that state planners hope to one day build in the Westshore Business District along Interstate 275.

We are all for the airport being connected to mass transit.  In fact, it is necessary.  We still question whether the “hub” for all local mass transit should be jammed next to the interstate in Westshore – but that is FDOT, not TIA.

One other point – the fact that the airport plans to connect to the parking garages and transit “hub” in Westshore via the people mover and no one questions it shows how, implicitly through the airport, people in this area understand that rail (fixed guideway, to be more exact) is qualitatively different and more attractive than buses – even premium buses – otherwise the present bus service to the remote parking garages would just be extended to future “hub.”

Urban v Sprawl – The Debate, Sort of

The Times ran an interesting column this week on the debate between the concept of attracting the “creative class” and the concept of focusing on sprawl.  (While we have used it on occasion, we do not really like the term “creative class.”  We think a better idea is “knowledge-based industry” but that is not the language or concept used in the article.)

Ten years ago this month, urban economist Richard Florida introduced Tampa Bay to his idea that cities able to attract and grow concentrations of technology workers, artists, gays and other skilled innovators will enjoy higher levels of economic development.

Florida called these groups the “creative class” and promised that the more of them places like Tampa Bay could lure, [sic] the more that high-end companies hungry for bright, young workers would follow with good paying jobs.

Interesting ideas.  However, at least for our area, a key point is that only

[p]arts of Tampa Bay’s leadership embraced this notion. They pushed hard to make at least some of Florida’s concepts materialize.

And not a big part. The rest, and the part that ultimate made policy, were and are wedded exclusively to sprawl and tourism/call-center/real estate model.  And we have a brain drain and have problems attracting high-end companies.

The Times column is prompted by an article on the Daily Beast by an advocate of sprawl that takes the “creative class” idea to task after an advocate of the “creative class” idea admitted there were some issues.  Many of the criticisms are valid, to a point – though they do not support sprawl as a model of development.  One issue is whether the increase in wealth of the “creative class” starts to price others out of the market. (Though we doubt there is a risk of Silicon Valley house prices in the Tampa Bay area.  And is that really an argument for low wages?)  There is also a question of whether taxpayer investments in museums and other attractions will attract people to places. (They will, but they may not be the optimal investment in certain areas.).  On the other hand, probably because the writer is a prophet of sprawl, the article fails to address the urbanization of most of the fast growing, Sunbelt areas it cites in support of its argument and areas like Denver.  The crux of the pro-sprawl argument from the Daily Beast is this:

To be sure, the leading “creative class” cities have much to recommend them, and some of them, such as Portland and Boston, have registered impressive rises in their per capita income in recent years. But over the past decade, most “cool cities” have not been enjoying particularly strong employment or population growth; in the last decade, the populations of cities like Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville grew by 20 percent or more, at least four times as rapidly as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago. This trend toward less dense, more affordable cities is as evident in the most recent census numbers than a decade.

One reason for this: the fastest job growth has taken place in regions—Houston, Dallas, Oklahoma City, Omaha—whose economies are based not on “creative” industries but on less fashionable pursuits such as oil and gas, agriculture and manufacturing. Energy mecca Houston, for example, last year enjoyed the largest GDP growth of any major American city, easily outpacing “creative” urbanist favorites like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, or Boston. The other two top GDP gainers were Dallas-Fort Worth and, surprisingly, Detroit, largely as a result of the auto industry’s comeback.

Of course, as we have pointed out, growth percentages can be deceptive, but we’ll go with it. We also question whether there is a trend for less dense cities or whether it is for warmer cities, which, not coincidentally, are becoming denser.   And we will admit that the oil sector has been in growth mode.  Of course, whether one has oil or not is not a choice, so that is largely irrelevant.  For that reason we will ignore Oklahoma City as an example, just as we would ignore a city in North Dakota.  And for a variety of reasons – namely no one really wants to imitate it right now – we are ignoring Detroit.

But even setting all that aside, by listing examples of successful cities, the Daily Beast author actually – though probably inadvertently – points out that the successful Sunbelt cities – and the cities that the Tampa Bay area is competing with – are those that have a diverse mix of neighborhoods and are moving toward developing a more urban core.  Places like Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and Charlotte have more than just oil or heavy manufacturing. (Though we are all for manufacturing and support trying to develop that sector.)  They have hub airports.  Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta have numerous universities each.  They also have what we consider creative, knowledge-based industries – biomed, technology, etc.  .  Houston has a biomed hub which rivals either Tampa or St. Pete’s downtown for density (beats em, really) and skylines (it is close).

From Texas Medical Center – click on picture for website

(We are a bit behind on the bio-med development)  Dallas and Atlanta have very diverse economies and Charlotte has banking and technology. (See here  and here)

The Daily Beast article also ignores success stories like Pittsburgh, which remade itself into a research center, or Minneapolis.

It is also worth noting that most of those cities have rail (including a stop at said Houston medical cluster) and are expanding it. Most also have (or are in the middle of developing) much more developed urban areas than the Tampa Bay area.  In other words, it is not sprawl or the lack of an urban environment that is drawing people.  The key to success is either a specialized growth industry (like oil/gas in OKC) or the diversity of economy and lifestyles available in many of those areas.

The real point is this, as the Times columnist says:

With a nod to economist Florida, this is a metropolitan region still trying to make its downtowns in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater more dense with young people and more cool with universities, artistic variety, condo and apartment living, tech businesses, and an emerging entrepreneurial network for business startups.

But this is also a metro area expanding briskly on its edges, something Kotkin would endorse, as more people move here and seek less congestion and newer and more affordable housing options.

Now all we need is a viable mass transit system to knit it all together.

The reality is that a diverse economy and a diversity of living conditions is the most healthy situation.  It allows people from various walks of life and industries to live here and enjoy life.  Moreover, having a healthy urban core allows people from the suburbs to enjoy urban amenities, even if living in the suburbs serves their day-to-day life conditions better.  Between urban and suburban, it is not a winner take all situation – except, historically, in the Tampa Bay area.

The problem in the Tampa Bay area is that our area is lacking economic and development diversity – though we have no lack of sprawl or retail and low paying jobs.  The deficit is in the urban aspect and knowledge based and industrial industries.  (The recent success of urban development and amenities like Curtis Hixon Park shows the pent up demand for urbanism, but too often this area settles for lesser development.)  It is also way behind on transit.

Right now the reality is that, except in the narrowest areas, our local governments, through action or inaction, promote sprawl or sprawl-like conditions.  That does not give people the choices they want.  That is why we have a brain drain.  Frankly, if the Daily Beast author was correct that sprawl is what people really want, we would have no trouble attracting young talent. (And remember that young talent become the business owners and job creators of the future.)

We like the discussion and think it is important, but we think the Times column tries to be a bit too ecumenical.  The Tampa Bay area lacks the necessary diversity of lifestyles or industries.  Even though there has been some improvement, it started from a deficit of urban environments, industry, and transit and has failed to keep pace with our competitors (not New York or San Francisco, but Charlotte and Austin).  Most importantly, despite rhetoric, even now, it is not clear that we even have real buy-in by most local leaders or the will to stop settling.

Built Environment – West Tampa

There was an article in the Tribune about the West Tampa Convention Center.

The West Tampa Convention Center soon will be torn down, leaving behind memories of more than 40 years of politicking, fiestas, flamenco dancers, dance recitals and “tastes” of West Tampa cuisine.

Workers began gutting the interior of the building this week in preparation for its demolition. Centro Español de Tampa recently sold the property for about $650,000.

Palmetto Capital Group plans to replace the convention center with a Dollar General store and a second tenant. The Tampa City Council approved the project in June.

The 7,200 square-foot discount store is expected to open by late fall, said company spokeswoman Crystal Ghassemi. It will be the 11th Dollar General in Tampa.

We have not seen a plan for the Dollar General.  Maybe it is more pedestrian friendly than most buildings near this lot.  If so, great.  But we have our doubts.

So this is the deal – we know it is private property.  We also know that the market will dictate what gets built there.  However, the market does not dictate all aspects of how whatever goes there will be built.  To a large degree, the City does that.

Even though it is a busy little retail area, Columbus east of Himes through West Tampa is not the most attractive road for a variety of reasons.  One of those reasons is that the City traditionally has not really cared how anything is built there, even though it has a lot of potential. (It seems like the City is just happy if anything is built there.) The reality is that it would not cost anymore to have a more pedestrian friendly design for most of the buildings on Columbus; it is just that the City did not try to do it.  Nor would it price anyone out of the market.  It would just make it a nicer area for the people who are there and the City in general. The real question is why not do it. Why settle?

Downtown TampaOffice Building On Hold

This week, not surprisingly, the proposed office building was put on hold.

Developer Trammell Crow has sidelined its plan to build downtown Tampa’s first new office tower in two decades until the office market picks up.

Bob Abberger, Trammell Crow’s senior managing director in Florida, said he isn’t giving up on his SouthGate project, which would include a 20-story office building and a separate 350-room hotel. But he won’t proceed until he’s convinced demand for office space has grown.

He still hopes to break ground by the end of this year, but made no promises Monday.

We have mixed feelings about this.  We are not really fans of the 1980’s design of this building, but it would be nice if the office market downtown were stronger.  We still think one of the reasons downtown’s market is not stronger is that, unless you are a lawyer going to court, there is little to distinguish downtown’s office buildings from Westshore other than the fact you have to pay for parking downtown.

Coming Out Watch

Eight months after the RNC, we found a Washington Post article (column really) that finally refers to Tampa without the Florida after it, here. Interestingly, the Post article on the Rays opening day game still put the “Fla” after St. Petersburg.

List of the Week

Continuing with the idea of sprawl versus urban (we are not really going to go with creative class) our list this week is Forbes’ List of 15 US Cities Emerging Downtowns.   (To be honest, we think some of them have already emerged, but whatever.)  Here is how the list is described:

America’s major metro area downtowns welcomed double-digit population growth in the decade ending 2010, more than double the rate of growth for their overall cities, according to the U.S. Census. As more Americans, particularly college-educated young adults ages 25 to 34, opt for urban lifestyles, cities scramble to revitalize their central business districts. Here’s a run-down of some of the development efforts underway in U.S. cities.

To be honest, we are not sure that this is a ranking more than a highlighting of things being done.  However, even if it is just highlighting cities, it is interesting who is chosen to be highlighted.  The cities are, in no particular order: Denver, El Paso, Des Moines, Detroit, Louisville, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Birmingham, Grand Rapids, Pittsburgh, Memphis, Atlanta, Cleveland, Los Angeles, NYC.  Like we said, this seems more like a highlight list.  Interestingly, Florida is ignored.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. David Sochet permalink
    April 5, 2013 2:42 PM

    The Bus Toll lanes and the proposed Tampa Intermodal Center are just re-imaginations of already existing systems in Miami. Express buses have been using the managed toll lanes along I-95 in Broward and Miami since the toll lanes were implemented. In fact, the addition of express buses were one of the incentives to win public favor for the toll lanes. As it works in South Florida, the buses have limited stops at the far end of their routes and as they approach I-95 become express only (no stops) into Downtown Miami in the morning or northbound in the afternoon. I believe FDOT is planning for this same scenario for Tampa. For example limited stops for buses coming from Pinellas or northwest Hillsborough and then express in the toll lanes to either Westshore or Downtown Tampa. As for the intermodal center, again FDOT is copying the Miami Intermodal Center which is already in operation near MIami Int’l Airport and nearing completion.

    The Center in Miami combines a centralized car rental center, a terminus for the new Orange line of the Metrorail, intercity bus service, commuter rail (Tri-Rail) and Amtrak, all connected to the airport by an automated people mover. Sound familiar? FDOT is trying to replicate this scheme, not only in Tampa but in Orlando as well. As if a one size fits all transit center is actually preferable. But what works in Miami probably is not the best solution for Tampa. The dynamics are totally different. Miami’s center took twenty years of planning and design, whereas the Tampa center seems to be an afterthought at best.

    What seems to be more troubling is that there is little or no demand for new office space downtown. Why build a transit system to serve a city center if the bulk of the office market is in Westshore, and that is where future development seems to be heading? It has been over 20 years since a commercial office building has gone up downtown, and vacancy and rental rates suggest there may not be any need for new space anywhere in the near future. This does not bode well for a transit system that uses downtown as its focal point.

    • April 5, 2013 3:53 PM

      Thanks for the comment. We have to disagree with you though. FDOT is not copying the Miami Intermodal concept in Tampa; it is doing a partial, cheap imitation of the idea without even knowing what the systems involved will be and without capacity to expand in the future. Just because Miami took a long time does not mean that the Tampa Bay area should get a shortchanged. A multimodal “hub” is a major piece of infrastructure that will have influence for decades – we do not need a poorly informed, poorly thought out, rush job. (Why should we play second fiddle to Miami? Or really third fiddle when you include Orlando?)

      As for the variable toll lanes and express buses, we are unaware that there is any groundswell of demand for them in the Tampa Bay area. It may be there, but we have not heard or seen it. As we also said, there may be a place for such an idea, but how does it fit in the greater scheme?

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