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Roundup 4-4-2014

April 4, 2014

Economy – A Sober Assessment

This week, we got some information of where we really are economically:

Every quarter, Brookings ranks the recession’s impact on the 100 largest metros based on four criteria: jobs, unemployment, economic output, and house prices. Wednesday’s report is tied to data from the end of 2013.

Tampa Bay was the ninth hardest-hit metro in the country during the recession. Housing prices fell more than 50 percent; total jobs shrunk by 11 percent; economic output tumbled 10 percent.

Since hitting its low point in 2010, the bay area’s recovery has been impressive, ranking 21st strongest out of 100 metros.

Ok, that is good.  On the other hand, we are nowhere near where we were before the recession:

Getting back to its pre-recession economic peak is another matter. By that gauge, Tampa Bay is still in the bottom 20, ranking a dismal 82nd.

And that does not even include that on a per capita basis, we still were quite far behind before the recession.

As we keep saying – certainly things are getting better, but they are nowhere near good enough.  There is a lot of work to do.

Economic Development – Still Waiting

Last year, we noted reports that a company was considering building a large facility in the area. (See “Economic Development – When There Really is a Nexus”  and “Economic Development – TECO Waiting Game”  ) This week, we learned that nothing has happened either way since:

An undisclosed company that since last year has expressed an interest in creating an operation that would become a major power customer in the region served by the Tampa Electric Co., has not yet decided on a location, a TECO spokesperson said Wednesday.

“There’s no decision from them yet, it’s still pending,” TECO spokesperson Cherie Jacobs said in an email.

A TECO request of the Florida Public Service Commission to consider a special rate for the customer sparked interest regarding a potential economic development windfall for the area. But the deal cloaked in the normal secrecy of a company seeking to relocate or build a new facility at various sites around the nation remains in the dark.

It would be nice to know what this is, but apparently we will just have to wait.

Transportation – Better Late Than Never, Sort Of

Last week, the elected officials of Hillsborough County decided that, after about a year of talking among themselves about the future of transportation, maybe they should talk to the people who have to pay for it.

After nearly nine months discussing what Hillsborough County’s future transportation system should look like, county leaders are now ready to hear from the people.

On Wednesday, a transportation policy group that includes county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities gave the go-ahead for a massive public engagement campaign. The goal is to learn what transportation improvements residents want and if they’re willing to tax themselves to pay for them.

* * *

The public engagement campaign will come in two stages. Stage 1 will run from April through June and include a robo-call survey with three to five questions, plus field interviews and questionnaires targeted to special-interest groups, such as the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Building on the information gleaned from the first stage, the board and county managers will develop a detailed proposal for public comment in stage 2. That proposal will outline how money will be spent and what group will be responsible for collecting and spending it.

How helpful.  Maybe they should have showed up at the public meetings on transportation held at the beginning of this process in the first place.

And, we thought that they wanted a plan by July 2014.

Stage 2 is scheduled for August and September and will include focus groups, town hall meetings and perhaps a scientific survey. The county and cities will hire a private company to craft the questions and develop a strategy to engage as many residents as possible in the discussion.

Huh?  There are between 1.2 and 1.3 million people in the County.  How are they to get a good feel for what people think then come up with a plan by then?  (And shouldn’t this group be well on the way to formulating a plan already?)

The first survey will start in late April or early May, and the results will be ready for board members at their next meeting May 28, said county administrator Mike Merrill.

But according to the article, they have not even chosen a company to do the survey. How can this be done?

At least there were some reasonable suggestions about whoever does the survey:

Several board members emphasized that the company chosen to handle the campaign should be free from bias.

“This is a major, major issue that we’re dealing with,” said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, “so spending a few thousand dollars, or whatever it takes, to get what we’re looking for is going to be critical to me, and I’m willing to support those allocations.”

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the group should get the best firm available, even if it means going outside the county or state.

“I would encourage you to use people who do this for a living, not amateurs, not (public relations) firms, not people who make T-shirts,” Buckhorn said. “This information is going to be important because as we head down this path we’re going to want to know what people are thinking and to frame the discussion moving forward. I strongly urge you even if it involves spending some money.”

Indeed.  Actually, we think they should get a company from outside this area because too many companies in this area are too connected to the politicians.

Really, we have nothing against this survey idea, but it should have been done a while ago.  Now the process seems even more confused. Sadly, this is standard fare for leadership in the County and its municipalities on big issues.  And then throw in elections and the fear many elected officials have of loud but small groups, and you get what we have – which so far is not much.

Transportation – Entering the 20th Century

If you travel any amount, you will realize that pretty much every major city has connections from the airport to downtown.  Many, if not most, large cities connect the airport to downtown with rail (We’ll just give a list of US cities, which is not meant to be comprehensive: Newark, JFK, Boston Logan, DC Reagan National, Philadelphia, O’Hare and Midway, Miami, Atlanta, St. Louis, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Salt Lake City , Cleveland, DFW opening this year, Denver under construction, and Oakland, under construction.  Orlando is looking for funding, which clearly the State Senator will kill.  We are not even going to try to list all the bus links, though even Buffalo has it.).

Of course, we do not have rail so the best we can hope for is buses.  On the other hand, we have HART and the PTC, so there has been little hope of that, either.  On one more hand, now we have the TIA director, who is not steeped in the local political culture, and keeps pushing for some service.

To Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, it’s pretty simple: You should be able to hop on a shuttle that goes straight from downtown to the airport. The vehicle should have a place for your luggage, and maybe even Wi-Fi.

But in Tampa, this shuttle does not exist. If you don’t want to take a taxicab, there’s the Hills­borough Area Regional Transit authority’s Route 30, which makes two stops between downtown and the airport, takes about 40 minutes and has no place to stow luggage.

Lopano hopes this is the year it changes. At a Thursday morning meeting of transit officials and Hillsborough leaders organized by County Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe, Lopano implored the group to put together a concrete plan for a shuttle that starts this year.

So far, nothing, but maybe things are changing.

Sharpe, County Administrator Mike Merrill and HART chief operation officer Katharine Eagan expressed optimism and set a goal to have a plan by the end of May to present.

Merrill and Eagan noted two potential hurdles: vehicles and money. The answers to both, they said, probably require getting businesses involved, possibly in helping procure the vehicles and in funding the service.

In other words, maybe.  We guess that is better than “no.”  Though, with all the talk of intermodal stations in Westshore and transit, it is sad that even this small step is an issue to which HART will not commit.  Unfortunately, the airport, which maintains its cutting edge, is held hostage to the area’s proclivity for being 30 years behind in transportation planning.

To some degree, what is more interesting is the effect of someone coming from outside the local political culture of stagnant inertia can accomplish.  No one was even talking about this obvious point before the Airport Director started.  Sadly, that seems to be what it takes to get even the smallest progress.

Transportation – Hillsborough Helps Pedestrians

If you are familiar with Fletcher Avenue west of USF, you know the road is not particularly nice nor, despite a decent number of pedestrians, pedestrian friendly.

County officials say Fletcher Avenue is one of the most dangerous thoroughfares for pedestrians and bicyclists in the county. One reason is that people dart across the street where there isn’t a signal.

“People just sheet-flow across that road from every direction,” Valdez said. “I’ve seen bikes pulling wagons with kids in it.”

That is true, but why? There are few lights and most of the buildings are fronted by parking lots and curb cuts.  While not unusual for the area, the road and its development pattern is not very good.

So, Hillsborough County is going to make it better:

In the effort to make the road safer, the county will be installing four new crossing signals that feature rectangular flashers atop green cantilevers warning drivers a pedestrian is about to enter the crosswalk. The driver is supposed to yield to the walkers.

At the Wal-Mart store on Fletcher, just west of Bruce B. Downs, a crossing signal is being added that will have a red light to make vehicles stop. The signal will also produce sounds to guide visually impaired pedestrians safely across the street. Pedestrians activate both types of crossing signals with push buttons.

Another new safety feature is called a Z crossing. When pedestrians reach half-way across the street, a fence will direct them into a 90-degree turn before they can turn to cross the rest of the way.

“It’s an engineering technique that changes behavior by making them look at the on-coming traffic,” said Bob Campbell, the county’s manager of traffic engineering. The technique is widely used in Europe, he said.

Aside from the threat of Euro-socialism caused by using the crosswalks (clearly County government has been compromised), we have nothing against making the road more pedestrian friendly.  We do thinks it is a bit odd – and it is a fact, we checked – that most of the crosswalks do not correspond to intersections.  In other words, Hillsborough County is dropping a bunch of crosswalks into a road that has a number intersections but ignoring all the intersections.  Why?  We are not sure.  (Moreover, some of these crosswalks are very close to each other.)

Angela Evans, who was walking on the Fletcher Avenue sidewalk with her 2-year-old granddaughter, Marianna, said the road is so dangerous she will only cross at a traffic light. Evans said she can’t wait for the new signals.

We understand her point, so why not add some signals at intersections so that there are more opportunities to cross?  And, if people are just going to dart into traffic, will crosswalks change anything?  And wouldn’t they be more effective if people coming from side streets could cross naturally to the other side of the Fletcher rather than have to walk down the street to a crosswalk, then walk back?

Like we said, we have nothing wrong with making the area more pedestrian friendly, and at least Hillsborough is actually putting money in the area, but making the intersections more reasonable would create a higher chance of the buildings nearby getting fixed up and would help the neighborhood off the street.  The real problem is that just dropping in some crosswalks is not examining the whole picture and really fixing the street.  It is basically a third of a fix – it does not address traffic or the poor layout of what has been built on the street.  Moreover, if you are going to stop traffic, you may as well do it at a cross street rather than some random location that is not an intuitive or natural place to stop for drivers or pedestrians.

But never fear, the County will teach people how to use the crosswalks:

But those improvements — crosswalks with flashing warning signs and expanded “safety islands” in the middle of the street — won’t help much if people don’t use them. So the county is also creating an educational video and brochures to explain the new safety features and persuade people to use them.

“We’re going to be putting together a video that says bicycle and pedestrian safety in this area is paramount,” said Steve Valdez, spokesman for Hillsborough Public Works. “You need to use these traffic control features we’re installing on the road.”

The video will be shown in north Tampa community centers and on television monitors at the University of South Florida. The brochures will be distributed at schools, retail establishments and other place people congregate.

How counterintuitive does the crosswalk have to be to require a video to explain it?

Odd, indeed.

Trails – If You Build It . . .

This week, the Times reported on a proposal to build a system of trails to connect the Courtney Campbell Causeway Trail to Clearwater Beach.

For ambitious cyclists who dream of saddling up on Ben T. Davis Beach in Tampa and a few hours later easing sore muscles into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 7 miles of trails slated to be completed in the city by late 2016 would make the bay-to-gulf ride a reality.

A biker who started pedaling on the Tampa end of the Courtney Campbell Causeway would take a patchwork of trails through Clearwater that are either already open, under construction or planned:

• West on the Courtney Campbell Trail across Tampa Bay. The Tampa side of the trail is finished. The Clearwater side is under construction and scheduled to open in 2015.

• North on a short connecting trail along Bayshore Boulevard. The segment is planned, but not yet under construction.

• West on the existing Ream Wilson Trail that crosses over McMullen-Booth Road.

• South on the existing Duke Energy Trail just west of U.S. 19.

• West on another connecting trail along Druid Road that is scheduled to open in 2016.

• North on the existing Pinellas Trail to Memorial Causeway across the Intracoastal Waterway to Clearwater Beach.

Planners and civic boosters say the new trails could be a potential game changer for Clearwater’s biking reputation.

Setting aside the “game changer” thing, we think it is a great idea.  While this area has some actual trails (and some roads that are bizarrely designated as trails – like, according to Google maps, Dale Mabry  – how it is a trail across the Dale Mabry/Waters intersection and on the overpass going over Busch is beyond us – and the cycling pleasure that is crossing intersections of Bruce B Downs and Tampa Palms Blvd or I-75), other than the Pinellas Trail, there is no real system that goes anywhere.   It would be great if the disjointed segments we now have could be connected to make a real system that is not in the road.

The article noted some doubts about the plan:

Mike Riordon, who has owned City Cycle and Supply Co. on Court Street beside the Pinellas Trail since 2007, doesn’t see a big economic bump from a bay-to-gulf trail. The roughly 20-mile trek would be windy and a lot tougher than many people realize, he said.

“The percentage of people who will bike from Tampa to Clearwater Beach is astronomically low,” Riordon said.

Interestingly, we do not disagree on one level.  We do not view the creation of the trail as creating, by itself, a big economic bump.  We are not sure how many people would ride the whole trail, but that is not the point. (Of course, very few people try to ride to the beach now because it is ridiculously dangerous.)  Even if people ride part of the trail, it should be a system that is available to the public.

Not every amenity has to create a direct economic bump.  It is often the cumulative effect of creating a more attractive living environment and providing people the opportunity to do the things they want to do that makes the area attractive and it creates (indirect) economic impact.  Too often that reality is ignored.

And sometimes it is enough to just build nice things that people will use in whole or in part.  There is nothing wrong with spending some local money to make local life better.

— About Bikes Generally

Speaking of which, we were directed to the website of the Green Lane Project,  which describes itself as:

The Green Lane Project is a PeopleForBikes program helping cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. We focus on protected bike lanes, which are on-street lanes separated from traffic by curbs, planters, parked cars, or posts.

We work closely with leading U.S. cities to speed the installation of these lanes around the country. In the first two years of the project (2012 and 2013), we worked with Austin, TX, Chicago, IL, Memphis, IL, Portland, OR, San Francisco, CA and Washington, DC. In March of 2014, we selected six new cities: Atlanta, GA, Boston, MA, Denver, CO, Indianapolis, IN, Pittsburgh, PA and Seattle, WA. The Project will kickoff the collaboration with these six new cities with a gathering and press conference in Indianapolis in late April.

We know that it is sometimes difficult to build a trail that is completely detached from the road.  Protected bike lanes that connect to trails are key to developing a decent biking environment.  It would be good for local governments to get in touch with these people. (And notice the number of the usual suspects who are already working with them.)

Transportation – Planning, Tampa Bay Style

This week, the Times ran another editorial on the Pasco Toll Road.  It has the usual concerns about a private road. (As we have said, we prefer a public road but are not ideologically opposed to a private road.)  But what caught our eye was this paragraph:

Steinman’s comments should provide some comfort to Pasco residents near the State Road 54/56 corridor who contend the highway is a boondoggle that would enrich the private sector. They are correct in questioning its need, at least for now. The DOT sees the elevated road as a solution to a future problem, but not a traffic problem bad enough to warrant immediate attention. The state is pursuing plans to add two lanes to SR 54 between U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway, and it continues to study a flyover at the SR 54/U.S. 41 intersection in Land O’Lakes. But the DOT has no plans to build an elevated toll road here or a large-scale alternative. No wonder the public is suspicious of the unsolicited proposal by a private group.

In other words, because the road will only be needed in the future, we should not plan for or build it now – which is what is usually called planning.  And because FDOT does not have a plan for building a road now, though there was a plan for an east-west road for decades in Pasco County, the process should not move forward.

While the argument is bizarre, we are willing to paint it in the best light – that the Times is so ideologically opposed to a private road that they are willing to grab any argument to support their position.  Yet, it is exactly the type of thinking shown in that paragraph that has led us to have a substandard transportation system.  Because there were not traffic jams in Pasco or northern Hillsborough 20-30 years ago, there was never an east-west road connecting I-75 to US19 (or the Veterans/Suncoast) and now it is very difficult and expensive to build. (Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to get to Pinellas without having to drive through Tampa?) Because the area was not sufficiently dense 20 years ago, no real transit was built and now it is difficult and more expensive to get it done and the development pattern is a mess.  The reason there are big traffic jams through Tampa is because FDOT waited so long to fix I-275 even though everyone could tell that such expansion would be needed.  It is the same US19 – which is much more expensive and disruptive to change now than it would have been decades ago when the future need was still obvious. (And look how long that project has taken.  Can we afford to not start now?)

The same can be said for allowing sprawl for decades before the roads are an utter mess and then trying to retrofit a fix to an obviously flawed development strategy. (Or in economic development – relying on low paying jobs until it becomes clear that other areas are way ahead of us.  Now it is much harder to fix than if it was the original plan and focus.) And that is not even mentioning the ring road around Orlando, much of which was built when the area was basically empty but now provides access to its Medical City, OIA, and other areas and provides a way for us to avoid I-4 through downtown Orlando.

Sadly, the Times paragraph is basically a validation of what we have said over and over – that this area does not plan.  It reacts.  We wait until the problem is in full bloom and then find that the fix will be very expensive if not impossible both economically and politically.

As we have said from the beginning when the Pasco Toll Road proposal came up – it deserves study.  Whether the private road is the best idea or not can be determined. But the road is necessary, whether in this exact location or nearby.  It should have been built years ago for the benefit of the whole area and to guide development to specific locations.  Not doing that was a failure of imagination and planning.  And ignoring the present need is ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the Times, intentionally or not, has now endorsed that failed approach.  Thankfully, they can always rectify that.

How Many Fields Do You Really Need?

Over the last few months, we have noted that there are numerous efforts to build youth sports fields all over the area – Pasco, HCC, Fair Grounds, etc.  We wondered if there is a potential for oversupply. (See “HCC – How Many Playing Fields Do We Need?”  and “HCC – Abracadabra, They Have a Deal”)  This week, the Tribune had an article examining the sports field complex phenomenon and discussing the less than stellar performance of a complex built near Gainesville.  You can read the article on your own here.   It is definitely interesting.  We just want to highlight one comment:

When asked how many communities in Florida are considering building sports facilities to lure tournaments, Clearwater-based sports marketing consultant Dev Pathik said, “I can’t think of anyone that’s not.”

We are all for youth sports but we are not for spending money or giving up public assets just to chase the latest questionable economic development fetish.  If everyone (or just many) builds a sports complex, there will be not enough people to use them.  If private interests want to spend private money to build on private land, fine with us.  However, any use of public assets or land should be very carefully examined.  Are you listening HCC?

Meanwhile in the Rest of Florida

Cost estimates for a proposed rail line from downtown Miami to Miami Beach were released:

A passenger light rail system from Government Center in downtown Miami to the Convention Center in Miami Beach via the MacArthur Causeway would cost about $532 million to build and some $22 million a year to operate and maintain, project planners told the mayors of Miami-Dade, Miami and Miami beach during a meeting at County Hall on Wednesday.

Mayors Carlos Gimenez of Miami-Dade, Tomás Regalado of Miami and Philip Levine of Miami Beach enthusiastically embraced the project and formed a partnership to pursue funding for the first major step in advancing the endeavor.

If the state wants the Tampa Bay area to pay for any actual rail (or BRT) built over the Howard Frankland, the Miami project should not get any state money.  Then again, Miami is not the Tampa Bay area, so rail is probably ok there.

List of the Week I

Our first list this week is PayScale Index’s rankings of the top 20 metro areas by wage growth.  Here is how they describe it:

In the last year, where did wages increase the most overall and where did they dip the deepest? PayScale looked at the top metro areas by population and then listed them from best to worst in terms of wage improvement for jobs. See who came out on top and who has a ways to go.

The biggest wage growth is in Minneapolis (1.9%), followed by Seattle (1.6%); San Francisco (1.5%); Boston (1.3%); NYC (1.2%); Houston (1.1%); a tie between Philadelphia and Detroit (.9%); St. Louis (.7%); a tie between Atlanta, LA, and Chicago (.5%); Dallas (.3%); San Diego (.1%); a tie between Baltimore and Tampa (-.1%); DC (-.2%); Riverside (-.4%); Phoenix (-.6%); and Miami (-2.1%).

Considering that we start pretty much at the bottom of in terms of income levels and that we had negative growth, that is not very good. (We have no idea what the cause for the Miami number is.)

List of the Week II

Our second list this week is actually a graphic of the popularity of baseball teams based on the number of their Facebook friends.

From – click on picture for article

Of course, this is not very scientific but so what?  It is better than using the list that says that the Rays are the least valuable MLB team.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Belcher permalink
    April 4, 2014 11:10 AM

    Why did we (taxpayers) pay Herb Marlowe thousands of dollars to “mediate” town hall meetings to arrive at a plan for transportation? Sounds like BOCC is doing the same thing again. Shouldn’t the BOCC be demanding a refund from Marlowe seeing that he did not fulfill his contractual obligations? And, why can’t the Tampa Airport have a shuttle bus? Perhaps we should start connecting the dots. PTC is under the thumb of a few taxis companies that keep all competition out of Hillsborough. A shuttle bus would cut into the demand for taxis. In turn, that would cut into the political donations made to the BOCC.

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