Transportation – Invision HART
The Transportation for Economic Development group finally did something, and it is mildly interesting, if not unexpected:
Although all indications had been leading in this direction, there still appeared to be some surprise in the room when the members of the Hillsborough County Transportation Leadership today voted unanimously to reconfigure HART to make it the central transit agency for the county moving forward.
But the execution is complicated, said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, who introduced his plan toward the end of the two-hour meeting held at the County Center. Among the thorny details are exactly how the individual votes of each member will be weighted — the Leadership group consists of the seven Hillsborough County Commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
The current HART board includes seven members representing Hillsborough County (including three County Commissioners), three members representing Tampa, a Temple Terrace representative, and two members representing the state.
Who will be on the proposed new Board?
Why do it that way?
As to what this means for the current HART board? Well, it means that it could be dissolved at some point in the near future. But Merrill says that the new agency would maintain the two members appointed by the governor, allowing the reorganization to occur without involving the state legislature.
So the Transportation for Economic Development group decided that the group that should oversee transportation in Hillsborough County is the Transportation for Economic Development group, plus a couple of appointees from the governor. We are ok with doing something that avoids the messy need for legislation, though the gubernatorial appointees don’t really add much. And there is a certain logic to the move because the present HART setup is not particularly good, but HART has the ability to get Federal and other funding. The real test is whether this new structure will do any better than either the local government or HART has done to date in dealing with transportation.
And in an interesting twist based on Commissioner Victor Crist’s suggestion, the plan would incorporate the county’s troubled Public Transportation Commission, something that met the initial approval of Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a critic of the agency.
We are also ok with this to the degree that the PTC goes away, though the County Commissioners make up a large part of the PTC, so it may mean nothing in terms of change and modernization.
What is the reported reaction to this plan?
“I’m a little concerned,” said Tampa Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert after the meeting. She said that the fact that the board will now be made up of elected officials, as opposed to HART’s current board structure, could bring cronyism and corruption.
We are always worried about corruption and cronyism, though having elected officials does not seem to raise more of a risk of that than appointees. (See “Transportation – Investigating the Investigator”)
More of a concern:
Kevin Thurman, executive director of the transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay, said he wants to see the full business plan before rendering a final opinion. But he noted that a recent survey shows Hillsborough residents want a frequent, reliable bus service — and for now, there’s no indication how the restructuring would help achieve that goal.
“It’s great they want to reorganize, but it’s the outcomes that matter most,” he said. “Before we change what we’re going to and turn everything upside down, the public needs to know what direction they’re headed in.”
We agree to this extent: we are fine with streamlining the process, but the most important thing is not who is going to do it, but what are they going to do? By making the reorganized HART the main transportation agency, the people in charge will be the people who helped create the transportation problem in the first place. The question is whether they have the political will to actually fix it. If they do, great. If they don’t, rearranging the chairs will accomplish nothing.
Since we have no idea what they plan to do, we cannot judge anything yet. Though there was this interesting nugget that may show the approach:
The vote on reconfiguring HART came after a meeting that was dominated by discussion about reconfiguring or expanding roads in Tampa and Hillsborough County. One of the more interesting suggestions made to Jean Duncan, the city of Tampa’s Transportation Manager, came from County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said she believed that busy Howard Avenue in South Tampa should have its lanes increased from two to four. “Something’s gotta give,” she said, referring to the increased congestion in the area due to its centrality to so many amenities.
Yes, something has to give, but it can’t be widening the road for a simple reason: there is no room. (See here) What has to give is the view that any issue of traffic and transportation must be fixed by widening a road. In some places that makes sense, but in many places it does not – like Howard. What makes sense overall is creating useful transit to relieve the traffic – which happens all over the country (and world), just not here.
And in another warning sign, a Tribune editorial explains:
Next month the leadership group is scheduled to unveil its plan. Still to be finalized, the proposal is aimed at quickly aiding commuters with an early focus on faster and better bus service, including bus rapid transit and circulator systems, and improving roads and intersections.
Unfortunately, this has often been the plan for elected leaders, especially in transportation – make quick fixes to ease a few things, then just delay real decisions and leave the main problem for the next elected officials, who adopt the same strategy, and so on. That is why we have the situation we have. (That and the extremely flawed approach to the 2010 referendum) Hopefully, that will not be the case this time, but it all sounds far too familiar to get excited. The only way to judge is by what is done and what is not done.
At least one of the Commissioners seems to get a basic part of the transit problem in this area:
And Hillsborough County Strategic Planning Director Eric Johnson presented the findings of a recent survey taken of County residents regarding transportation. The one finding that created the most discussion was the over 70 percent of those surveyed that said they never use public transit. The next-highest poll ranking was 11 percent — for those who do so only on special occasions.
BOCC Chairman Mark Sharpe said that was why transit needed to be changed in the county. “My frustration is that it wasn’t designed for the choice rider but it was created as the last option,” he said about the current level of service in Hillsborough. “You redesign it, the numbers will change,” he added.
Exactly. Transit should not just be for people who have no option. It needs to create real choice and for that it needs a coordinate, comprehensive transportation system. If the new HART does that, we will applaud them. We have our doubts, but we shall see.
Transportation – Cash for Ferry
This week, supporters of ferry service in Hillsborough County got a boost:
The Tampa Bay area will receive $4.8 million from the Federal Transit Administration to use for brick and mortar work on the ferry service, tentatively scheduled to be completed in 2016. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, applied for the federal money and must sign off on the design and engineering for the ferry project.
“That’s really big news. That is one-sixth of the funds available for this type of program in the entire country,” said Attorney Ed Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner representing HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Group in its effort to partner with the county on this project. He said Congress had previously earmarked $475,000 toward the project and HMS, one of the private partners in this public-private venture, has pledged $12 million to cover the first three years in operational costs.
In all, the ferry project is expected to cost $22 million to $23 million, Turanchik said. He estimates that the ferry operation will take 62,081 miles a day off of local highways and save commuters time on trips to and from work.
We have no problem with the ferry as long as 1) it can get passengers and 2) it is part of a coordinated transportation system. Ferries function in many places (usually places that have full transit systems – which makes the Tea Party silence strange). In any event, there are still a number of hurdles:
“There is a whole review of marine mammals and game fish that will have to be done as part of the Corps permitting process, which we have not yet started.” Already, he said, the partners have been notified that they must address the fact that a good number of endangered Florida manatees use the Gibsonton area of Tampa Bay where the ferry terminal would be constructed.
“We talked a lot about manatees and the impact,” Turanchik said. “We talked about sea turtles and fish habitat. Those are all standard issues.” He said it would likely be months before they go back to the Corps seeking the project permit.
Only time will tell if every hurdle can be cleared. It needs to be understood that, if built, the ferry will provide a limited service to a specific consumer so there question is whether the new HART will integrate the service into a full transportation system.
As for this specific idea – we withhold judgment.
Transportation – How Does It Fit the Whole Plan?
In another example of the piecemeal approach to transportation still underway, there was an article in the Tribune regarding express toll lanes and buses:
We can answer that without a study: they are not THE key. THE key is a comprehensive, coordinated transportation system that may include such lanes as well as proper planning and building/zoning codes. But anyway:
The Florida Department of Transportation is driving the study, assisted by other regional transportation agencies looking for ways to maximize the existing road system and loosen gridlock. It is considering express toll lanes on Interstate 275, on I-75 and on I-4.
Bus Rapid Transit — or running buses on managed highway lanes — is a big part of the study, said Scott Pringle, an FDOT consultant, who updated the Metropolitan Planning Organization on the study Tuesday.
“We’re focusing on long-distance commuter trips,” like bus rides between Wesley Chapel and downtown Tampa, Pringle said. The study looks at key destinations, ridership-heavy areas, station placement and cost.
Express toll lanes are already in use and successful in various cities around the country and local transportation planners are tapping their knowledge to determine how to tackle issues like bus station placement along or on interstates and how to handle parking for those using the bus service.
“We are identifying projects that are like Tampa, reaching out to other cities and asking what they would do differently,” Pringle said. So far, he said, a common theme is parking issues. Not having enough space for commuters to park and catch a bus is “an indication of success, because demand is greater than expected,” he said. And this area needs to consider that.
When the study group looked at what Miami-Dade is doing on Interstate 95, Pringle said, they saw that just adding the express toll lanes increased bus ridership by 30 percent, due to guaranteed speed and allowing buses to bypass congestion.
Setting aside the point that a lack of adequate parking for park and ride is a sign of poor planning and investment rather than success (there should be a plan for dealing with success), we are fine with the study especially for service from more distant locations that it will not be logical to provide core rail service, especially early on, like south County or Plant City, but we have a few questions.
First, when will the study be done? Since the Transportation for Economic Development group is supposed to have a proposal in July, how will this study be useful for that? This just appears to be another piecemeal proposal. Hopefully, it is not.
Second, say the buses are successful. The idea of the variable rate express toll lanes is that the tolls are raised as the usage of the lanes increases to keep the number of cars down, allowing traffic to flow. (See “Transportation – How Do Variable Toll Lanes Really Work?”) If the lanes are full of buses at rush hour, how high will the tolls for drivers get? Will drivers be pushed out of the “express” lanes? And how much does each lane cost to build?
Finally, what happens when the highways run out of land to expand and add lanes? I-75 may have a lot of land, but I-275 and I-4 in Tampa certainly don’t – even with the planned medians – especially given that even after expansion they will be inadequate for the main highway in an area our size.
Like we said, study is fine, but how is this all going to be connected into a comprehensive, well planned, and coordinated system? One thing we do know, while this idea may be useful in some circumstances, it is not a panacea.
Greenlight Pinellas – Everything Is In Order
— Move Along
There was news this week regarding FDOT’s investigation of spending on PSTA’s education program regarding Greenlight Pinellas.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Greenlight opponents have alleged that the PSTA improperly spent $800,000 of taxpayer money to lobby for the proposal. The agency said the money went for educational outreach, such as a website, to offer voters information about the proposal.
“Our review disclosed no evidence PSTA campaign expenditures violated the advocacy provisions of state law,” the report said. Communications on the agency’s Greenlight Pinellas “website, advertisements and promotional items contained no text prohibited by law nor any ‘magic words’ which would expressly advocate for electors to vote ‘yes’ on the referendum,” the report said.
Of course, no one should be under the illusion that No Tax for Tracks will just accept that or that the Greenlight Pinellas issue is going to be debated on the merits. That is just not the opposition strategy. Expect more distractions and misinformation.
— Crossing T’s and Dotting I’s
In more news of the responsible approach to Greenlight taken in Pinellas (hopefully Hillsborough will learn):
The promise that property taxes for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will be eliminated if voters approve a one-penny sales tax hike is a key selling point of the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan.
Looking to reassure voters ahead of the plan’s November referendum, commissioners on Tuesday approved an agreement between the county and the PSTA that gives the county some control over how the authority uses the sales tax revenue, which is estimated to bring in $130 million per year.
Under the Greenlight plan, the board is required to set its property tax rate to zero. That is because only state lawmakers can rescind the agency’s taxing authority. A bill that did just that, providing that the referendum passed, was approved by lawmakers two years ago but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Sales tax revenue will provide a little more than half of the money, with state and federal transportation funds making up the remainder. The PSTA plans to issue bonds based on some sales tax revenue to pay for construction costs of the project.
It also includes triggers, such as completion of the Greenlight infrastructure and when the agency has fully paid off construction bonds, at which points commissioners can reassess whether it still needs the whole proceeds from the penny sales tax.
Well done. It is helpful to remove ambiguity from the plan and build in requirements for responsibility. Pinellas has surprised us by the lengths they have gone to do that.
Of course, if HART becomes essentially the Hillsborough County Commission plus a few others, it is hard to see how such requirements will do anything in Hillsborough because the County Commission will be overseeing the County Commission. Therefore, there will need to be other protections.
In more rail related news, Florida TaxWatch, hardly spendthrift Socialists, has issued a paper (see here) regarding rail in Florida, finding that the answer to whether rail is beneficial is a case specific balancing act (not always “no”, as No Tax for Tracks claims).
The current commuter train projects in Florida have generated some economic activity and job growth in Central and South Florida, though major concerns exist for residents living and working near the rail lines and many taxpayers around the state. Commuter rail is one option for Florida to invest in to enhance transportation infrastructure in anticipation of the state’s rapidly growing population; however, the costs should be weighed against the benefits and other options should be explored to ensure the smartest and most beneficial solution to Florida’s long-term transportation needs.
We agree. Not every situation calls for rail (like south County at present), but rail is a key component to a comprehensive system – usually forming the spine or core of the transit system.
And while the report says that one concern about rail is lowering property values, it also tells us (you can check the report for the sources. It is footnoted):
Like any major transportation investment, SunRail has generated economic activity. Phase I of the project has created 17,000 construction and permanent, nonconstruction jobs combined, and has helped produce about $1.7 billion worth of new and planned development along the rail lines.
And that $1.7 billion is just as the first line opened.
We understand the paper is working to be balanced, which is admirable. However, as indicated in the SunRail blurb, in most places, especially near stations, property values and economic activity will generally increase.
In any event, as noted in a Tribune column on the TaxWatch paper:
The ticket for the four-year project to widen 4.2 miles of Interstate 275 from downtown Tampa to the West Shore area is $216 million, and at least three times that amount in driver aggravation. So, we have to look at all things.
Right. Roads are not cheap, and they have operating costs as well. Furthermore, expanding capacity is much more expensive (especially when you have to buy land) than just adding more trains on an existing track.
And for those who say no one will ride, the Tribune columnist makes this point:
And they said the same about the Veterans Expressway, which is now being expanded, but will not be expanded anymore (so what is the planned when the expanded version reaches capacity?).
The point is – the argument should be on the merits. So far, the arguments from the opponents of Greenlight have avoided any discussion on the merits and chosen obfuscation. We expect that to continue.
Economic Development – Please, Show Us the Money. Really, Please.
The Business Journal had more information on venture capital spending, as it is bad as usual.
South Florida businesses received 67 percent of the funding, or $285 million, while companies in Tampa Bay received $35 million, or 8.2 percent of the total, according to what InternetCoast Executive Director Dale Gregory said is the first-ever report detailing Florida venture capital activity at the local level.
Based on those percentages, that means the Tampa Bay area got .11% (yes, a little more than one tenth of one percent) of VC funding in the US last year. And note that the Tampa Bay area is about 1% of the US population – a little higher or lower depending on what is included in the Tampa Bay area.
Just like the per capita gross regional product, this is an indication of how much we punch below our weight economically.
IIFA – More Numbers
There was more news about the economic impact of the IIFA. Previously, a consultant report said it was probably between $10-20 million. Someone tossed out $30 million. The Visit Tampa Bay CEO then said it was over $50 million. (See “Economic Impact – Breaking Records and Broken Records”) So what did this report say?
Visitors who came to Hillsborough County for April’s “Bollywood Oscars” spent $19.9 million, and the four-day event’s total economic impact reached $26.4 million as businesses stocked up and visitors’ money was respent locally, officials said Tuesday.
Ok. Like we have said previously, that’s fine. What is not fine are inflated numbers tossed around with hype, especially from public officials.
Now that this is settled, time to move on.
Port – Bigger Cranes
As part of the State budget, the Port will be getting some money:
The new cranes will be part of a larger overhaul of the container terminal that will expand capacity from about 250,000, 20-foot equivalent units (TEUs) per year to about 1 million TEUs. The terminal also expected to go through an infrastructure buildout that would take it from about 40 acres to 160 acres.
First, even if the money is political, we’ll take it. (Why should we unilaterally disarm?)
Second, it is good to be expanding capacity, but the Port is nowhere near its present capacity. Maybe new cranes will help it reach that. We will just have to see. (Though the Port still will not be able to handle the New Panamax container ships.)
MacDill – Black Hawks Moving
It seems that 23 Army Reserve Black Hawk helicopters have outgrown their space at the St. Pete-Clearwater airport and will be moving to MacDill, where new facilities will be built. However, St. Pete-Clearwater airport will also get something:
MacDill will get the helicopters, the Pinellas airport will get Army Reserve fixed-wing aircraft and the attending crew and staff, and those helicopter crews and support personnel who were living in his district likely won’t need to move.
That is a good deal. It helps make MacDill even more vital than it already is and keeps St. Pete-Clearwater airport’s reserve facility relevant. The more the merrier.
Bayshore – Aquatica Rising?
There was news this week about the parking lot on Bay-to-Bay and Bayshore, site of the proposed Aquatica on Bayshore.
The lot at Bayshore and Bay to Bay Boulevard will close Sunday so groundwork can begin on a new 15-story condo tower, known as Aquatica on Bayshore. Crews will be taking soil borings and doing other prep work at the site.
As the project gets underway, about a third of the units have been claimed, said real estate agent Toni Everett, who’s handling the sales. Units start at $838,000 and go up to $2.1 million for one of two penthouses.
There is a little ambiguity about whether the project is starting or they are just taking some soil samples. Usually, a project does not go at 1/3 of the units sold, but we have no idea what the financing is, so maybe it will.
As for the lost parking, which the public has used for years even though it is a privately owned lot:
That is a funny comment – and generally accurate. We are sure most people will work it out.
Meanwhile In the Rest of Florida
According to this article from Citylabs.com (formerly theatlanticcities.com), the southern half of Florida is a “megaregion.” High speed rail was going to connect the “megaregion,” but the State killed that. Now, All Aboard Florida is planning to provide private rail service from Miami to Orlando and is rolling out plans for its train stations around the state.
Plans for the largest of All Aboard Florida’s four stations were unveiled Wednesday, promising to change the downtown Miami skyline with a Grand Central Station-like landmark rail hub flanked by new skyscrapers.
Stations are also planned in downtown Fort Lauderdale, downtown West Palm Beach and at Orlando International Airport. But the Miami station is the first one officials have disclosed details on and may give residents in Broward and Palm Beach counties a glimpse of what’s to come.
The company that plans to launch a Miami-to-Orlando roundtrip passenger rail service in 2016 says it will transform a mostly vacant area between Government Center and Metrorail’s Overtown stop with offices, housing, shops and parking.
The development, with 3 million square feet of space, will be spread over two sites: 9 acres just east of Miami-Dade County Hall and a 2-acre site nearby in Miami’s historic Overtown neighborhood. Renderings show several new towers of varying height. Officials say the design will feature retail shops beneath the elevated tracks and allow through streets to remain open to traffic and “create an atmosphere of walkability.”
The company has been assembling land in downtown Fort Lauderdale. But details about the development — covering a large swath north of Broward Boulevard near the FEC tracks — have been scarce. Hotel rooms, housing, retail, office space and a new courthouse and government center are among the possibilities.
In Orlando, the station will be about a mile south of the main airport terminal and have space for a future spur of central Florida’s SunRail commuter train and a proposed magnetically levitated system from the airport to the Orange County Convention Center.
Good thing the rest of the “megaregion” is getting better connected and more developed without us (but somehow Orlando, Miami, and Ft. Lauderdale are getting or have state funded local rail helping the prospects for All Aboard Florida).
List of the Week
Our list of the week is the Trust for Public Land’s ranking of park systems in 60 largest cities (within the city limits, not metro areas) in the US. You can find the methodology here. A number of factors are considered and then a “park score” is given. The higher the better.
The top 25 are as follows: first is Minneapolis; followed by NYC; a 3-way tie between San Francisco, Portland, and Boston; DC; a tie between Sacramento and Denver; San Diego, a tie between Virginia Beach and Aurora (CO); Omaha; Oakland; Seattle; Albuquerque; Kansas City (MO); Chicago; a tie between San Jose and New Orleans; Philadelphia; Raleigh; Milwaukee; Colorado Springs; Long Beach; and Baltimore.
Tampa came out firmly in the middle, tying at 28 with Phoenix, Honolulu, Detroit, and Corpus Christi. As noted in the Times:
Tampa’s rank was boosted by higher-than-average scores for playground access and per-capita park spending. The trust said the city has 2.8 playgrounds per 10,000 residents, compared with the national ParkScore average of 2.3. It spends $121 per resident on parks, versus an average of $98.
Tampa received below-average scores for median park size (4.6 acres here, compared with an average of 6 acres for other ranked cities) and percentage of city land dedicated to parks (7.1 percent, compared with the national average of 11.1 percent).
Of course, Bayshore being a long narrow park would increase the number of people within a 10 minute walk. Then the Times noted this:
And compared to cities that Mayor Bob Buckhorn often mentions as Tampa’s competition for young professionals, the ranking was heartening. Tampa came in ahead of Austin, Texas (33) and Charlotte, N.C. (57), though it trailed Raleigh, N.C. (21).
We are not so sure about that. There were a lot of our competitors above us on the list. And even more, the score does not take into account the walkability of the path to the park, the activities and development around the park, and whether the parks draw big crowds. For instance, Atlanta was 42, which is not very good, but the parks and trails in the area are in vital hubs of activity that are booming, like the Beltline.
The study also does not count parks in the metro area – or just across the city limits. (At least Tampa has TECO to get rid of those pesky, old trees at local parks, keeping them looking fresh.) Though it should be said that some of the local parks are greatly improved (though it has to be said that the big investment is almost exclusively in south Tampa), and improvement is good.
In the end, even if Austin and Charlotte are below us on this list, we do not celebrate being average.