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Roundup 12-13-2013

December 13, 2013

Transportation Happenings

— Pinellas Moves Forward

This week the Pinellas County Commission approved the ballot language for the transportation referendum next year.

By a 6-1 vote, county commissioners agreed to put a referendum on the November ballot that, if passed, would increase the sales tax by 1 percent. The money would be used to expand the county bus system with bus rapid transit, increased frequency, extended hours and light rail. The new tax would kick in Jan. 1, 2016.

Commissioner Norm Roche was the lone vote against the move, saying he did not believe all questions had been answered.

Of course, the opponents of rail were at the meeting, but that’s ok.  That is what a vote is for.

Hillsborough Talks Some More About the Obvious

Meanwhile in Hillsborough County, the elected official talking shop (plus a HART person – why is HART there anyway?) continued:

Hillsborough County’s already congested traffic system will only grow worse unless significant improvements are made before 2040, when the county’s population is projected to have grown by more than 500,000 people.

That was the message driven home Wednesday to Hillsborough’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group, a panel of elected officials who need no reminding that the county’s road network is overcrowded and its mass transit system is lacking. 

Since they need no reminding, why are they still holding meetings just to hear people tell them the same thing? Why is it taking so long to get to the meat of the matter?  Why haven’t the elected officials proposed anything?

The group _ county commissioners, the county’s three mayors and the chairman of the HART bus system _ is charged with approving major transportation improvements in hopes of connecting job centers and energizing the local economy. Those projects will begin coming to the panel from county staff in the first months of 2014. A decision on how to pay for them will come later in the year.

Setting aside the obvious points that

1) transportation improvements should be aimed at improving transportation and that truly improving transportation, in and of itself, helps energizes the local economy – no hope necessary.  The real questions are whether what happens really improves transportation, whether it fixes what needs fixing, and how much it actually fixes;

2) while part of transportation is connecting job centers to each other, another part is connecting places where people live (residential and activity centers) to job centers and each other; and

3) Westshore/TIA and downtown are obvious job centers that should have been connected decades ago, and it does not take a year to figure that out,

at least something of substance might actually be discussed soon.

Another problem is that, based on the article paragraph above, the ideas are apparently going to be presented piecemeal instead of as an integrated transportation system, which is what is needed.  Why don’t they actually just propose a system? In other words, why don’t we get a real plan?

And, of course, there is the issue of what the County views as “employment centers” (which, if past performance is any indication, means anything on I-75 and pretty much nothing else).

As for paying, as we have said, we are ok with coming up with a plan first then figuring out financing.  Of course, that requires a plan, not a piecemeal, unintegrated list of handouts to developers (see Estuary/Bass Pro Shops).

Setting all that aside for now, what did their own people tell the elected officials?  First, HART’s resident bus expert:

Right now, commuting times in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area are “not significantly out of line” with similarly sized metro areas, said Steve Polzin, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. The average local commute is 26-27 minutes, slightly over the peer cities in several studies and higher than the national average by only a few minutes.

More worrisome is that the Tampa area ranked 22nd worst out of 105 metro areas in traffic congestion in one study, and 27th worst of 101 in another. The area’s arterial roads _ major roads that aren’t freeways _ are the most heavily used in the country, and use of its freeway is second highest.

What does that mean? To accommodate the 500,000 people expected to migrate to Hillsborough County during the next two and half decades, 800 additional lane miles of arterial roads and 208 lane miles of freeway will have to be added.

And that would only keep the capacity where it is now _ crowded.

“It suggests we need some pretty substantial increases in infrastructure capacity just to maintain current levels of roadway capacity,” Polzin said.

In other words, roads are not going to be the salvation (And note the issue of arterial roads. Remember Tampa and Hillsborough County killed connecting the Selmon to Gandy and I-275 in St. Pete specifically to force people onto the arterial roads and killed connecting the Veterans to I-275 in north Hillsborough.  How’s that working out?)

Then, the MPO:

The county’s transportation planning agency, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, is working on a long-term transportation plan, with a heavy focus on connecting key economic growth areas. Beth Alden, assistant executive director of the MPO, said the agency is working with surrounding counties as it plans for future transportation projects.

Some of the improvements the MPO is looking at include adding express toll lanes on I-275 and I-75, a rail system connecting Westshore with downtown and USF, a “people mover” tram from the airport to Westshore, and widening major arterials such as Hillsborough Avenue, Dale Mabry Highway and Anderson Road.

While mostly quite obvious, that wish list is ok (though widening Dale Mabry or Hillsborough is going to get hard – maybe the County and City should consider proper planning so you do not have to drive everywhere – or putting real transit on those roads in lieu of widening them forever).  Unfortunately, there are no details for the list or indication of how they are integrated.  The article did not say what the elected officials said about all this.

What about HART’s bus based dream?

Alden said increasing the number and frequency of HART buses and bus routes can only do so much for the coming traffic challenges.

“The challenges we have with buses … is they’re operating in the same traffic as everybody else,” Alden said. 

Finally, someone has said the obvious point we have made over and over. (Maybe sometimes statements of the obvious are necessary.)  Buses are naturally limited because they are in traffic.  They can form a useful part of a system, but only part.

Tampa, Survey City

Around the same time this was going on, the Hillsborough MPO announced the results of their online Imaging 2040 survey.

Hillsborough County residents predictably ranked traffic congestion, job creation and availability of bus or rail as top-priority planning issues in an interactive survey conducted over three months that planners have begun to analyze.

But respondents surprised planners with their willingness to pay for new infrastructure, and with their support from throughout the county to encourage growth by filling vacant lots and reviving older areas that would be near rapid transit stations.

Those points summarize findings from the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Imagine 2040 outreach campaign in which more than 3,500 participants used a sophisticated interactive survey to tell planners how the county should take shape over the next 25 years or so.

Ok, that is something.  So was this:

All types of transportation improvements are desired, including rail, Alden said.

“In fact, there was only one area that didn’t give rail high marks, the Plant City-East County area,” Alden said. “Even South County thought rail was important for our future.”

Among the transportation comments: “Rail should be a component but not everywhere,” and “Toll lanes should be considered where tolls make new express lanes feasible.”

Respondents also indicated some willingness to pay for infrastructure.

“ ‘No new taxes’ actually got low marks,” Alden said. Other picks with more low ratings than high were utility and property taxes.

Admittedly, the participants were self selecting, so the survey is not scientific.  And admittedly, there is no plan on the table because Hillsborough elected leaders have not put one there, so the views expressed a more aspirational and do not necessarily reflect support for any plan.  But, hey, it’s something.

— Conclusion 

In sum, we do not expect to see any full, integrated proposal with a funding proposal before the election in 2014, if ever.  It seems quite clear that Hillsborough elected officials waiting until Pinellas votes.  What we really need is the development of a plan for a system, not just more meetings stating the obvious.  And sooner rather than later.  In other words, leadership.

PTC – Crony Capitalism Hillsborough Style

This week, the Tribune ran an article about a lawsuit against the Public Transportation Commission regarding a rule that requires limousine ride to cost $50 or more.

A limousine company and two limousine customers won the first round in their lawsuit challenging a $50 minimum fare rule set by the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission.

Circuit Judge Charles E. Bergmann denied a motion Monday by county lawyers to dismiss the lawsuit filed by Thomas Halsnik, owner of Black Pearl Limousines, and limousine customers Kenrick Gleckler and Daniel Faubion.

* * *

The three plaintiffs are represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm known for representing small business people who feel victimized by intrusive government regulations.

Ok.  The County, which is “fiscally conservative,” is defending the PTC.  What was their argument supporting the rule?

County Managing Attorney Rob Brazel, in arguing for dismissal, said the transportation commission was created by the Legislature to regulate fares for limousines, taxis and other vehicles for hire. Those regulations, Brazel said, do not deny a customer his choice in the marketplace because he can choose to take a cab instead of a limousine.

“If you want to spend $50 on a limousine, you’re welcome to do that,” Brazel said. “If you don’t want to spend it, do something else.”

Using a hypothetical situation – a short vehicle trip from the George C. Edgecomb Courthouse downtown to Channelside – Brazel tried to demonstrate why the minimum fare rule for limousines is needed.

“(If) we found ourselves in a situation where a cab could cost the same as a limousine, we might not ever choose the cab,” Brazel said. “There wouldn’t be any reason to if they cost the same.”

And there you have it.  The rule exists to protect the business of cab companies from competition.  We thought that fiscally conservatives believed in the market and that the purpose of the market, why it was so good, was to bring the consumer the highest quality goods and services for the lowest price.  Apparently, the PTC and Hillsborough County think otherwise.  As noted succinctly by the lawyer for the people suing the PTC:

“The customer doesn’t need protection from lower prices,” Pearson said.

Indeed. But, based on the PTC, customers might need protection from their elected officials.

Just ask yourself – why is the PTC, the board of which is comprised of elected officials, imposing higher costs on people in Hillsborough County for no apparent benefit?  How is forcing you to pay more for a nicer trip a crucial safety concern?  Why are elected officials setting prices for private companies? If limo companies can provide the service for less than $50 why shouldn’t they?  Why is the PTC picking winners and losers?

(Note: We are not going to opine about the merits of the lawsuit because there may be legal or technical reasons why it might fail, but that does not take away from the problems with the rule and the PTC.)

Last week, we noted that one of the PTC Board members, a County Commissioner, was claiming that the PTC was reforming.  If that is true, eliminate this protectionist, anticompetitive rule immediately.  (Frankly, it should have been eliminated before there was even a lawsuit.)  Otherwise, the reform argument rings exceptionally hollow.

The sad truth is that the more we learn about the PTC, the worse it gets.

The Port – Enter the Skyway

Somewhat out of the blue, the State is discussing the Skyway Bridge and its relation to the Port.  We discussed it long ago and it came up around when the last port director left, but then there was silence.  Now, it is back.

The bay area faces three options that will decide the fate of its cruise ship industry: raise the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to allow megacruise ships of the future to pass beneath; build a new cruise terminal west of the bridge for megaships without having them go under the bridge; or do nothing and watch Tampa lose its cruise ship business to ports in New Orleans, Galveston, Houston and Mobile.

“Of course, if we do nothing,” said Richard Biter, “eventually in 10 to 15 years, it’s going to have a significantly negative impact on the cruise ship industry.”

Biter is the Florida Department of Transportation’s assistant secretary for intermodal systems development. His agency has undertaken two studies to look at the future of Florida’s cruise ship market — and Tampa Bay’s slice of that market.

The statewide study was completed in November. The second Tampa Bay-centric study, which was requested by the Port of Tampa, is expected to be finished by month’s end.

Ok.  So what did they find?

According to the state, more than half the world’s cruise ship fleet will switch to the megaships by 2016-17. The Skyway can handle cruise ships that measure 179 to 181 feet from top to the waterline. But megaships can sit as high as 225 feet above the waterline.

“The point is the ships that are currently serving Tampa are eventually going to be rotated out of the fleet,” Biter said. “If we look at the market trends throughout the major part of the cruise industry, where they get the greatest return is on the megaships.”

We knew that years ago.  What can be done about it?

But one of those options isn’t an option: The Skyway cannot be raised. Though some states are raising bridges to accommodate the massive cargo ships of the future, like the Bayonne Bridge in New Jersey, that can’t happen here. The Skyway would have to be rebuilt, an incredibly expensive and highly unlikely option that is already off the table.

The second option would be to build a cruise ship terminal for the megaships west of the Skyway off the coast of Pinellas or Manatee counties. But that project would require major funding and have to clear numerous environmental hurdles.

“Can you do it? Yes,” Biter said. “But is it the right thing to do?”

Or the bay area could do nothing, Biter said, and try to exist as a niche cruise ship market handling older, smaller ships sailing around the Caribbean.

That does not sound like a list of options; it sounds like he is saying we build some super expensive port out in the middle of the mouth of Tampa Bay or we are SOL.  And there is more:

But the megaship problem could still hurt Tampa Bay in the future, Biter said, if the federal government ever allows cruise ships to sail from the United States to Cuba. The Port of Tampa would also be shut out of that potential market as well because of the bridge height issue.

Thankfully, the State has told us what we already know.  Even better, no one locally seems inclined to do anything about it, probably because the cruise business out of Tampa is doing fine right now and they figure they will be out of office before the problems manifest themselves. (Which is the essence of planning in the Tampa Bay area.)

As for the bridge: if Miami can get a billion dollar harbor tunnel (see here and here) that does not even open up a port channel (it just takes trucks off the downtown road, see here) and, unlike the Selmon/I-4 connector, has no tolls plus a $600 million decorative overpass (see “Transportation – Meanwhile In the Rest of Florida”), why can’t we get a raised or new bridge to open up the Port of Tampa and Port Manatee?

Oh, and where are the local elected leaders, especially the ones on the port board?

Ports – Manatee As A Mirror

Speaking of the Port, there was some odd news recently about an attempt by the state to get the local ports to work together.

The Port of Tampa approached Port Manatee earlier this year about fostering more regional cooperation and potential consolidation, Manatee Port Authority Chair Carol Whitmore said.

But Tampa hasn’t offered Manatee the same “memorandum of understanding” that Tampa has taken to the ports in St. Petersburg and Citrus County, she said.

Faced with ongoing discussions about consolidation or cooperation by Tampa and the Florida Department of Transportation, Whitmore and her Manatee port commission colleagues voted last week to oppose a merger with Tampa.

“We are going to stay autonomous,” Whitmore said Wednesday, responding to Tampa Bay Business Journal coverage of the issue. “I think our sister port north of us thinks we can be dismissed, but it isn’t going to happen. I just don’t get what their problem is.”

Actually, we don’t know what anyone’s problem is.  Was there a problem?

She said Manatee officials are miffed their port isn’t included in a joint Gulf of Mexico marketing effort with Tampa, Mobile and Houston. She suggested that Tampa covets the thousands of acres available on or near the Manatee port.

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.  Who knows? What does the state say?

FDOT officials also issued a second statement Wednesday regarding the issue. The agency said meetings with the department, Tampa and Manatee ports in recent weeks were intended “to foster port cooperation – not port consolidation,” Tallahassee communications director Dick Kane wrote in an email.

“FDOT has no preconceived structure in mind,” he wrote. “The department would like the region to work together on this issue. … The department hopes they will also continue to work together through existing regional organizations. Again, the department is looking at ways to encourage cooperation between the parties.”

Perfectly reasonable.  It makes no sense for the entities to operate at cross purposes, like all going after the same niche markets.

FDOT is not advocating port consolidation, District 7 spokesman David Botello said. In an email, he wrote: “While all of Florida ports are independent entities, the State invests in port projects and has a duty to the taxpayers to ensure those investments bring the best return possible to the region and the state. Given that the Tampa Bay ports share a common channel and are located within close proximity to each other, Assistant Secretary [Richard] Biter has spoken with port executives and commissioners from the Tampa Bay region about possible advantages from port cooperation. More coordination of port investments could enhance the ability for Tampa Bay to better compete, as a whole, with other large Gulf markets such as Mobile and Houston in attracting new domestic and international business.”

Once again, perfectly reasonable.  There is nothing wrong with working together to maximize investment and productivity.  (If New York and New Jersey can do it, Hillsborough and Manatee should be able to.)

Maybe this is the core of the problem:

Four years ago, California-based Inland Port Systems LLC proposed transforming more than 380 acres in south Hillsborough County into a giant cooperative hub for container cargo and other freight brought ashore by the Tampa and Manatee ports. Tampa objected to the project, which died as the economy soured.

We are not going to get into all that.  What we do know is that this area is in desperate need of regional cooperation.  Our balkanized politics and, in many ways, economic development and transportation systems, hold us back.  (Instead of bickering, maybe they can work together to try to get Boeing. While it would be very hard to succeed, that would pump up port business. Then again, for all we know, maybe they have tried but still want to bicker.)

One thing we will say to anyone in Hillsborough County who thinks that Port Manatee is acting foolishly: they are acting just like HART.  How does it look?

TIA – Building

Tampa International took the first steps in executing its rather expansive master plan last week.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority unanimously voted Thursday to hire Austin Commercial, which will oversee the design and construction of the airport’s new consolidated rental facility and automated people mover.

Airport staff ranked the company first out of eight firms that applied for the job. Austin touted its experience designing dozens of consolidated car rental (ConRAC) and automated people mover facilities for airports across the country.

* * *

The first phase, which is set to be finished by 2017, is expected to create about 8,000 jobs. Those jobs are estimated to have a $320 million economic impact on the community over the next four years, according to airport officials.

* * *

The ConRAC will be five stories tall and enclose 2.3 million square feet. It will be built to get rental cars and rental car counters out of the main terminal, freeing up space there for future expansion.

A new 1.3-mile automated people mover will be built linking the ConRAC to the main terminal. Three trains of three cars each will run continuously, linking the main terminal to the ConRAC building to the economy parking garage. Total ride time: 3 minutes.

(Do they really need an acronym – especially one with capitals both lower case letters?)

As long as they stay true to the airport’s original concept of limiting walking distances and efficiently moving people around, we are fine with it.  In fact, we are pleased it is moving forward rather quickly.

In further news:

Copa told Tampa airport officials it assigned larger-than-planned aircraft to two December round-trips and four January round-trips, boosting them from 124-seat Boeing 737-700s to 160-seat Boeing 737-800s.

One of the round-trips that will use the larger aircraft is the inaugural inbound flight from Panama on Dec. 16 and the inaugural outbound flight from Tampa on Dec. 17. Round-trip tickets at $837.60 were available, although cheaper fares were sold out.

“The flights are exceeding expectations,” said Joe Lopano, Tampa International chief executive officer. The airline declined comment on passenger demand.

That is good news, and we like the overall job the Director and his staff are doing.  On the other hand, we admit it – we are greedy for more flights, like nonstop to San Francisco, Seattle, and more European and Latin American destinations.  Hopefully, more will come soon.  But . . .

Meanwhile In the Rest of Florida

It seems that Southwest Airlines has settled on at least one Florida airport to start its international service.

Travelers using Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport soon will get a slew of international destinations to pick from as the Southwest Airlines terminal begins a massive, $300 million makeover.

Once complete, the renovated Terminal 1 will have five new gates for international flights. The makeover also includes a new security checkpoint and a concessions hall that will connect to the existing concourses.

Construction on the project should begin in late 2014 and be completed by 2017, said Broward County Aviation Director Kent George.

Southwest, the airport’s largest carrier, plans to add 25 international flights a day to the Caribbean and South America to the 70 domestic flights that it operates daily out of Fort Lauderdale. The airline will to continue to operate out of the terminal during construction.

Some may remember some vague hope that when Southwest bought AirTran it would use Tampa as an international hub.  Of course, it is still theoretically possible, though we doubt it is very likely.

Ybor City – The Wire

The City has put out the previously discussed (see Ybor City – a Couple of Things) RFP’s for Ybor City land.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has put out a call for developers with ideas for turning a vacant city-owned lot in Ybor City into a hotel.

The city is also looking for someone to build multi-family housing on another city-owned property in the same area.

The city issued two requests for proposals for the projects Friday morning.

Buckhorn said the goal is to bring more economic development to Ybor.

“I will do anything I can if it stimulates development and is good for the surrounding neighborhood, and we believe these projects will do just that,” the mayor said in a written statement.

* * *

Because the site sits within the Ybor City Community Redevelopment Area, the land has to be put up for bid rather than sold outright, McDonaugh said.

In other words, the RFP’s are wired.  They are simply a formality in the eyes of the Mayor.  He has already decided the proposed projects are good.

The thing is that no one else has seen the proposed projects.  No one knows if the projects are good or not (we do not prejudge one way or the other, but we are not taking anyone’s word for it either).

If the City follows its usual pattern under this administration, it will accept the proposal already given (most likely there will only be one proposal per RFP) and anyone who says that the accepted project has problems will be criticized.

We are all for good development, but this process looks a lot more like back room dealing than the open government that RFP’s are supposed to foster.  Toss in the proclivity for the City to settle and there are big concerns about how business is done.  And is this really a change in the City’s DNA?

Airfest Returns

We thought it worthy of note that Airfest is returning to MacDill Air Force Base on March 22-23, 2014.   Last year it was cancelled due to some Federal financial issues.  We love Airfest.  It gives the area a chance to interact with the vital institution that is MacDill AFB.  And we love the planes.

Frozen Four Returns

We are also happy that Tampa was awarded the 2016 Frozen Four. We think having the events is a good thing. (We just question local leaders’ hyperbolic statements about them.)

List of the Week I

Our first list this week goes to one avenue this area could consider to fund some (and just some) of the things it needs: Global Business Travel Association’s list of Best and Worst Travel Taxes Across Top 50 U.S. Destinations.

While there are a number of sub-lists, the one we will focus on is the “discriminatory tax” which is defined as:

Discriminatory travel taxes are those imposed specifically on travel services above and beyond general sales taxes. California and Florida are among the states with the lowest discriminatory travel tax rates in the country.

As far as we can tell, they mean tourist taxes. The cities with the lowest tax rate are: Burbank, CA; Orange County, CA; Ontario, CA; San Diego, CA; Oakland, CA; a four-way tie between Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers, and West Palm Beach; and LA.

The highest taxes are in Portland, OR; Boston; Indianapolis; Minneapolis; Chicago; NYC; Washington; Kansas City, MO; Charlotte; and Milwaukee.

It is notable that in the survey’s calculations Portland has a $22.86 “increase for tourists” while Tampa has only $7.27.  While we do not think we should go as high as Portland, there is clearly room for some increase here without really damaging tourism or conventions.

List of the Week II

Our second list of the week is United Health Foundation, American Public Health Association, and Partnership for Prevention’s American Health Rankings.

The top half  are as follows: Hawaii, followed by Vermont, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Utah, Connecticut, Colorado, North Dakota, New Jersey, Nebraska, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, New York, Maine, Wyoming, Iowa, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, California, South Dakota, Montana, Maryland, and Alaska.

Florida came in 31.

One Comment leave one →
  1. B. Wills permalink
    December 13, 2013 9:52 AM

    Regarding the limitations that the the port of Tampa and Port Manatee will be facing due to the obsolete Sunshine Skyway bridge, why isn’t a tunnel considered as a 4th option? Back when the original bridge was damaged, and plans were being made to replace it, there was some discussion about a tunnel vs. a new bridge, but, it was ruled too expensive, and, in typical Tampa Bay fashion, we folded and went home, and allowed the state to dictate what we got: a maintenance-intensive bridge design that will have to be replaced before too long, regardless of the advent of super-ships. Tunnels can last 100 years and, because they are not as exposed as bridges, can be far less maintenance-intensive. What seems cheaper now?

    In addition, building a separate cruise facility west of the Skyway would be very risky because of the fickle nature of the cruise business. A tunnel would not only address the cruise ship issue, but would also enable both Tampa and Port Manatee to pursue super-sized cargo ships as well.

    Why do we never think big?

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