Transportation – Of Roads, Rails, and Running for Office
This week, the Governor announced accelerated funding for the “Gateway Express” in Pinellas County.
Seizing on a project that sat idle for years, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that he will make $131 million available to build an elevated expressway linking Interstate 275 and U.S. 19, the second major transportation project he has pledged to fast-track in an election year.
At a news conference, Scott said that because of Florida’s improving economy, the state now has enough money to build the expressway, a project that local planners have been discussing for more than a decade. Expected to cost nearly $338 million, the elevated toll expressway would allow motorists to travel quickly between the county’s two major arteries, I-275 and U.S. 19. It would also take them from I-275 to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and the Bayside Bridge.
Florida Department of Transportation officials said they expect construction to begin in early 2017 and to last for five years, a timeline that accelerates the project by roughly two decades. The elevated roadway linking I-275 and U.S. 19 will run over 118th Avenue and then north to the airport. Once completed, the expressway could potentially shave 9 to 13 minutes off commuters’ rush-hour drives.
There is some speculation that the money is due to this being an election year, to which we say, “Who cares?” If the road is needed and that is why we got the money, so be it. Would you rather not get the money? Are our local officials so unified and our legislative delegation so effective that not taking election year handouts for our woefully underfunded infrastructure has been a viable plan?
Of course, there is this:
To pay for the project’s accelerated timeline, DOT officials said the expressway will have tolls, but drivers will still be able to use the current road system for free. Asked how much the state plans to charge drivers, DOT spokeswoman Kristen Carson said the exact figures are still being determined, but they could fluctuate depending on the time of day. For example, drivers using the expressway at peak travel hours could be charged more than those taking it on a quiet Sunday afternoon.
Those annoying variable rate tolls, again. (The Times thinks that the Gateway Express should not have any tolls because it is “short” and the Penny for Pinellas will pay a share. How about roads in Hillsborough, including the expansion of the interstate? How short is short enough? And note that the editorial says the Howard Frankland will not be tolled, but that is not exactly the case. At least one lane in each direction – and we think, though we may be wrong, one of the existing four, not a new lane – will be variable rate tolled. And some of all state money comes from local taxes.) While we have no problem with building new toll roads to pay the cost of construction and maintenance, highways used to be to move the maximum number of people, not create the maximum amount of profit. (It makes you wonder when better public schools will start charging user fees – you will still have a choice to either pay for the best school or go to a lesser school for free. How is that any different?)
But setting that aside, another thing to note is that it is now 2014. Even with the money, the road will not be done until at least 2022. That tells you have long it takes to get transportation improvements, even when you have the money. Just another reason there is no time to waste in getting on with planning for fixing our entire transportation system, which brings us to this:
Long and other Democrats said Scott’s announcement may have been intended to compete with the Greenlight Pinellas proposal, which will ask voters to approve raising the county’s sales tax from 7 to 8 percent to pay for an expanded bus system and 24 miles of light rail connecting Clearwater, the Gateway area and St. Petersburg. The referendum, which will be on the November ballot, is opposed by several of the elected officials who stood by Scott’s side on Monday, including state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.
If the road money is to fight Greenlight Pinellas (and we are not sure it was), that is just silly – like all Pinellas transportation woes will be taken care of by this one road. Proper transportation involves a multiple technologies in a coordinated system.
Some (including the Tribune editorial board) get that:
“To me, it’s complementary,” said Chris Steinocher, CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the Yes for Greenlight campaign. “You get great roads and you have great mass transportation.”
We’ll see in November how many.
And we are still waiting for FDOT to fix the bottleneck at the Hillsborough end of the Howard Frankland, which hamstring all other transportation improvements until it is fixed.
While the developments in Pinellas would mean that someone could drive from the Skyway to north of Countryside without getting off a limited access road, once there, you’d be stuck on surface roads again. And if you wanted to get to I-75 north of Tampa, you would be forced to go through Tampa, which is not fast and only creates more congestion. That (And Hillsborough County’s historical failure to address the issue when they could) is why there is a need for a limited access road across Pasco County. As we have noted before, there is a proposal by a private group, which the Times came out against again in an editorial:
It may be too early to abandon entirely the idea of an elevated toll road, as Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano is willing to do. But the skepticism is warranted even as the county considers all of its options. Commissioners cannot be close-minded, because the county needs a modern east-west transportation alternative after adopting land-use policies to drive growth toward the State Road 54/56 corridor. The county’s geography, including two large well fields north of the corridor, limit suggested alternatives of adding highway lanes elsewhere. And the state recognized the need to move traffic between the Veterans Expressway/Suncoast Parkway and Interstate 75 more than 20 years ago.
As the state and county’s long-range road plans were being developed, a predecessor to Florida 54 Express LLC submitted an unsolicited bid last summer to build and operate a private toll road above the existing corridor. It is a bid that “hijacked the conversation,” in the words of Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker. She’s right. The DOT should slow down and develop a viable, publicly owned alternative before cutting a quick deal with a private group that will be more interested in making money from drivers than being publicly accountable.
Ok, they want a public road, fine. (For the record, we would rather have a public road in Pasco, but despite decades of plans for one, it never materialized. We are not philosophically opposed to a private road.) How do they propose getting a public road when the Pasco opposition to the road is this:
“We’re not anywhere near the point where we need something like this,” Bech said. “I’m hearing people say they’re moving if this comes in. Neighborhoods will become neglected and homes will become rentals. I just don’t think this is the best place to put it and I’m not sure we need it.”
Stone Gate resident Jason Amerson said he knew nothing about the proposed toll road until he ran into his homeowners association president last week at the grocery store. Since then he’s been knocking on doors, sending emails and handing out flyers. He even hosted a community meeting to rally his neighbors.
Like Connors, he’s concerned about noise, light pollution and lower property values. “You can hear traffic from my house already,” he said. “I live in the back of the neighborhood. There are some people in my neighborhood who would be able to see it from their windows.”
Neither of which have to do with it being a private road. And the website for the opposition organizing group says this:
* SR 54/56 is a poor choice for an elevated super highway proposed to run from US 19 to I75 and beyond. SR 54/56 is located in the most densely populated part of Pasco County and has many successful thriving communities. Real estate values in all communities in southern Pasco County will be negatively impacted by a super highway running within hundreds of yards of communities along SR 54/56
* This project is an overreaction to relatively minor traffic concerns that can be solved through less drastic measures such as better traffic controls and the judicial use of overpasses and flyovers where appropriate.
* Residents of Pasco will endure endless hardships and inconveniences during and after the construction of this super highway. Examples to look to are construction along US 19 and the recent expansion of SR 54.
* Residents of South Pasco County don’t want a concrete edifice like the Selmon Expressway in their backyard. People moved here because of the natural beauty and less urban characteristics of Pasco County.
* This toll road is a tax hidden as a toll road. Pasco County has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Florida and this additional toll burden will negatively affect low and middle income families.
None of those positions allows for any useful road of any sort, public or private.
It is just another reason why waiting and waiting to build infrastructure that obviously will be needed and used (see the Veterans connection to I-275 or the Gandy Connector or rail) is folly. History shows that all that will happen is that the local government will allow the land to be filled with sprawling development, the problem will get worse, and fixing it will get more difficult and more expensive with more opposition. (That is why opponents to Greenlight, whether elected officials or otherwise, are simply kicking the issue down the road and perpetuating the problems, not providing solutions.)
That is the Tampa Bay way – which is why we are not going to complain if the election year makes the State government pony up more cash for long needed projects.
— Meanwhile in Orlando
Of course, with all that, the Governor also announced that he wants to spend even more on a transit hub (read train station) at Orlando’s airport.
Gov. Rick Scott announced this afternoon at Orlando International Airport that he intends to spend up $215 million in state money to build a new station at OIA that could house several trains, including a privately financed one that would link Central and South Florida.
Although Scott is willing to send the money to Orlando International, his budget is basically a recommendation to the state Legislature, which is responsible for adopting the annual spending plan. The session begins March 4.
The station also would have space for a potential future spur of the SunRail commuter train scheduled to start operating in May and for one other train, possibly the proposed magnetically levitated system from the airport to the Orange County Convention Center.
Setting aside that this once again points out that rail is fine everywhere but the Tampa Bay area (federally funded high speed rail anyone?), just another example of Orlando getting more than we do and being more connected with a better plan than us. We are behind and not really catching up.
We also will be interested to see if the Pinellas anti-rail legislators – who include the chairman of the Senate transportation committee – are consistent in their views of rail and kill money for Orlando’s train station or if they only oppose rail in the Tampa Bay area. (Of course, what would be better is if they dealt with the state’s issues and supported better transportation and connectivity statewide. Maybe they will.)
Transportation – Exit One Distraction, More Likely To Follow
Last week, we wrote about Tea Party attempts to remove a leader of the Greenlight Pinellas campaign, who also happened to be the head of TBARTA because of an alleged but nonexistent conflict of interest. This week, he bowed out.
After criticism of his public support for a Pinellas transit campaign, TBARTA chairman Ronnie Duncan announced Wednesday he is stepping down from his leadership role on the Yes for Greenlight campaign.
Critics of the transit plan said that as chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, Duncan should not be involved in the advocacy campaign seeking to persuade residents to back a sales tax hike to pay for transit expansion. TBARTA is funded through tax dollars. Duncan is a gubernatorial appointee on its governing board.
While it is disappointing to give an apparent victory to the Tea Party, which, as we noted last week, is being quite hypocritical here, the step makes sense. Why distract from a proper campaign on the issues? The TBARTA head is keeping his eye on the prize.
Of course, now the Tea Party member of the HART board should either resign from HART or her position with Heritage Action. But don’t hold your breath.
And expect more of this tangentially silliness for the next year or so.
Port – Master Planning
This week, the Port moved forward with its master planning.
Following the presentation by Jim Brennan of Norbridge Inc.’s Washington, D.C. office, the Tampa Port Authority board approved in concept a year-long project to update the port’s long-range master and strategic plans.
That’s fine, especially if it allows the Port to avoid another mess like Channelside (see below).
One thing they also may want to look at is this:
But in a power play that a few years ago would have been unthinkable, the port is trying to snag several hundred acres of land from KSC and the Air Force station. It also wants to run a train route through KSC to more efficiently connect the harbor to the state’s rails.
“We believe with the rail connections, land expansions and cooperative programs … we can create 5,000 living-wage jobs in the port region over the next five to seven years and at least 10,000 jobs in the next 10 to 15 years,” Walsh said in prepared remarks. About 7,000 people now work at the port.
Given the our Port’s stated goal of becoming the port for Central Florida, the moves by Port Canaveral are not helpful. Hopefully any master plan and strategy will address all that.
Channelside – The Never Ending Mess
This week, the Channelside mess got even messier. When last we left the story, the Port had rejected a bid by Liberty after some acrimonious negotiations and failure of Liberty to commit to putting money in escrow. Then the Port tried to buy the complex. Liberty sued in bankruptcy court to block the sale to the Port and produced a check for $7 million to buy Channelside. (And sued the Port for damages.) This week we heard from the Bankruptcy Court:
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Christopher Sontchi killed the port’s agreement to purchase the most tormented piece of real estate in Tampa Bay for $5.75 million from the Irish bank that owns the mortgage on the foreclosed — and these days, seemingly accursed — outdoor mall.
The Irish Bank Resolution Corp. owns the mortgage on the building, but the port owns the land. For years neither could agree on who should buy Channelside. In September, the port decided to end the impasse by buying out the bank.
It just so happens that the judge recently met two bay area real estate investors who say they’re ready to pay more for Channelside right now: Punit Shah and Santosh Govindaraju showed up at the judge’s Delaware courtroom on Friday with a guaranteed check for $7 million.
So that kills that deal. But it does not resolve anything. The Bankruptcy Court is charged with getting maximum price for the bank’s entity which filed for protection. But the Port is not in bankruptcy and, as far as we can tell, is not obligated to approve a deal just because the Court thinks it is better for the bank. The Port has different interests than the bank – especially given that it is funded by taxpayers and Channelside’s messy history of mismanagement. Basically, the judge can stop the Port from buying the complex, but it is unclear if he can (or ever should) make the Port approve anything. That is probably why this happened:
The judge chose not to rule on whether the port can cancel any deal the bank inks to sell Channelside. Thus the impasse that has divided the port and bank for years — the “original sin” of Channelside’s woes — remains unsettled in a court of law.
All this means we are back to square one with the added pleasure of publicity stunts by Liberty. It still remains to be seen if the Port has any interest of making a deal with Liberty (the negotiations with which were previously caught up on issues of an escrow fund, not the ethnic issue which Liberty is emphasizing), regardless of whether Liberty is willing to pay the bank. There is also the suit by Liberty against the Port, which is also of questionable merit. And remember, this is basically public land to which Liberty believes it is entitled.
At least the rest of the Channel District is starting to move forward.
Downtown Tampa – Goings On
There were a number of news items this week about downtown Tampa. First, there was news about when the Aloft and Meridien hotels may open.
Developers of the Aloft hotel on the river have set July 3 for their formal “soft opening” date, and have turned on the reservation system and website for the hotel. That comes as the Le Meridien hotel may open June 1, if not a few weeks before.
We also noticed that the Framework Group, planners of the Residences on the Riverwalk, had updated their renderings. Here is one:
For all of them, see here.
Not bad except for the breadbox on the top of the building. We are not sure why they would work hard to design all the elements of the building and then leave that thing on top. Hopefully, this is not a final design, and they can change that before construction starts.
The Framework website also had some renderings of what appears to be the rumored apartment building on one of the last lots on Harbour Island. (News reports had not been clear about the developers. Apparently, at least one of them is the Framework Group)
To us, it is kind of boxy and uninspired (And what is with the pool with a window that gives a Weeki Watchee mermaid show to people on the street?). Framework has talent. They can do better.
Finally, there was a lesson in why the Related Group built Pierhouse, the less than inspiring or urban apartment complex in the Channel District.
Quite a profit for something so ordinary. If there are such profits to be had for even something so plain, it is just another reason why the City should not settle.
Ybor City – The Usual Suspects
There was also news this week that the City is negotiating sales of the land for which it issued RFPs recently. The first sale is not much of a surprise:
A partnership between the Intown/Framework Group and Forge Capital Partners, both based in Tampa, is offering $660,000 for the land. It proposes a $27 million project with 220 units and a brick-and-tall-window design inspired by Ybor City’s historic cigar factories.
The City is selling to Framework, the sole bidder for a property, which sounds familiar. In any event, at least the City demanded the appraised value for the land. We’ll have to see what is planned.
The other sale is a little surprising.
McDonaugh said Liberty’s proposal had more detail than the competing bid, with a site plan, floor plans, development time line, project budget, architectural renderings and a development team with an identified general contractor.
McDonaugh said two factors mitigate accepting an offer “marginally below” the appraised price. First, the offer is within 6 percent of the appraised price. Also, he said Liberty’s time line envisions “a relatively quick close and aggressive completion and opening schedule,” which would mean the land would soon start generating property taxes.
We are not so keen on a sale below the appraised price. If the Liberty people have money to burn to make more of a mess at Channelside, they can pay an extra $30,000 for the public Ybor land. Other than that, since we have no idea what their actual plans are, we have no opinion on the sale other than that the Liberty folks seem to be able to run a hotel, so that is good. We just have to wait and see.
HCC – How Many Playing Fields Do We Need?
A few weeks ago, we wrote about a proposal to build a sports complex at the Florida State Fairgrounds. This week, we heard from HCC.
Hillsborough Community College is considering two major development projects at its Dale Mabry Highway campus that could see a youth sports complex built near Legends Field and a new mixed-use complex on its south end.
One likely bidder for the sports project is Tampa investor and youth sports booster Bob Gries, who’s wanted to build a volleyball and basketball complex in Tampa for a few years. If built, the sports complex would replace the large community tennis complex at HCC, which would be relocated to other college property.
HCC’s main campus is land-rich, with a grassy 17-acre “front yard” along Dale Mabry Highway and another 18 acres along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at the campus’ north end. The state has been giving HCC and similar colleges less money for capital improvement projects lately, so the college started looking at its ample landholdings as a way to make up the difference, college spokeswoman Ashley Carl said.
We don’t know the details so we can’t speak to them. We understand some of the logic of building a mixed use development (whatever that means in reality) on Dale Mabry, but how many sports complexes do we need? (There are at least two other proposals for sports complexes in Pasco County, too.)
HCC may be “land rich” but there is nothing wrong with preserving that situation for future expansion. However, how much public land should be locked up with private interests for sports fields or otherwise when there seems to be ample private land around for such uses? Any use other than for the school should be exceptional. This is not exceptional.
Trader Joe’s – Opening
This week it was revealed that Trader Joe’s in south Tampa will be opening March 21, which is nice, even if the building itself is lacking a door or window facing the street (they have fake windows). In the article on the opening, the Tribune tells us helpfully:
As for anyone hoping Trader Joe’s will open more locations around town, don’t expect many. Many markets the size of the Tampa Bay area often only have one or two stores, making them more of a destination for loyal customers. Only one more is likely set to open soon in the region, on Fourth Street near downtown St. Petersburg.
Odd, that makes two for the entire Tampa Bay area of almost 3 million people. Palm Beach County, with 1,356,545 people is going to have at least four and probably five. There are definitely sub-markets in the Tampa Bay area other than south Tampa or northeast St. Pete which could be profitable. Just another example of the Tampa Bay area’s diminished expectations.
Coming Out Watch – Pinellas Edition
Recently, there was some recognition of St. Pete and its developing arts scene. This week, the Economist had a column about the special Congressional election in Pinellas County. While it did not identify the County by name, this was how the article began:
You can debate the specifics or the approach, but that is the portrayal. The rest of the article is not much more favorable.
List of the Week
Coming in first is Austin*, followed by Raleigh**, Phoenix*, Dallas*, Salt Lake City*, Denver*, Ogden (UT)*, Charlotte*, Orlando*, Houston*, Seattle*, Atlanta*, Provo (UT)*, Cape Coral (FL), Palm Bay (FL), Boise, Minneapolis*, North Port (FL), San Jose*, and San Antonio**.
(*rail – including SunRail, **planned rail)