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Roundup 5-31-2013

May 31, 2013

Transportation – Bring on the Bikes

Tampa is moving forward, maybe, with creating a bike route around downtown.

City officials next year might allocate money to build an east-west pathway shared by motorized vehicles and bicycles. The proposed route would connect Homer Hesterly Armory in West Tampa with Cuscaden Park in V.M. Ybor.

Vehicles would travel on two lanes along Cass Street, Nuccio Parkway and east of Interstate 275 to 14th Street. Bicyclists would have their own two-lane “cycle track” — parallel to the roadway, but separated and buffered from motorized traffic.

The pathway, dubbed the “East-West Green Spine,” is among projects proposed by InVision Tampa, an effort launched by Mayor Bob Buckhorn to re-imagine connections between downtown Tampa and surrounding neighborhoods.

Setting aside the limited nature of the plan in that it does not go to Westshore and other dense areas in the City and County (maybe that will come later, though InVision Tampa ignores all those areas), we think it is a good thing.  We have no problem with bike paths.  We also like the “cycle track” concept.  For those who don’t know about “cycle tracks,” they look something like this:

From nacto.org – click on picture for website

From http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/cycle-tracks/

Click on the picture for more information on various types of cycle tracks.  We like the idea of separating bikes from cars.  Only the most intrepid (or desperate) cyclist wants to ride in the street with cars.  So what will this all cost?

No price tag is attached to creating the pathway, which stretches about 3.1 miles. City officials hope to begin work on a feasibility plan in coming months that will address costs and right-of-way needs. In most places, Goers said, the roadways probably are wide enough to accommodate the proposal. In a few areas where the roads are narrow, bicycles and motorized bicycles might be separated only by a stripe on the pavement, rather than a physical buffer.

“There’s probably going to be some places where we’ll have to make some compromises,” Goers said.

So, no idea on cost.  As for the actual bike path, as long as there are not too many compromises, it is understandable that a small section of the path might have to share the road with cars.  On the other hand, if there is a real commitment, things can get worked out, like this, which at least creates a little separation:

From nacto.org – click on picture for webpage

From http://nacto.org/cities-for-cycling/design-guide/cycle-tracks/

In any event, we like the idea, though it is too limited.  At least it is a start, though there is a lot of work to catch up with Detroit.

Also, as part of the bike craze, there has been talk of bike sharing.  We have no problem with bike sharing; we just hope that we can learn lessons from the experience of other cities, like New York.

Transportation – Bring on the Bus

This week HART rolled out the MetroRapid north-south line.

Some call it Bus Rapid Transit – HART’s MetroRapid bus service that begins Tuesday with expectations it can lead Tampa toward a modern urban transportation system.

Others label MetroRapid as Bus Rapid Transit Lite — a comparatively inexpensive consolation prize for funding neither light rail nor exclusive bus-only corridors like those in “gold standard” BRT cities.

Either way, the MetroRapid system between downtown and the northeast suburbs is bound to be successful, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority officials say. And with good reason.

MetroRapid will partially supplant HART’s busiest run, Route 2 along Nebraska and Fletcher avenues, traveling the 17.5-mile stretch in about 55 minutes. That’s more than 15 percent faster than local buses, using technology to extend green traffic signals and shorten red lights and stopping only at special MetroRapid stations.

Some may call it BRT, but we call it a bus that goes a little faster than a normal bus, though we hope it is successful.  (We don’t think a slow start is an issue, because new transportation features often take a while to get going.   That being said, we think the hype should be held in check.  Take this:

Funded through the county’s Community Investment Tax, the roughly $25 million MetroRapid project began in 2008. It’s the first bus rapid transit system in Florida, Hale said, though unlike other BRT lines, this one will share lanes with normal traffic.

Actually, even if you accept that MetroRapid is BRT (which we don’t), it is not the first BRT in Florida, and the one MetroRapid line does not create a system.  Moreover, Miami has a real BRT line going south from the Dadeland metro stop. (See a CUTR – home of HART’s resident bus expert – report here and other info here and some discussions about it here and here and preliminary ideas to replace the busway here  and here)

Interestingly, even HART has (sort of) walked back from the BRT label for MetroRapid:

But whether MetroRapid will shape Hillsborough County’s transit planning for years to come remains to be seen. That will depend on its performance and understanding what HART’s version of BRT can and cannot achieve — compared with more expensive light rail or Bus Rapid Transit systems that operate in bus-only corridors.

HART consultants originally labeled MetroRapid planning documents as a BRT system, but HART has since focused on the branding to differentiate the new service from its conventional routes.

“MetroRapid will show the benefit of transportation that draws on the effectiveness of what a properly designed and operating bus system can provide,” said Philip Hale, HART’s chief executive.

Right, a decently run bus system can do some things. (Though this is just one line, not a system, and we are not sure why the stops are not next to existing stops so people can connect easily, like they should be in a system.  )  Of course, a bus system connected to rail can do much more.  And HART’s apparent walk back from BRT hype apparently only goes so far (apparently HART is of two minds regarding their own service).

Hale said there basically is no difference between MetroRapid and BRT. He points to a 2012 Government Accountability Office report that shows that similar to Tampa’s MetroRapid, only five of 20 U.S. BRT projects use dedicated or semi-dedicated bus lanes.

Indeed, the GAO study did say that.    The 2012 GAO report also said:

The BRT projects we reviewed generally increased ridership and improved service over the previous transit service. Specifically, 13 of the 15 project sponsors that provided ridership data reported increases in ridership after 1 year of service and reduced average travel times of 10 to 35 percent over previous bus services.

That is good, though HART’s MetroRapid claim of 15-20% improvement in time is at the low end of that range.   And, while at least one line in NYC is quite busy (surprise), the GAO found that:

. . . even with increases in ridership, U.S. BRT projects usually carry fewer total riders than rail transit projects and international BRT systems. Project sponsors and other stakeholders attribute this to higher population densities internationally and riders who prefer rail transit.

(Please note the international BRT had dedicated BRT paths.)  In any event, we now have a MetroRapid line and no funding for any more.  The Hillsborough County officials are talking about talking about transit.  So what does the future hold?  Is this a path to light rail or a replacement for it?

Commuters across the county could soon have even more options. HART already is planning an east-west route heading from Tampa International Airport to East Tampa, though funding has yet to be secured.

Still, everyone is not convinced light rail will automatically follow MetroRapid.

“Can it lead to light rail? Sure it can, but it is not going to be the only way to do that,” Suarez said. “We actually need more money to do that. Light rail is an expensive concept, and we have no way to fund it right now.”

Interesting comment, but is it also accurate?  We would say yes and no.  Up front costs of buses are generally lower, especially if they are just fancier buses without dedicated lanes.  (and thus not real BRT)  However, while buses are cheaper up front, the 2012 GAO study referred to by the HART chief executive tells us this:

Factors Affecting Capital Costs:

The difference in capital costs between BRT and rail transit is due in part to elements needed for rail transit that are not required for BRT projects. Light rail systems, for example, often require train signal communications, electrical power systems with overhead wires to power trains, and rails, ties, and switches. Further, if a rail maintenance facility does not exist, one must be built and equipped. On the other hand, transit experts who have evaluated both rail transit and BRT told us that while initial capital costs are higher for rail transit than for BRT, life-cycle capital costs for rail transit are potentially lower than BRT. For instance, although more expensive up front (typically $1.5 million to $3.4 million per car), life cycles of rail transit cars are longer (typically 25 years or more) than most BRT vehicles (12 to 15 years).[Footnote 36] However circumstances affecting costs will vary among projects, and research has not yet been done to compare life-cycle costs of BRT systems in the U.S., as they are still relatively new.

In other words, long term, light rail can be less expensive to run and, as quoted above, carry more riders.  Also, according to the GAO report cited by HART’s chief executive, light rail also opens up more people to transit because they like it more than buses– in other words, light rail expands the market for transit.  Moreover, the report indicates that rail generally brings much more transit oriented investment than buses.

As we have long said, we have nothing against MetroRapid, per se.  We want it to succeed.  We are fine having it be part of our transportation system.  However, it is just a fancy bus; though, as the HART chief executive said, at least Hillsborough finally has “properly designed and operating bus” line.  (We are not sure what HART was doing before now.)  MetroRapid may be useful – we think it is – but it is not a solution, and any attempt to say that it is a solution is just silly.

Built Environment – As Westshore Goes

In the item about bicycle paths above, we commented that the bike path plan was too limited and should connect to Westshore.  We have also commented previously about Westshore not being a walking environment and the City seemingly not caring about urban design or walkability in Westshore – its busiest district.  Well, recently we were driving around Westshore and noted the bank being built on an outparcel at the Container Store site.  The entire site is basically a sprawl-fest, aside from one restaurant which has a staircase connecting to the sidewalk.  In fact, while the bank branch is built against the sidewalk, it completely ignores the street/sidewalk.  Its entrance faces the parking lot of behind it.  This is what it looked like when we drove by:

Not only does it not face the street, there are apparently no windows to the street.  It is all well and good to talk about making Westshore walkable, but if this is the kind of building the City is going to continue to allow there, all the talk is a waste of time.

As the Mayor said:

“Ladies and gentlemen, as Jackson Heights goes, so goes Palma Ceia. As College Hill goes, so goes Culbreath Isles. As East Tampa and West Tampa goes, so goes New Tampa.”

Apparently, there was a reason he left out “as Westshore goes . . .”  This is a perfect example of reality invalidating hype – and a perfect example of Tampa settling.

Built Environment – More for Howard

This week a new project for South Howard was announced.

A 212-unit apartment complex with 15,000 square feet of restaurant, retail and office space could be headed to a prominent section of S Howard Avenue, the latest example of the area’s apartment boom.

SoHo Flats would replace a nearly vacant, rundown strip center just north of Morrison Avenue that once housed Joe Redner’s popular gym, Xtreme Total Health & Fitness. The complex would cover a total of four parcels that include a laundry equipment supply company dating to the 1970s.

* * *

The sale of the properties is contingent on the city’s approval of the project, which goes before the City Council for a rezoning on June 20. If approved, construction could start at the end of the year, with an opening date likely for the end of 2014, Everett said.

* * *

SoHo Flats has vowed to work closely with residents to address any issues, Everett said. To accommodate ongoing concerns about the proliferation of bars along Howard, the two restaurant spaces would have to generate at least 51 percent of sales from food, he said. To avoid adding to the area’s parking woes, the four-story garage would include more public parking spaces than the city requires.

The $33 million project would include a pocket park along Bristol and a pool area with a courtyard and fire pits. Units would rent for about $1,000 to $1,800 a month. 

This is the rendering:

From the Times – click on picture for article

While it is not architecturally significant, it is fine for a smallish apartment building. If built, this would one more step in the transformation of South Howard, especially south of Swann, into a walkable, urban area.

We do have a concern, which is how the neighbors are going to react.  This should not really be a problem with this particular lot because it is cut off from Hyde Park by the Selmon Expressway, but it still is a concern.  We are glad to see that the developer understands some of the neighbors’ concerns.

Hopefully, the City has decided that South Howard should be a walkable, urban area and works to get the nearby residents on board.  There is a lot of potential for the area, and it should be allowed to reach it.

Channelside – How Not To Make a Deal

The Channelside saga continued this week with Liberty Channelside, which offered to “buy” the Channelside complex and was rejected, mounting a full court media blitz.  We are not going to get into details about everything they said, though they are making noises about suing.  Frankly, we do not think they presented enough detail about their plan, and we have no problem with the Port requiring an escrow account to be applied to promised improvements at the complex.  Given the history of the complex, it makes sense.  If Liberty did not want to do that, that is fine, but they do not get a deal.

The thing that caught our eye was that we finally got clarity on the rumored offensive utterances by Liberty negotiators in the negotiations:

Then there’s the inappropriate comments made by Govindaraju during a May 15 conference call, for which he later apologized. He told the Times on Wednesday that he uttered a profanity and used this metaphor to complain about overreaching on the escrow demand:

“You guys are overreaching,” Govindaraju said he told port officials during the call, “and in my experience whenever someone overreaches we cut off their hands. I am giving you the opportunity to keep your hands.”

But an anonymous source told the political website saint petersblog.com that Govindaraju “accused one of the Port’s representatives of overreaching and said that if they were in his country, they would cut off the liar’s hands for such an offense.”

Govindaraju said he never threatened anyone, called anyone a liar, or said anything about his “country” — which is the United States.

He was born in Bangalore, India. But his family moved to Carrollwood when he was 5.

“I am deeply disappointed that someone at the port would distort this statement,” Govindaraju said. “It’s insulting not only to us, but the Indian community. We’ve all tried to be good citizens in this city, and that is not the way you treat anyone.”

It is a very odd metaphor – in fact, it is not a metaphor.  In any event, what kind of negotiating tactic and PR campaign is that?  Even if we just accept what the speaker admits they said,  it is hard to convince us that you can threaten to cut off a potential partner’s hand and still engender trust from that potential partner.  That is just reality.  Time to move on.

Coming Out Watch

This week we learned that a recently released book by a national recognized author had some not very favorable things to say about Tampa. (We admit we have not read the book, yet.)

In an 18-page chapter titled “Tampa,” Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, puts together a description that reads like a prosecutor’s indictment. Tampa actually appears in a series of chapters that touch on the foreclosure crisis, the defeat of light rail in Hillsborough County, the rise of the tea party, the difficulty of climbing out of poverty and the spectacle of the Republican National Convention.

In the book’s first chapter on the place, Packer writes that “Tampa would continue to grow, and by growing, become great” and, moreover, that “it grew in order to grow.” Here are two excerpts from the chapter:

• … it was really the county that grew. While the city of Tampa inched past 300,000 people, Hillsborough County, with its vast tracts of unincorporated farmland and ranchland and wetland, surged beyond a million. The selling point wasn’t America’s Next Great City after all — Tampa was an old port with a defunct cigar industry, a history of labor trouble, a high crime rate and an uneasy mix of Latinos, Italians, Anglos and blacks.

• Tampa had tried to take a shortcut to greatness, but that never worked; its downtown had no coherence, nothing to attract people beyond an office job, a hockey game, or a court case. Riding a bike around town was dangerous, and so was trying to walk across one of the broad, high-speed streets — Tampa ranked second in the country in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities.

While one can quibble about some of those descriptions, there are two things really stand out: 1) that Tampa/Hillsborough County “grew in order to grow” and 2) that “Tampa has tried to take a shortcut to greatness.”  From the attitude that subsidizes Bass Pro Shops and calls it the idea of economic development to the manifold arguments that buses are the solution to our transportation problems to the innumerable examples of settling for poor design– all of which still go on – it is hard to argue that these are continuing problems.

List of the Week

Our list of the week is Gallup’s List of Most/Least Obese States.

The most obese state is West Virginia, followed by Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Iowa.  Texas, Indiana, and Michigan just missed the top ten.

The least obese state is Colorado, followed by Massachusetts, Montana, Connecticut, California, Utah, Arizona, Rhode Island, Idaho, New Jersey, and Washington.

Florida is in the top 20 least obese (the website is not entirely clear, but we think it is tied for 15th with New Hampshire), which is something.

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