The Wacky World of Transportation in Hillsborough County
Sometimes, whether intentionally or not, there is an odd convergence of news about one subject. This week it was transportation in Hillsborough County. While the news did not actually provide any great epiphanies, it was interesting.
From: 2003 St. Pete Times article http://www.sptimes.com/traffic/
Up first, this week the Tribune ran an interesting article about the inevitability of sprawl and the failed transportation system in Hillsborough County. It seems that, no matter how hard the County Commission may wish for it not to be so, there is no escape. Even though they are the government, there is simply nothing they can do.
From one corner of Hillsborough County to another, according to a Tampa Tribune analysis, zoning was approved years ago on more than 2,500 properties now poised for some form of commercial or large-scale residential development.
And unlike in years past, the activity can progress without a now-defunct statewide requirement that roads that will be needed to handle the added traffic are in place by the time the projects are finished.
The impact of renewed growth, the Tribune’s analysis shows, is likely to be greatest in a 45-square-mile area of Brandon where many roads already are graded “F,” meaning travel lanes can come to a complete stop during peak hours.
In other words, development in Brandon will continue like it has done in the past. The Commissioners are really sorry, but they are absolutely powerless. . .and it is not their fault.
County commissioners, while expressing sympathy for people living around the project, say there’s nothing that can be done. The property has been zoned to allow a big-box store since 2003, and any move to block the development in court would likely fail, according to the county attorney’s office.
With thousands of other vacant parcels around the county similarly zoned, the commission is likely to see more of the kind of neighborhood face-offs that were more common before the recession took hold in late 2007 and stifled development of all kinds.
So, the County Commission originally zoned the land for sprawl, then neglected the roads, and now claims they cannot do anything about it. That is true if they wait for a project to be proposed before trying to do anything. On the other hand, they could redo the planning in the area rather than wait for the sprawl to come, but we all know that is not going to happen.
There is no nice way of saying it, but the County Commission doesn’t seem to really care.
— Sprawl? What Sprawl?
So how did it come to this?
Corbett, of the commercial real estate group NAIOP, points out that many of the subdivisions in Brandon were built before the state Legislature passed its landmark growth management law in 1985, requiring that certain infrastructure upgrades be in place “concurrent” with the completion of a project.
“Sprawl – all that occurred before the growth management laws were in place,” Corbett said. “When the growth management laws were put in place and we got a comprehensive plan, it wasn’t as if we did it on a blank slate.”
Other, more recent factors complicated the problem. In 2011, the Florida Legislature made sweeping changes in growth management laws. One prohibited cities and counties from forcing a developer to upgrade failed roads around a proposed project as the price of developing it.
So, all the 1) strip malls and 2) big box stores with vast surface parking lots and 3) the housing developments that require you to drive everywhere that were built after 1980 or so are not “sprawl.” We have no idea how we could have been so mistaken thinking this and this and this and this and this and just about any built up part of unincorporated (and incorporated, really) county were sprawl. Glad that got cleared up.
The reality is that in Hillsborough County (and the Tampa Bay area in general) “sprawl” was not just the model in the 1970’s. When comprehensive plans came into force, the plans had sprawl as the ideal. The sprawl policy did not go away in the 1980’s – it is still the policy today, and everyone knows it. These problems should not have surprised anyone. (For instance, here is a 2003 article from the Times about the inadequacy of our roads, how far behind the government was and how developers skirt the permitting process. In fact, the big box zoning in question above was in 2003.) It is not like the County (or the Tampa for that matter) was concerned with proper transportation infrastructure in the boom years (or pretty much any other years), or else there would not be a problem now.
Setting aside the complete failure of the County Commission to manage growth properly over decades, we still need to fix the transportation system. Of course, Hillsborough County completely neglected to properly run its impact fee program so it never had the money to keep up with development. Now:
So what is the solution?
We understand that the developers’ spokesperson is going to say someone else should pay. Frankly, that is the only thing that makes sense from their perspective. (Though their developments aren’t going to be so successful when no one can get to them.) Moreover, it is not particularly fair to make a developer to pay for not just the traffic their development generates but also older developments that the County failed to take into account. (Of course, urban designs would create less traffic and have less impact but the County does not work that way.) The problem is the County government’s – and therefore the taxpayers’.
— More Talks about Talks
So what to do?
One idea taking hold is focusing growth more compactly along established mass-transit corridors, whether rapid-transit bus or light rail lines. Mass transit moves people more efficiently, and a dedicated transit line with its concentration of potential customers would create reliable opportunities for developers, said Beth Alden, assistant director of the MPO.
In other words, do the planning that was not done in past decades and fundamentally change the way things are done in this area. However, as with any attempt to move the County Commission out of 1985, this effort is not without controversy, as seen in another forum this week.
The local political leaders continued their talks about talks about talks about transportation with a meeting business leaders (well, only six business leaders) to discuss transportation.
The chief executives said the Tampa Bay area’s reputation for long commutes, sclerotic traffic and the lack of mass transit increasingly is an obstacle when it comes to recruiting companies and workers — especially young professionals who live in metro areas where they don’t need cars.
“The young talent we want wants mass transit. Roads are important but not the whole picture,” said Greg Celestan, CEO of the 150-employee defense firm Celestar and chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. “People want different options.”
“It’s critical to have a long-term vision of mass transit that includes rail,” Sasso said. “There are rail developments under way in Miami and along Florida’s east coast. We do not want to be left out.”
“We do not lack for roads or buses here,” said Brian Crino, president of downtown Tampa’s Skyway Capital Partners. “Our real shortage is we do not have effective mass transit that people are willing to choose over getting into their cars.”
That’s all correct, but we have known this for years (decades, really) and the politicians – especially in the County – have ignored it (even when they allowed the 2010 referendum, they opposed it.)
Now elected officials say their success at bringing in new business is increasingly tied to transit. They are not only talking about coming up with another plan, but edging toward the point where they propose a way to pay for it.
Which elected officials? We haven’t heard too many County Commissioners saying anything positive about real transit. What did they actually say?
But county commissioners have little appetite for new or higher taxes for transportation. In 2010, voters soundly rejected a 1-cent sales tax increase for roads, buses and a light rail system. Voters in Tampa supported the tax; voters in unincorporated Hillsborough County, including those in Brandon, did not.
“Last year we paid collectively $10 billion in taxes – local, state and federal – and I have yet to hear anyone say we’re getting our money’s worth,” said Higginbotham, the commissioner who represents Brandon. “To come in and talk about a tax increase, even though the economy has had an uptick, I think you’d have a revolt.”
It is odd for a Commissioner to claim that taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth when it is the County Commission that determines how a big chunk of that money is spent. At least the Commissioner has now come clean on the mal- and non- (we are not sure about mis-) feasance of the board on which he sits.
And then there was this:
Some commissioners were not convinced. Victor Crist, who represents the northern part of the county, said his constituents will not support a tax. Commissioner Al Higginbotham said last week he had detected no appetite among county residents for higher taxes to finance transportation projects.
So we know of two Commissioners who are opposed to any taxes (and we can guess of two more – the outspoken advocates of sprawl from the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops discussions).
The question is – since the transportation system is already bad, the County has left a development time bomb in place, the County has no money for fixing transportation, and the Commissioners oppose raising money, what are the Commissioners going to do? Just let everything rot on their watch? (Which is what they have been doing.) Hand even more money to developers of sprawl? Basically their position amounts to “we have failed, so we will continue to fail.” Sounds like a plan.
At least, some elected officials did speak (generally) in favor of actually fixing transportation.
Now, Chillura said, “I just think it’s the right start. The climate is right, the leaders are unified right now, and I think it’s time we really start to put a plan in place. There’s pre-planning going on. We’re not doing first and thinking later.”
Actually, twenty or thirty years ago, before all the sprawl we now have was built, would have been the right time, but we will take it now. And there is this:
Urgency? Which one of the three politicians above has actually proposed anything concrete? Show us your map.
The closest thing we could find was this:
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Commissioner Mark Sharpe, supporters of the referendum, urged the other politicians to ignore political opposition and find the money for better mass transit. Buckhorn said the county could start with a smaller, pilot light-rail line as Charlotte did.
That’s great, but any suggestions on what that starter line should be? It is going to be hard to convince people to vote for something if you don’t tell them what it is (see 2010 referendum)
This much is clear – the majority of the County Commission has no solution to our transportation issues. They are devoid of ideas and/or are too afraid to lead. In fact, as it stands now, the County Commission is an impediment to fixing transportation.
However, even for those politicians who claim to support rail, until they present a real proposal, all this talk is irrelevant. Everyone who cares already knows there is a problem; now is the time for solutions.
— Post Script: The Public Meeting
Fortunately, there will be a public meeting so that you can tell the County Commissioners what you think about how they are doing their job and what you think should be in our transportation future. The meeting is August 6 at 6 pm at the County Center. (Facebook page here) If you can’t make it, you can always email them here.
Economic Development – Keeping It Real
Anyone who observes Tampa Bay business knows that the last few weeks have been pretty good in terms of announcements. This has not gone unnoticed by the media, like this column from the Times:
They are pinching themselves today, making sure they are not dreaming amid the recent bonanza of very real economic development coups realized in the past days and weeks, along with some strong possibilities of landing some pending deals.
Call it karma, pent-up economic demand, recruiting talent or sheer hard work, it’s been a long, long time since Tampa Bay’s landed such a concentration of diverse business wins offering quality higher-wage job opportunities, international travel and trade reach, plus the likely arrival of some of the best known retail brands in the country.
That’s right, put on Cloud 9 not by a Fortune 500 headquarters (See Ft. Myers), but by Bass Pro Shops which we had to pay for and (maybe) Trader Joes. Of course, it is a business recruiter’s job to appear cheerful and positive all the time so we expect a certain hyperbole there, but let’s cut through the fluff.
The arrival of the retail outlets is not a sign of great economic vitality, it is a signal of how far we lag behind our competitors (and other places like Gainesville or Ft. Myers/Naples), who got them before we did. The fact that we had to chase the stores just to match smaller metros shows how our market is viewed and should not be celebrated. (And remember, Hillsborough County is giving more taxpayer money to the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops developer and South Shore Commons than to all the other projects combined. You know where the Commission’s heart is. Is that what the Times columnist is endorsing by including those items on his list?)
But setting that aside, our beef is not with the items on the list per se, it is with the broader reaction. There are some good achievements on the list, but this is not time for basking in (false) glory – this area is still playing catch-up, in technology, manufacturing, transportation, income, the arts, retail, city-building, and most other ways.
To keep some perspective, this came out in the Times the same day the celebratory above:
Or this, also from the Times three days later:
The odds of raising poor kids to not be poor can vary widely depending on where those families live. A new study finds kids raised by parents in the lowest fifth of incomes are more likely to rise out of those poorest economic circumstances in rural areas of southwest Texas and along a zigzag line north through the Midwest. In parts of North Dakota, more than a third of children raised poor are likely to end up in the top fifth in income, much of that probably owing to the energy boom in that state.
Among 30 large metro areas, alas, Tampa ranks a modest 22nd with just 7 percent of children raised in a household in the lowest fifth of income likely to end up in the top fifth. Of those kids at the bottom, 30 percent will remain in the lowest fifth for income, making $25,000 or less. An additional 31 percent will rise to the next fifth making between $26,000 and about $47,000, while 21 percent will land in the middle fifth of incomes between $48,000 and $72,000, and 12 percent will reach the next tier of $73,000 up to $106,000. And, as noted, just 7 percent will reach the top fifth of Tampa area incomes that ranged from $107,000 to $416,000.
The lack of economic mobility shows the reality of how effectively the real estate and call-center based economy developed over the decades. Hopefully we are breaking out of it, but that is not at all clear yet – especially when you look at what “leaders” do rather than what they say.
However, travel to major metro areas around the country and you will see that many are already ahead of us in recovery (because of better leadership did not fall so far in the first place), as evidenced by building booms, especially urban building booms, which tend to cause chain reactions. (Like Austin, Denver here and here, Charlotte.) Their infrastructure is already developed and getting expanded while we can’t even get one decent transportation proposal in Hillsborough County (Pinellas obviously is doing better). They are moving on while we are still catching up.
The Tampa Bay area has seen this movie before – a few times. First come a few relocations and a little housing boom. And all the while local politicos talk about how great we are doing and get/stay complacent until the economy slows down and, unlike many other areas, there is nothing to backstop the fall. (And don’t forget the lack of future planning, like all the hype about “Wall Street South” financial services back office operations while other areas were moving to technology.) We have wasted decades taking small steps while other areas have sped ahead by leaps and bounds. A few successes just won’t change that.
We are happy for more jobs and the economic developments and hope they are a sign of things to come, but stop with the self-congratulations. There is so much more work to be done and time is wasting.
— A Final Note
Giving credit where credit is due, we do agree with this – especially for the airport director and somewhat for the port director:
Aside from an improving economy, new economic development blood is no doubt a factor in Tampa Bay’s recent renaissance of new businesses. Tampa International’s Joe Lopano, Tampa/Hillsborough EDC’s Homans, the Port of Tampa Port director Paul Anderson, Visit Tampa Bay’s just arrived Santiago Corrada are all part of a refreshed team pushing for new business momentum to the area.
Indeed, the team has been refreshed, but it will only go so far with elected officials who completely fail to deal with real issues of development, planning, and transportation.
Tampa International – More International Still
Last week we made a reference to Friday’s announcement of expanded Edelweiss service. Here is a little more detail:
Edelweiss began service from Tampa in May 2012, after Tampa International promised more than $420,000 in fee waivers and marketing dollars over two years, as well as promotion assistance from bay area economic development and tourism agencies.
It is notable that the service continues after the incentives finish, so the incentives got the flight but are not necessary to keep the flight. Despite decades of doubters, there is now proof of a market for international flights to Tampa. Those who failed to build that market in the past truly let us down (like those who failed in all other areas of planning and transportation).
In more airport news, there is going to be another flight to Cuba:
There was also an interesting article in the Times about how the pursuit of the Copa flight and the airport’s use of statistics to prove that a flight was viable. It is a good read. You can find it here. (Though after reading some Panamanian articles and their references to demographic data [for instance see here], we might wonder just what numbers were being used.)
Just keep up the good work, and keep pointing out how long it takes to go through customs in Miami and Orlando.
Meanwhile. Elsewhere in Florida – Port Everglades edition
This week there were further discussions about dredging the channel in Port Everglades.
The port community and business leaders have been pushing for 17 years to deepen Port Everglades’ channel and widen its entrance, so that the Broward County port can host bigger vessels including the mega-ships that will pass through an expanded Panama Canal starting 2015.
“We’ve had to turn away ships that want to call here because the channel is too shallow and narrow,” said Douglas McAuliffe, a harbor master with the Port Everglades Pilots Association, one of many port groups that spoke out Tuesday. “The project should provide a lot more jobs to the county. Otherwise, we’ll be losing jobs as we’ll have to turn away the next generation of ships.”
Seaport officials sought to deepen the channel to 50 feet, but the Army Corps instead backed dredging to 48 feet. That adjustment reduced the cost, down from an initial $340 million, and will limit damage to coral, seagrass and other marine systems, according to the study.
What is interesting about all the news from the Port of Miami and Port Everglades is that they do not base their future plans on being a spoke in the transshipment system. Their expectation is to be a major port, and they clearly address the impediments and possible solutions, not to mention somehow Miami raised the money to build a tunnel – in Florida – to their port. Quite a different attitude from most sectors of the Tampa Bay area – especially the Hillsborough County Commission.
List of the Week
Our first list this week is Honest Tea’s list of top 30 most honest cities in the US. This is the methodology:
Fifty unmanned pop-up kiosks–stocked with the company’s organic iced tea and lemonade–were set up at well-trafficked locations between August 8 and August 19. The stands included signs asking for $1 per bottle to be dropped into a clear box. (The money collected was donated to charity.) A custom iPad application was used by undercover observers to collect the data, which was then compiled into what they’re calling the first National Honesty Index.
The top 10 (actually 11 because of a tie) honest cities were: 1. Oakland and Salt Lake City, a tie; 3. Boulder; 4. San Francisco and Seaside Heights, N.J., a tie; 6. Boston, Cincinnati, Galveston, and Seattle, a tie; and 10. Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., a tie.
The only Florida city on the list was Miami. Apparently, the Tampa Bay area did not merit testing – or maybe they got the list of cities from Travel & Leisure.
List of the Week II
Our second list this week is of the marketforce.com’s list of grocery store customer satisfaction. It is a little involved, but overall Trader Joe’s ranked first, followed by Publix, Whole Foods, Wegmans, and Aldi. Do with that what you will.