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Roundup 10-11-2013

October 11, 2013

Transportation – Talk Aplenty

— FDOT Steps Up, A Little

This week there were meetings in Pinellas and Hillsborough County regarding the future of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

At a public hearing in St. Petersburg on Tuesday night, officials with the Florida Department of Transportation listened to residents on what the new span crossing Tampa Bay should look like. Built in 1959, the span is structurally tired and officials have put forward several scenarios for its replacement.

In the agency’s “recommended” plan, it would swap out the aging structure with one that looks very much like it — a new, four-lane bridge. It would leave room for what officials call “transit envelopes,” or spaces where more roadway could be built to carry express buses, rail or tolled express lanes.

Another configuration would have the FDOT building rail guideways onto both the southbound and northbound spans, while another would run rail and bus service in between the spans.

Replacing the northbound span, as is, would cost about $390 million. Building express lanes would add about $339 million to the cost. A mass transit guideway would add $989 million.

“Beefing up” the structure so it could support light rail or other mass transit would add $25 million to the cost, said Ming Gao, the project’s planning manager.

“The way we’re going to build it, it’s going to be flexible enough to accommodate light rail,” he said.

Well, that is a start.  At least the bridge will leave open the possibility of connecting the counties by rail some day.

But before the agency begins the project, which is still waiting for funding, transportation officials want to know what Pinellas and Hillsborough are planning. Pinellas is likely to ask residents to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2014 for light rail. Voters in Hillsborough struck down a similar referendum in 2010.

“Both sides need to come together to make a decision,” Gao said.

State officials plan to submit their proposal to federal transportation officials by the end of this year.

That is a little vague, but, for the moment, we will assume that whatever is built will be able to support light rail, leaving whether it actually has light rail or not up to local officials.  If that is FDOT’s position, it is reasonable enough, especially given where this area is in terms of transportation, which is that Pinellas is moving forward and most Hillsborough elected leaders are unwilling to state what they want publicly and HART is trying to obstruct any real progress.

One thing that should be noted: apparently, fixing the bottleneck on the Tampa side of the bridge is not part of the studied road project, as shown here:

From FDOT – click on map for website

From: http://hfbs.fdotd7studies.com/index.html

Such a fix is necessary for any transit – bus or otherwise.  Frankly, it is even necessary to have variable rate toll lanes, and it is even necessary to have the commoners’ road be decent.  Hopefully, it is part of making the bridge transit ready and will be part of the project.  We really should not have to wait another decade for the bottleneck to be fixed.

— Join Together

So, yes, building a proper bridge is just step one.

The next part of this effort requires unity across the bay – not just by the businesses and the public, two groups that are not geographically constrained, but also politically.  First, because you cannot connect across the bay and across the region with a hodgepodge of different systems that require multiple system changes. That would be a mess and defeat the whole purpose of efficient transportation, which is why, while we agree with much in the following quote, we disagree about systems (especially given Pinellas’s upcoming vote)

“We don’t need to get lost in the debate of what kind of technology we will use to connect. Is it rail? Is it a bus? That doesn’t matter right now. But we have to acknowledge we have a problem,” Sharpe said. “This is not just a connecting issue, but it’s also one of economic impact.”

The technology does matter – for ridership, efficiency, return on investment, attracting talent, future planning, and unifying the region.  And as the FDOT District 7 chief told the Hillsborough transportation politburo:

But Steinman said drivers and users of mass transit don’t recognize city limits and county lines. Transportation solutions need to be regional, with leaders from adjoining counties making decisions jointly.

Right – users of mass transit don’t care about county lines, but they do care about efficiency and having to make to many system changes. And at this point only Hillsborough County politicians and HART care about county lines.  Everyone else understands this is a regional issue.

“We have to speak with one voice,” said Paul Steinman, Florida Department of Transportation District 7 Secretary, offering a solution for how the area can improve its state and federal funding pitches to catch up to Orlando and elsewhere.

And to do that, elected officials have to speak publicly, which many in Hillsborough are doing their best to avoid. Without public statements by elected leaders on both sides of the bay (Pinellas is much farther along here) about having a unified (or at least compatible) system, nothing will really move forward and All Aboard Florida will not consider connecting us.

— One Official Will Talk

At least one Hillsborough County Commissioner has no problem speaking publicly. This week he has an opinion piece in the Tribune that laid out the case for why this area needs to get on with fixing our transportation system. It explained the usual stuff – connect the region, attract young people and businesses, biomed clusters.  And it did it in a fairly good way.  It even got into rankings and how poorly the Tampa Bay area does in them:

Florida’s economic future is tied to transportation solutions that make it easier for tourists to visit, residents to get to work, and businesses to move goods. We are engaged in a global battle to create high-wage jobs, and our competition is not sitting idle.

Where does the Tampa Bay area stand? Area Development, the leading publication for corporate site selection and relocation, recently ranked Tampa 315 out of 380 metropolitan areas. Denver ranked No. 4, Austin No. 5, Seattle No. 24, and Phoenix No. 98.

The message is clear: Businesses want to locate in cities and regions “that know how to grow their economy and have a track record to prove it,” the publication says. Investing in transportation is one important way to demonstrate we are prepared to grow our economy.

A Kaufmann Foundation study reported in inc.com last month lists the nation’s top 20 metro areas by high-tech startup density. Startup companies continue to be the dominant driver of net job growth in America. Denver ranked No. 4, Seattle No. 5, Salt Lake No. 7 and Phoenix No. 13.

Tampa did not make the rankings.

What is the end result? A recent Bureau of Economic Analysis report comparing per-capita GDP of national metro areas gives us a glimpse: Seattle’s is $64,000 and Denver’s is $55,000, while Tampa’s per-capita GDP is a dismal $36,000.

All good stuff, and we support the effort and attitude. (And we support the transportation summit the Commissioner worked to set up.   Maybe some of Orlando’s regionalism and organization will rub off on local elected officials.  At least, they may be embarrassed into doing the right things.)  However, we do take issue with one (major) idea:

Here’s how we can move forward:

Link region’s largest business districts: The Pinellas Gateway district and Hillsborough County’s Westshore district are the region’s largest business areas, separated by

only 12 miles. Let’s connect them, first by rapid bus transit and then with rail should ridership projections warrant and development opportunities along the route show a positive return on investment.

That is one way to move forward – and we commend him for actually presenting a real idea, unlike other elected officials in Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa.  Unfortunately, for the reasons we will lay out, it is not the best way to move forward. (But at least by presenting an idea, it gives us a place to start a discussion.)

While the Commissioner’s idea does not eliminate rail entirely (which is good), it is a repetition of HART’s failed strategy for avoiding rail for the foreseeable future.

Let us be clear – the entire opinion piece is about how the Tampa Bay area is already behind competing regions.  Most of those regions already have rail (or soon will).  So the question is how do we catch-up.  The proposal in question just will not do it.

To have real BRT (which MetroRapid is not), you need dedicated lanes. (Full disclosure: the opinion piece calls for this).  When is the new Howard Franklin projected to be complete? 2020-2025.  So let’s assume 2020.   Then, after the bridge is built, assuming it has dedicated space for bus/rail, the buses have to operate.  While all this is going on, ridership projections for rail will have to “warrant” the idea and economic development will have to show a “return on investment.” Setting aside all the questions of who calculates the numbers and if any number will overcome determined rail opponents (like HART) and the fear of so many politicians, that will take a few more years.  After that, money will have to be found and the rail will have to be built.  So maybe 7-10 more years.  And that all assumes that those people who are so fervently against rail now do not sabotage the process.  Assume they don’t (a major assumption), there will not be rail in Hillsborough before say 2030 at the earliest. (And don’t forget Pinellas may already have built rail a decade before that.)

Now, go back the premise of the opinion piece – we are already far behind our competitors.  In 17 years, they will keep plugging along, expanding their transportation, building urban areas and amenities, and developing their cities.  We will be riding the bus – and that assumes everything goes swimmingly.

We like the opinion piece, but that staged idea is flawed.  We have waited 30 years (or more) for our transportation system to evolve, and all we have gotten is one slightly more efficient (unless you have to change lines somewhere other than downtown) bus route and 30 years of underfunded roads overburdened by sprawl.  (And do not assume the intercity rail in is any hurry to connect to buses in Westshore to connect with the bus.) That is not going to cut it.

— Bottom Line

And the bottom line is this, as the Tribune opinion piece said:

The message is clear: Businesses want to locate in cities and regions “that know how to grow their economy and have a track record to prove it,” the publication says. Investing in transportation is one important way to demonstrate we are prepared to grow our economy.

And the fact is that for decades we have shown that we are not prepared to invest to grow our economy. For far too long have our local elected officials pursued their own interests at the expense of the area as a whole and for too long have we been forced to settle while other areas have moved on and evolved.  Companies and young professionals are not going to flock to an area that can’t get its act together and is always behind, refusing to make major investments in infrastructure and with policy controlled by the Tea Party.  The failure of elected leaders collectively to publicly support real transportation solutions and to move them forward is a constant detriment to our area. Or put another way:

“We pay now or pay later,” Sharpe said. “There is a cost to not doing this, because the talent will leave. We’ll be a region left behind; that is, unless you think we need more T-shirt shops.”

Yup.  And don’t forget that we are already paying for the delays and mistakes of the past.  And then there is this salient point:

Tampa International Airport Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano challenged the officials to think as creatively as former airport director George Bean and other local aviation authority leaders did in planning the airport’s innovative terminal in 1971 when it became the first in the world to use People Movers to link the main terminal with outlying airside terminals where passengers got on and off their flights.

“The first airport PeopleMover was here, not in Orlando, not Shanghai, but here in Tampa,” Lopano said. “What can we do to be (thinking) like those guys 45 years ago?”

Maybe the present group of elected/political officials collectively (with very few exceptions) is unable to think like those guys 45 years ago.  They certainly have not done it as a group yet.

On the other hand, we do not think it really requires creative thinking to plan a decent transportation system in the Tampa Bay area.  It seems pretty straightforward – it has only been studied for 30+ years.  So maybe the elected/political leaders collectively (with some exceptions) just do not want to do it.

Since most of them refuse to say (or do) anything substantive on the issue, we just don’t know.   And that is leadership we have.

Downtown Tampa – CNN Latino

We have a follow-up to the information on the Kress Building possibly being used by CNN Latino.  The Times had an article that seemed to contradict the Tribune article.  First, the Tribune said that the building was owned by the people proposing to use it for CNN Latino.  The Times said this:

Station representatives said engineers were reviewing the former Kress department store, a long-vacant behemoth where Mayor Bob Buckhorn gave his State of the City address in March, as a new headquarters. One of the CNN Latino investors, Luis Isaias, was once a partner in a proposal to build three condo towers on the site.

But the building’s owner, Jeannette Jason, said CNN Latino had not met with her to discuss visiting, leasing or buying the building. Attempts to reach Isaias were not successful.

Additionally, the Tribune article spoke of the CNN Latino operation covering the eastern US, while the Times focus more on the local station.

In sum, the real story is unclear.  We would like the Kress Building to be alive, and we would like Tampa to become more of a center for media, including Latin media.  But, like so much else, we will just have to wait and see.

Downtown Tampa – The Heights

Work on Water Works Park began this week.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn joined city council members and members of the Gonzmart family to break ground this morning on Water Works Park just north of downtown.

City council members last week approved the use of $6.5 million in Community Investment Tax funds — the bulk of the planned $7.8 million renovation. When it’s finished next year, the park will have boat docks, a canoe launch, a playground and dog run.

That is all good.  There have been proposals for this area for decades. It is good that things are finally moving forward.

Later this month, Tampa City Council will consider a rezoning of nearly 40 acres just north and west of Water Works Park that could become a mix of riverfront residential and commercial space. The original plans for The Heights went bust with the housing market collapse five years ago. Developers Chas Bruck and Adam Harden expect to begin work on the site in the coming months.

That is good, too, though we would like to see more detail before then.  Speaking of more detail, there is this:

Progress on the east side of the Hillsborough River is mirrored on the west side, where the city and Tampa Housing Authority plan to redevelop 140 acres of mostly public land between Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park and Columbus Drive.

The plan includes demolishing the North Boulevard Homes housing project and replacing it with a mix of market-rate and affordable housing.

And that is good, too, provided that the plans are really urban and sufficiently dense with real transit, foregoing things like surface parking lots and putting meters on the facades of buildings, like recent projects in the area have.  It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to truly change the area; if it is messed up, we will be stuck with it for the foreseeable future.  Too bad the plans are not well publicized.  (Given the shall-we-say uneven track record of the City and the chosen developer, see West Tampa – A Cause for Concern, we’ll just hope for the best and wait and see.)

We give credit to the Mayor for finally moving the process along (though we are not sure where it is going.) Finally, getting something done about North Boulevard Homes is an achievement, which is why we wonder about this:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are changing the face of this community,” Buckhorn said. “We are changing it in ways that none of us could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago.”

Yup, no one proposed replacing North Boulevard Homes before. (Like here  and here).  And no one did a master plan or economic development plan for Tampa Heights and West Tampa.  And the Heights project was not proposed a decade ago.

Sadly, like rail, many have imagined changing West Tampa and Tampa Heights for decades; it is just that nothing was ever done because the City never got around to doing it. (Maybe it was the lack of imagination of people in the City government at the time.)

It is the very fact that Tampa has waited for so long for such an obvious improvement to be made that makes it an achievement, and the Mayor is playing a major role in it.   We have no idea why he felt the need to make such an inaccurate comment.

Economic Development – Amazon

Well, one Amazon warehouse is a done deal.

A massive warehouse for online retailer Amazon in south Hillsborough County is a go.

A company that works with Amazon on developing distribution centers closed on the acquisition of land in Ruskin Wednesday, confirmed Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham.

USAA Real Estate Co., which works with Amazon in developing its distribution centers, bought the land, and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) signed a long-term lease, Higginbotham said. Construction will begin immediately. The project calls for a $200 million capital investment, with 1,000 permanent jobs and as many as 1,000 additional jobs during peak season.

Well, aside from the sales tax implications for people buying from Amazon, that is a good thing.  But, of course, some politician/elected official had to say something odd (we really wish they would stop):

You could hear the pride in Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham’s voice when he called the Tampa Bay Business Journal, confirming the Amazon warehouse deal is a go.

* * *

“Two of the top 10 cities in Florida – Riverview and Valrico – for jobs are in my district,” Higginbotham said, citing a recent study by consumer advocacy site NerdWallet.

Maybe he just made the mistake in all the excitement, but you would think the Commissioner would know that neither of those areas/neighborhoods is a city or anything close to a city. (And if that is what he considers a city, this area has even worse problems that we thought.)  You would also think that he would know that most readers of the Business Journal in which he is quoted know that neither area is a city.  Why didn’t he just say it was good to bring jobs to Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay area? You’d have to ask him.

We await word on the second Amazon warehouse.

The Economy – We Shall See

There was interesting news this week that the investors who had been largely responsible for driving house sales in the area have dialed it back a bit.

After an $800 million binge on Tampa Bay homes, big investors are finally catching their breath, pulling back on buying due to rising prices and market doubts, a Tampa Bay Times analysis has found.

The seven biggest investment groups buying homes here spent half as much cash in August as they did in March or April, when their shopping sprees peaked at about 500 homes a month.

As the article notes, the likely reasons for dialing it back is that by buying a number of houses, the investors helped drive up prices, which reduced the potential for profitability on new purchases.  That does not really concern us.  What does concern us is what happens next to home prices and the real estate market (like this).   Hopefully, the economy is sufficiently stable to keep improving, however slowly.  We shall see.

Super Bowl – Shut Out

This week, the Tampa Bay area was summarily shut out of the running to host the Super Bowl in 2018.

After falling just short in its past two attempts to serve as Super Bowl host, Tampa Bay was bidding to land the game for Raymond James Stadium in 2018. But the league announced that Miami and Dallas were also out of contention, leaving Indianapolis, Minneapolis and New Orleans vying for the next available Super Bowl.

* * *

Tampa Bay hasn’t been selected as the host city since 2009. The Bay area also served as Super Bowl host in 1984, 1991 and 2001.

And that’s ok.  It is fine to try; sometimes you fail.  We just need to keep trying, and hope for snow in New Jersey this year.

Meanwhile In the Rest of Florida

Just keeping everyone up to date,

Resembling giant metallic birds with their booms outstretched like wings, four super-post-Panamax cranes from China glided into Government Cut on Monday to prepare for the day when PortMiami welcomes some of the world’s largest ships.

The cranes are part of $2 billion in port improvements aimed at doubling cargo traffic over the next several years and making the port ready for post-Panamax ships expected to call on PortMiami when expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in mid-2015.

As the cranes appeared on the horizon Monday, PortMiami Director Bill Johnson addressed a gathering of local politicians and dignitaries at the harbor pilots’ house.

“These are four of the big ones….. We are big-ship ready,’’ he said. “Savannah, here we come.”

The Port of Savannah, Miami’s chief rival in the Southeast and the top port in the region for containerized cargo, also took delivery of four super-post-Panamax cranes in June, bringing its fleet of super-post-Panamax cranes and post-Panamax cranes to more than two dozen.

But Savannah is still awaiting final legislative approval before it can launch its own dredging project.

Oh, and there is this too:

Other parts of the port-improvement equation are a $915 million port tunnel linking PortMiami to the interstate highway system, strengthening wharves and bulkheads in anticipation of the deep dredge, and an on-port rail link between the port and The Florida East Coast Railway yard in Hialeah.

Plus this at Port Everglades.

Yup, a tunnel, in Florida.  Of course, no one in the Tampa Bay area seems interested in talking about the Skyway, the channel or the cruise industry. (even though we are about the same distance from the Panama Canal as Miami and closer to the rest of the country.)  Just happy to be just another end of a spoke, it seems.

List of the Week

Our list this week is actually a do it yourself list.  We ran across an interesting article in the New Yorker about new entrepreneurialism.   As it is a New Yorker article, it is rather long so we leave it up to you to read.

However, as you are reading it, we would like you to reflect on whether you can see any what is described happening in the Tampa Bay area now (and we don’t mean everywhere, we mean anywhere in the Tampa Bay area) and, if not, consider what it would take to create an environment where it could occur – culturally, politically, educationally, economically, and in the built environment, or, if you think it can happen, how to make changes so it happens more.

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