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Roundup 9-6-2013

September 6, 2013

Transportation – Pinellas Rail and Beyond

This week the PSTA Board moved one more step forward on its plans for the future.

Members of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board of directors voted 13-1 Wednesday to give the Greenlight Pinellas Plan Vision the go ahead.

The plan calls for new bus service, passenger rail, regional connections, and complementary transit-oriented land use.

So let’s review what GreenLight is about?

PSTA CEO Brad Miller detailed the proposed improvements, which include:

Hillsborough County can only dream that either HART or the County Commission as presently formed will ever get to even coming up with a reasonable list like this. Good for Pinellas.  Hopefully, it will shame Hillsborough into doing the right thing.

Coincidentally, this week we came across an article on Charlotte and the debate about expanding rail there.   The interesting thing about Charlotte is that they prepared for the common, and usually inaccurate, arguments against rail. (Something Hillsborough should have considered when it had its referendum.  Oh well, live and learn.) Part of Charlotte’s preparation is creating a presentation setting out some of the flaws in the arguments.  One in particular that caught our eye discusses the common argument that ridership projections on rail systems are inflated.  Well,

From the theatlanticcities.com – click on picture for article

And for the real-estate-is-economic-development crowd:

From Charlotte Area Transit – click on picture for website

You can see the whole display here.

We openly acknowledge that rail is not a panacea, it is part of a comprehensive transportation system – but a critical part.  At least the PSTA and Pinellas County Commission are trying to enter the 21st century.  It is well past time that HART and the Hillsborough County Commission join them.

The State of the Economy

In the week that Bristol Myers Squibb announced the actual location for its new facility in Tampa (the Westshore-ish area)  it is still difficult to figure out just how the local economy is doing.

First, demand for new homes is up.

Around the Tampa Bay area, homebuilding is stronger than it’s been in several years. Residential sales closings are up 31 percent across the region through the first six months of 2013, according to information supplier Rose Residential Reports, and demand is sending lot prices to near their mid-2000s peak.

* * *

Some Realtors are nervous about the existing-home market, because investors have purchased so many homes so quickly. Consequently, the median sales price of existing homes has surged by more than 20 percent during the past year. Economists debate whether it amounts to a bubble, but that word is occasionally tossed around.

There’s little such talk, though, in the new housing market. Homebuilders should close on about 5,400 new home sales (single-family and multi-family) in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties this year, assuming trends for the first six months of the year hold, Rose Residential Reports says.

That’s still only 40 percent of what homebuilders sold in a typical year such as 2002, and it’s just one-fifth the closings they did in the wacky days of 2005, when builders closed on more than 25,000 housing units locally.

That is not bad.  On the other hand,

According to a Zillow’s Negative Equity Report, about half of that 12.2 million have lost so much equity in their homes they likely won’t recover for years.

In Tampa, 36.3 percent of homeowners with mortgages have negative equity.

Ouch, but there is a mitigating factor:

Zillow predicts that 23,805 of Tampa mortgage holders will be free from negative equity by the second quarter of 2014.

Which is some improvement.  On the other hand, another estimate of properties “under water” is worse.

As many as 43 percent of Tampa Bay area home mortgages remain “seriously underwater,” with mortgage balances that exceed the home’s value by at least 25 percent, a new report from real estate firm RealtyTrac said.

That high level gives the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area a dubious distinction, tied with Orlando for third place nationally in underwater mortgage rates.

Choose the number you want; neither is not good for the market, especially when you add in the investor purchases.  (Maybe that is why new homes sales are up.)  Then there is this:

It has been worse than a lost decade for Florida, economically speaking.

Working families statewide have been losing ground since 2000 based on nearly every metric, according to an analysis being released today.

We’re working fewer hours and being paid less. Housing prices and college tuition costs are both up sharply, while median income of Florida households has fallen at a greater pace than the rest of the country. Not only is unemployment higher than it was in 2000, but also a lower percentage of working-age Floridians are even looking for a job, masking the true number of jobless.

And poverty jumped nearly 50  percent in a four-year span.

* * *

The report, however, suggests that the decline in the Florida’s standard of living predates the recession and “the economy has been in flux during much of the past decade.”

You can read the article for a whole lot of other bad statistics.

In other words, some things are better, but just how good is open to question.  One thing we do know, sprawling retail is not going to be the path to success.  And anyone who acts satisfied or talks about how it is our time is blowing smoke.  There is a long way to go.

A Port and Cuba, Just Not The Port You Think

We already have flights to Cuba from TIA.  This week, there was discussion of possible future ferry service from the Tampa Bay area to Cuba, just not from Tampa.

Cuba is a China-sized economic opportunity for Florida, said the Port of Manatee executive director Thursday, and part of the market might come in the form of cruise and ferry service from here to Havana one day.

When the federal government rules it’s OK to head to Cuba by boat, Manatee County will be ready to pounce, said Carlos Buqueras, port executive director.

“We want to be at the forefront of these opportunities to rebuild Cuba,” Buqueras shared with an audience at a Manatee Chamber of Commerce breakfast. “Of course, we don’t know when it’s going to open, but we can’t wait to get ready.”

* * *

Buqueras said he spoke to ferry operators that can handle 2,000 passengers plus 1,000 cars to take people from Manatee to Havana.

* * *

Buqueras had mentioned the possibility of ferry service to Havana during a Port Authority meeting last November, but now is revealing more details and batting around the idea of adding a cruise operator.

Buqueras has begun discussions with the Havana port operator, which is a shared operation between Cuban government and a Spanish company.

Well at least someone in the Tampa Bay area is out front on the idea.  To us, it really does not matter if it is the port of Tampa or Manatee, though we wonder if Tampa has a plan ready to go; if not, why not? (Maybe the answer can be found in the passive, let-Miami-lead attitude of the Mayor, who also sits on the Port Board.)

Speaking of Cuba and Sarasota and Manatee, this is why there should be better connections between TIA and Sarasota and Manatee County, which we hear is being at least partially held up by our local transport cartel, the PTC.

If flying to Cuba is your preference, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport is looking to provide connecting service via Miami if the federal government approves a merger between American Airlines and U.S. Air, said Frederick “Rick” Piccolo, airport president and chief executive officer.

“Hopefully they’ll approve that merger, and eventually we’ll have connections through Miami,” Piccolo said.

TIA flights to Cuba are good.  Possible ferry service to Cuba is good.  We need to be developing our opportunities as much as possible, including being out front on all issues that are of benefit to us.  No one else is going to do it.

And abolish the PTC.

RNC and Economic Impact

Two weeks ago we discussed the RNC and claims of economic impact.  In sum, our view was that we are not going to argue with the numbers because we think hosting big events (like Super Bowl LII)  is a good thing long term.  Our real problem is with the hype that surrounds the hosting of such events.

This week, the Times had an article about a USF professor who does not think there is a positive economic impact from these events.   (To be clear, the article seems to discuss direct economic impact from the actual event, not long term benefits, which would be very hard to quantify.)

It is an interesting article.  The logic of the analysis has some merit.  However, like we said, hosting big events is good generally – the problem is the hype machine that accompanies those events.  Because we said we will not quibble with the impact numbers, we are not going to, but you should read the article because it makes you wonder even more about the hype.

Built Environment – A Step, if Small and Incomplete

This week, improvements to 22nd Street in east Tampa were opened.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn will officially reopen part of North 22nd Street in East Tampa to traffic Wednesday morning after the segment underwent a $5.6 million make-over.

The three-year project was designed to make 22nd Street safer for pedestrian and drivers alike, along with improving underground utilities between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and East 21st Avenue.

The work was paid for by the Florida Department of Transportation and the East Tampa Community Redevelopment Area.

The main feature of the improvements is a traffic circle at the junction of North 22nd Street, East 22nd Avenue, East 23rd Avenue and North 21st Street. It sits astride the point where North 22nd Avenue once split to form two one-way streets — northbound 22nd and southbound 21st.

From the Tribune – click on picture for article

The changes are good, attractive, in fact.  We have no problem with them except that they are incomplete.  And by incomplete, we do not mean specific changes to the roadway.  Look at the picture.  It is all well and good to have nice sidewalks and a nice road.  There is nothing wrong with that.  More roads should be redesigned like that.

The problem is that there is no evidence that the City will take advantage of the changes to the road.  It is highly unlikely that anything built on the road will fit the redesigned road and sidewalk.  What is much more likely is that you will just see curb cuts, surface parking lots facing the street, and sprawl-like development.  Why?  Because the City code does not fit the improvements and the City will settle for half measures.

Don’t believe us, check out Gandy.  (Good thing they spent all that money on those fancy streetlights to put in front of a sea of parking at Wal-Mart.)

Rays – Same Old Same Old

A few weeks ago, there was news that the Mayor of St. Pete had relented in his efforts to block a resolution to the Rays issue and would let them look in Hillsborough County.  Almost immediately, the Mayor of Tampa and a County Commissioner jumped into what amounted to complete inaction.  While we had a little hope, there was no actually agreement between St. Pete and the Rays so there was little to talk about.

Well, it turns out news about the Mayor of St. Pete’s change of heart was premature, because

A deal to end the long-standing stadium impasse between the city and the Tampa Bay Rays could be falling apart.

Late Wednesday, Mayor Bill Foster updated the City Council about the ongoing negotiations to allow the team to look at stadium sites outside the city as long as St. Petersburg taxpayers are protected in the deal.

“It has become apparent to me that Major League Baseball has no intention of assisting the city and Rays in reaching a mutually beneficial solution,” Foster wrote in a memo to the council. “Nor does Major League Baseball seem interested in a cooperative effort to keep the Rays in the Tampa Bay Region for the long term.”

* * *

Foster told council members he is committed to more talks but “cannot and will not support an outcome that is primarily at the public’s expense.”

Sticking points seem to center around how much the team would pay the city for leaving early and to demolish Tropicana Field.

* * *

Foster’s memo described the revenue sharing as Selig’s “sole motivation” and only measure of success in the matter. And baseball’s failure to consider taxpayers’ investment “is the real impediment to progress,” Foster said.

As there are no details about what the Mayor of St. Pete wants and what baseball allegedly will not do, we can’t get into details.  We can say that the Mayor of St. Pete tends to have an odd view of what protects the taxpayer.  Maybe he is smarting from the defeat of the Lens.  Maybe he is nervous about the upcoming election and is trying to have it both ways by saying he is ok with the Rays looking in Tampa but then blocking it and blaming baseball.  We don’t really know.

All we know is that there is not really any progress, the Mayor of St. Pete is again blaming other people, and it all looks very similar.  If he wants anyone to believe he is not just playing games, the Mayor of St. Pete should lay out the facts, not just do nothing and blame others.

And it is not surprising that Major League Baseball is getting tired of the impasse between the Rays and St. Pete and wondering about the market.  (Though maybe they should make their concerns known behind the scenes, especially the Commissioner.)  Given all the Mayor of St. Pete has said and done during his term, what are they supposed to think?

List of the Week 

Out list this week is escapehere.com’s 10 Worst Cities to Visit in the United States.

The worst city to visit is (not much surprise here) Detroit, followed by St. Louis, Reno, Cleveland, Chicago (?), Camden, Memphis, New Haven (CT), Stockton, and Oakland.

This is one good list from which to be excluded.

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