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Roundup 8-23-2013

August 23, 2013

Transportation – Thinking Small

In November of last year, the head of FDOT was speaking to Pasco County economic development and business leaders about a proposed new toll road in the county.

Prasad reminded his audience that state Rep. Will Weatherford, a former Wesley Chapel real estate broker, becomes speaker of the House in Tallahassee this month. Weatherford, says Prasad, “wants to go on the offensive in transportation.”

Advised Prasad: “Think big.”

(Given that it was FDOT’s leader speaking in the Tampa Bay area, he probably only meant about roads.) This week, we learned that Hillsborough County is still afflicted by thinking small.

— They Are Who We Thought They Are

First, HART released an update to its future plans.

HART released details Monday of two options for transportation equipment and service through 2023, the bolder “vision” adding 175 buses, 31 routes and enhancing 50 others, but at a cost of $1.5 billion that is $667 million short of funds the transit company envisions as readily available. 

A so-called ”status-quo” option would focus on preserving current levels of service enhanced by additional non-peak hour service at a 10-year operational and capital improvements cost of about $814 million, $65 million short of known funding sources.

Neither plan includes light-rail, a short-run demonstration rail system, or enhancements that could increase ridership on the streetcar HART does not own but operates between downtown Tampa and Ybor City.

“The Transit Development Plan update does not preclude other modes including rail from being implemented in the future if sufficient transit traffic is built up using buses,” Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority executive director Philip Hale said. “You can do a lot of things with a plan, but you have to pay for them.”

That’s right you do have to pay, but the report sure makes it sound like HART’s bus-only plans are not paid for either, so we are not sure the point of that comment. (And the “status quo” is only sustainable for a couple of years without more funds.)

Frankly, the update was exactly what we thought it would be. But they are not without reasons/excuses:

The new HART transit plan includes no light rail. The reason, said HART executive director Philip Hale, is that federal dollars for big transit projects have dried up. Hale said transportation officials in Washington, D.C., now closely scrutinize ridership projections for rail systems after earlier projections failed to pan out.

“It’s now very competitive,” Hale said. “More people are asking for money that’s not available unless you can really demonstrate cost effectiveness.”

Right, so do not even plan ahead for when there is money available and lobby for money, like Orlando or Detroit (and note the Detroit article is from Forbes) did.

As we have said before, we have no problem with fixing the bus service.  As the head of HART already told us, MetroRapid is not really BRT, it is how normal buses are supposed to work.

In fact, to have a proper transit system, you need buses, especially to feed rail.  However, buses are not rail, and buses in traffic (see MetroRapid) are not even BRT.  Nothing in the $1 billion + HART plan will fix our problems, and the executive director’s comments above show that he knows it, too.

How many times have we seen this argument put forward in the Tampa Bay area: When things are good there is no need to change.  When things are bad, we can’t afford changes, so do not plan ahead.  Then when things get better again, complacency rules again.  (Why should young professionals wait around for generation after generation of leaders to fail to lead and planners to fail to plan?  They can just go elsewhere and get what they want now.)  Always thinking small.

— Splitting the Baby

The second development in transportation is tied to the first.  This week the County Commissioner who has spoken most about the need for proper transportation and knowledge based industries showed just how deeply ingrained the fear of rail (really, the Tea Party) in the County Commission really is:

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, long an advocate for building a light rail system, is now suggesting a shift in emphasis to more buses when voters are asked to finance transportation projects.

Sharpe insists his new focus is not a sop to the tea party and other conservative activists who oppose light rail systems. Rather, the commissioner said he wants county leaders to focus on a mass transit option that doesn’t need a lot of study and can be put in place fairly quickly.

“What I don’t want to do is hold up what we need to do while we wait and debate the element that’s going to require the most thought,” Sharpe said.

It would be hard to overstate how dubious we are that the Commissioner’s “change of heart” is not a sop to the tea party, especially because the explanation is not logical.  There is nothing in considering rail that precludes buses (as we just said, buses always form a part of a good transit system).  You can plan both at the same time and have phased implementation.  Planning is not racing to the cheapest just because it is the cheapest and leaving determining what you actually need until later.  The only reason you would do that is to avoid having to deal with the issue.

But we have come to expect this sort of thing  from out elected officials.  The County Commission especially specializes in the “voting for it before voting against it” technique:

Sharpe said a new HART Transit Development Plan twill give the county the information it needs to begin work on expanding the bus system. The plan proposes adding 175 buses to the current fleet of 187 and operating six more bus MetroRapid routes. The first of these routes started this summer, connecting downtown with the University of South Florida and northeast Tampa They make fewer stops and can change traffic lights to decrease drive time.

“We have the bus element and we could move on that alone,” Sharpe said, but added, “I’m not recommending we move on that alone.”

If the HART plan is not adequate, why aren’t you explaining what is needed?  But ok , we’ll bite.  What is your idea?

Start with demonstration

Sharpe said he still favors a “demonstration” rail line, perhaps from Tampa International Airport to the Westshore business district. Once ridership on the demonstration line takes off, he said, the public will support expanding the rail lines as they have in cities like Denver. 

Yea, we already heard that idea, and it is silly.  First, it is silly because it does no demonstrate anything because it does not connect major business areas.  What exactly is it going to demonstrate other than trains run on rails?  Moreover, it does not lend itself to further expansion.  Second, it is silly because the airport already has a plan for a people mover that will make this connection when there is mass transit to Westshore (which will be never if we follow the present County Commission) – and he knows it.

Why not suggest a real starter line like downtown to Westshore (and connected to TIA)?  Such a route can be expanded and will lead to accelerate economic development and become a natural spine for any system, whether enhanced by bus or more rail.  In other words, it is a proper investment that can actually show people the benefits of the system.

And why not plan a real system with rail and buses rather than a piecemeal approach leaving all the real decisions to others to avoid making hard decisions? How about leading rather than following?

— Surprise

There was one surprising item in the Times involving a County Commissioner, in the context of looking at sites for Rays stadium:

The former Tampa Greyhound Track, still home to poker at Lucky’s Card Room, is just a few miles north of downtown and served by three Interstate 275 exit ramps. It could provide a mass of riders for a north-south commuter rail line linking downtown to Busch Gardens and the University of South Florida.

It’s surrounded by acres of parking lots and aged commercial strips on both sides of the interstate, and a stadium could be just the thing to spur nearby investment in what has been a longtime sea of blight, Crist said.

It is not clear from the article if the Commissioner was actually making this argument (we assume he will deny it, but maybe he won’t) or just the Times.  In any event, it is interesting given how little the Commissioners have actually provided.

(Of course, this area is ripe for development, especially around a rail line, even without a stadium.  It has river access, highway access, a few of the only decent hills in Tampa, and is about halfway between downtown and USF.)

— They Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Process

On the other hand, in another interesting development, the County Commission skipped the entire transportation process to determine that a location was a critical economic development area and to allocate money to projects there.

Hillsborough County leaders have agreed to expedite funding for a road project in Temple Terrace in hopes of luring more companies to the area.

Hillsborough will fund half of the $1.5 million extension to Telecom Parkway, which will create another entrance and exit to the Telecom Park office complex, considered a prime spot for companies interested in relocating near the University of South Florida.

Temple Terrace and county leaders tout Telecom Park and neighboring Hidden River Corporate Park as desirable destinations for companies in the medical-related, high-tech and industrial fields.

That’s all fine, and the project might be worthwhile, but why is the County Commission ignoring its own process?

Telecom Park is home to several major employers, including bank investment giant Morgan Stanley, which earlier this year took over 25,000 square feet of office space to accommodate its 180 employees.

No major tenant announcements are pending, city and county officials said. But public officials are following the advice of business leaders who are encouraging them to invest in new roads and other services now to appeal to more potential job providers in the future.

Some see the road extension is a way to prepare the business park for companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, which has announced plans to move to Hillsborough County but has not disclosed a location.

In other words, for no particular reason except vague notions of “economic development,” at least nothing anyone is saying publicly.  Maybe Bristol-Myers Squibb is going there.  Fine.  Come clean.  We would probably even support it, as opposed to wasting $6.2 million on the Estuary/Bass Pro Shops deal.

And then there is this:

The county found funding for the project even though it has struggled in the past to pay for improvements to some of its busiest and most dangerous roads.

No county project will be bumped to finance the road extension, Merrill said.

That’s right, no project will be bumped, but no other necessary projects will be accelerated either.  Why can’t they magically find funding for some of the other roads that really need improvements?

The fact is that the Commission clearly thinks it is ok to ignore a process they created and ignore fixing more problematic roads in the County, using the excuse of “economic development” even though there is no specific “development” taking place. (Like fixing other roads would not have an economic impact, either.)

— Conclusion

What all this indicates is that, as we noted previously, this whole “transportation and economic development” panel seems to be more for show than substance.   Maybe things will change, but, at this point, the process appears simply to be a way for the members to pretend they are fixing what they created without actually doing anything different – a way to think small.

For all the talk of becoming a high tech hub, a cultural center, a knowledge based economy, and some successes, how many companies and talented people do not even consider the Tampa Bay area (well, maybe they will look at Pinellas) because we do not provide the amenities they want? (And the need for real transit to attract Millennials will likely grow.)  People looking to move do not have to move here, and they do not have to wait for our elected leaders to get their act together.  We are missing out on all manner of opportunities because our elected officials insist on thinking small.  We could be so much better.

Though, with all that, we think those who care about these issues should still engage in the process, just be realistic about what you might see coming out of it.  And remember, the elected officials work for you.

RNC – Hype-tastic

This week, a report on the economic impact of the RNC was released to the standard hype and fanfare:

Nearly a year after the 2012 Republic National Convention flooded downtown Tampa with politicos, police and protesters, the people who brought the convention to town say it resulted in a total economic impact for the community of $404.39 million.

The figure comes from a University of Tampa study released this afternoon in a news conference at Jackson’s on the Waterfront on Harbour Island.

The total impact takes in $214 million in direct spending by the groups that put on the convention, including the Tampa Bay Host Committee, the City of Tampa, the convention’s Committee on Arrangements and corporate sponsors.

Rippling out from that were $88.3 million in indirect spending — business-to-business spending spurred by the direct investment — and $103.6 million in induced spending — purchases made by the people paid through direct and indirect investment.

We could quibble with all the numbers, but we won’t.  We think having the RNC was a good thing, even if some aspects were poorly executed.  We have no problem with hotels and caterers making money – which is where the money went, in addition to

• $125.3 million in upgrades to telecommunications and utility infrastructure by AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and TECO Energy.

that probably would have happened anyway, if at a slower pace.

The only aspect of the numbers we are even going to question is the “indirect spending” because of this:

By comparison, the host committee for the 2008 GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., reported a total impact of $168.2 million — $153.7 million in direct spending and $14.5 million in indirect spending.

That is quite a difference in indirect spending.

Nevertheless, the real issue is not the report, even if it might be inflated and the impact was focused on hospitality rather than the area at large.

What really gets us is the hype machine which pumped out the old standards.

At a news conference at Jackson’s Bistro on Harbour Island, Ken Jones, the CEO of the Host Committee for the convention, said the intent of organizers was threefold: to put Tampa on the world stage, “unlike it had ever been on the world stage before”; to show that Tampa is a viable host of other big events; and to infuse hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy.

Look, every big event gives you some exposure, but it is not as if we never had a Super Bowl or anything else.  More to the point:

CL also reported last month that marketing data collected by Visit Tampa Bay showed that the convention didn’t change Americans’ minds about the city. A survey of 1,000 leisure travelers from across the country placed Tampa dead last in “authenticity” among nine American cities considered competitors for the same tourists.

Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, name checked a number of corporations that are now doing business in Tampa since the RNC (such as Copa airlines, Bristol Myers Squibb and the Indian International Film Awards). When asked if he could attribute any of those successes directly to the RNC, Homans said that when his team is making economic pitches to corporations, the RNC always comes up.

“Did somebody say ‘I saw you had the convention, I want to move my business?'” he asked. “Economic development doesn’t work that way.”

Exactly, it does not work that way, so people should stop saying or implying that it does. What else?

“You knew with certainty that this was a pivotal moment,” Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a news conference to unveil the study. “How we performed on that international stage was going to determine, probably for decades to come, what the world thought of us.”

In all honesty, that is half right.  If the RNC was a complete cluster, then we would have to wear it for a long time.  Thankfully, nothing much happened.  As it turns out, it was pivotal for the Mayor because it was probably the biggest event he will oversee.  For the most of the rest of us, not so much.

What the convention said, Buckhorn added, was “that if we put our minds to it, there is nothing that can get in our way.”

Apparently our elected leaders have not put their minds to fixing transportation or proper planning and design of the built environment.

The bottom line on the RNC is that some people made money.  Some people lost money.  The RNC is long gone, and our problems still remain.  Stop basking in the past and address the future.  Thinking big does not apply only to events ; it applies to building a proper city (including a proper transportation system), too.

Workforce = Transit

There was an interesting article this week about whether rail (and to some degree brt – but, of course rail has higher potential capacity and lower long term costs) produce economic development.

First, what are they discussing?

Planning scholar Daniel Chatman of the University of California at Berkeley has been thinking a lot lately about “agglomeration.” Don’t let the technical word throw you. All it really means is more people in the same place. As more people collect in a city center, more jobs cluster there too, boosting both wages and economic productivity over time. And the key to it all, he believes, may be public transportation.

What did they find?

In a new paper set for publication in Urban Studies, Chatman and fellow planner Robert Noland of Rutgers University use concrete numbers to make the case that transit produces agglomeration. They report that this hidden economic value of transit could be worth anywhere from $1.5 million to $1.8 billion a year, depending on the size of the city. And the bigger the city, they find, the bigger the agglomeration benefit of expanding transit.

* * *

Let’s step back a moment and look at agglomeration more closely. One of the potential benefits of having more people in an area is that you have a wider labor force. That, in turn, means a better chance of matching the needs of a job with the skills of a worker — and, of course, making this match more quickly. Another benefit could be information exchange. As casual encounters among skilled laborers increase, say in the shops and on the sidewalks that crop up near transit hubs, so too does innovation.

In other words, the relocation expert who stressed “workforce” should be looking for transit.

Is any of this quantifiable?

But with so many variables in play — from job density to population growth to transit development — studying agglomeration has been extremely difficult. So Chatman and Noland ran a number of statistical models that took into account all these factors, as well as economic productivity measures like average wage, for more than 300 metropolitan areas across the United States. (“It really is a new kind of thing we did here,” says Chatman.) The numbers were so complex that many of the models failed to pass statistical muster.

Those that did revealed a pretty clear line from transit expansion to economic growth via agglomeration.

Every time a metro area added about 4 seats to rails and buses per 1,000 residents, the central city ended up with 320 more employees per square mile — an increase of 19 percent. Adding 85 rail miles delivered a 7 percent increase. A 10 percent expansion in transit service (by adding either rail and bus seats or rail miles) produced a wage increase between $53 and $194 per worker per year in the city center. The gross metropolitan product rose between 1 and 2 percent, too.

On average, across all the metro areas in the study, expanding transit service produced an economic benefit via agglomeration of roughly $45 million a year — with that figure ranging between $1.5 million and $1.8 billion based on the size of the city. Big cities stand to benefit more simply because they have more people sharing the transit infrastructure. They also tend to have more of the traffic that cripples agglomeration in the absence of transit.

“As to how big it is,” says Chatman of this hidden economic benefit, “it’s most likely to be large in places that have congested road conditions, transit networks that are at capacity — those kinds of places — and probably less in smaller cities without very much road congestion.”

So it is quantifiable, but the impact is variable depending on a number of factors.  That is not unexpected. And there is this caveat:

Chatman stresses that because his method is so new, the results must be replicated before they’re accepted. He also knows that some people will question the causality of the data: How can the researchers know, for instance, that transit alone is responsible for agglomeration? In response, Chatman points to the controls he and Noland installed in their statistical models — and to the fact that he’s been critical of rail as an economic investment strategy in the past.

“Put it this way: I’m a skeptic on this stuff, and I was surprised to see these results so robust,” he says.

Seems pretty straightforward to us.  We are sure some will contest this report.  That is fine.  Our views do not rest on this paper.  This just adds to the argument for proper transit and against sprawl.

Downtown Tampa – Let’s Move On

This week, the City Council finally gave approval to the rezoning for the apartment tower next to the Straz.

Council members gave final approval to the rezoning of an acre of city-owned land overlapping the junction of Cass and Tyler streets to allow for the towering structure and final approval for vacating Cass and Tyler in the vicinity of the tower site.

* * *

The developers have promised to delay street work until next year to avoid interfering with the Straz Center’s Broadway season and role in next year’s International Indian Film Academy. Both events will be finished by mid-June.

Hopefully by next summer there will be at least two other towers going up in the downtown area.  It is about time.

Transportation – How Do Variable Toll Lanes Really Work?

There has been a lot of talk about Variable Toll Lanes (aka Lexus Lanes) recently and the desire of FDOT to implement them in the Tampa Bay area.  We have consistently said that toll lanes as an idea are ok, provided there is a cap that makes them useful to most drivers.

One thing that has not been discussed is how they really work.  Well, they exist in south Florida and apparently are relatively successful in attracting traffic, so how do they work?

The cost to use the express lanes is based on how crowded they are and rates are set every 15 minutes. Prices currently range from 25 cents to $7 to travel between State Road 112 and the Golden Glades interchange.

If the proposed rates are adopted, it would cost $10.50 to travel the same distance, but only under extreme traffic conditions.

If the maximum rate is charged a still-to-be-determined number of times within a six-month period, then officials would consider raising the rates even higher.

In addition to increasing the maximum rate, the Florida Department of Transportation wants to increase the minimum rate charged to drive the entire 7-mile stretch from a quarter to 50 cents.

The proposed rates are going through a rule-making process, and officials couldn’t say when they expected to be complete or when the rates would take effect.

So the lanes are successful.  Now FDOT wants to make them more expensive rather than just enjoy the success.  Why?

State officials say the proposed hike is simple economics. The idea is to set the price to keep traffic moving at a reliable pace and from getting so crowded that it slows too far below the speed limit.

Interestingly, there is reason to think that this may not be true.

But let’s assume it true.  FDOT’s logic is this: if people use the lanes, the State will just make them more expensive so fewer people use the lanes.  Presumably, if people keep using the lanes, the price will keep going up, pushing people back into bad traffic.  Is there any end to this?  Will the State use the money to increase capacity?  For instance, FDOT says that after the Veteran Expressway is widened to four lanes each way, there will be no more expansion.  What then?  Is the state going to use the money to build rail or toll roads to nowhere?  What about people who cannot afford $20 each way are rush hour?  Are they just screwed?

We understand the idea of a user fee for roads.  Frankly, while we do not really want to pay them, tolls, which are user fees for roads, actually rationalize the transportation system in the sense the show people that like rail, which is openly subsidized, roads are also subsidized and have a cost.

However, the state is basically coming clean that the tolls on variable toll lanes are not user fees, and without providing useful alternatives to driving, variable rate tolls are just a way to overcharge underserved drivers.

List of the Week

Given the County Commission’s love of sprawl and car’s, our list of the week is Slate’s list of the Cities with the Worst Drivers.   There is an extensive explanation of the methodology on the linked page.

The worst drivers are in Miami, followed by Philadelphia, Hialeah (though how that is different from Miami is not exactly clear), then Tampa, Fla. (we kid you not, they put the “Fla” after Tampa but not Hialeah.  How’s that RNC world exposure working for you?), and Baltimore.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 25, 2013 11:45 AM

    My comments on the bus plan was in response to a reporters call that I might move on the TPD alone. That is not my intention. I had several meetings with County Staff and reminded them that while we might not have a complete multi-modal plan ready for voter approval until late 2014 – don’t think I am falling for the “Dean Smith 4 Corners” strategy used in the past to stall efforts as we do have a bus element that could be ready by itself. It does not hurt that some within the Tea Party have embraced buses to prove they are not against all transit. Good. Let’s put it to the test. We need more buses regardless. Rail ultimately will be the spine of any future, modern network, but buses are a critical piece in making the whole system work. That was my thinking, expressed many times in public, – I did not say it to spur a story, but rather to get staff to look at all options and not grow compacent. When the reporter called, I responded as I am duty bound to do.

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