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Roundup 1-23-2015

January 23, 2015

USF – Med School

The downtown USF med school proposal went to the Board of Governors of the state university system.

Plans for a University of South Florida medical school in downtown Tampa hit a snag Wednesday when a Florida Board of Governors committee delayed voting on state funding for the new campus.

The facilities committee instead authorized USF to spend $5 million that was previously appropriated for planning expenses and asked USF officials to submit a detailed business plan for the downtown location by the Feb. 19 meeting.

USF President Judy Genshaft told reporters on a conference call after the meeting that university officials had come prepared with a presentation for the board. But the agenda didn’t allow time for presentations, and the board members wanted to see the information in advance.

USF is requesting $57 million in state money for the medical school over the next three years: $17 million this year and $20 million each in the two following years.

The committee did approve $15.7 million for the heart institute — the final allocation of funding for the $50 million project.

A USF spokesman said there was a “miscommunication” between the committee and the university. When the university presented its plans to the board in October, the response was supportive, and the university was told all it would need at this meeting was the location of the school. That was before the USF board of trustees unanimously approved the downtown location at its Dec. 4 meeting.

“Our presentation exists,” Genshaft said. “We could have presented today, but they didn’t allow time on the agenda.”

Given that they approved money for the heart institute and allowed USF to spend previously allocated money to study and plan the med school, we doubt this is a major delay (though you never know). Of course, then it has to go to the legislature, so time will tell.

One thing we will say is that the Board of Governors probably is not as concerned with local development prospects – they are looking at the university system – as the people promoting the plan.  We hope whatever presentation is made and whatever business plan is presented is not based on simply local considerations.

Transportation – Get Ready to Pay

FDOT’s plan for variable rate toll lanes seems to be moving forward:

In a sign of heightened interest, state transportation officials have scheduled two public workshops to explain a proposal that would create express toll lanes on Tampa Bay interstates.

Known as Tampa Bay Express, the plan involves adding separate express lanes along area interstates that drivers can pay to use. Though controversial elsewhere, express lanes are supposed to siphon vehicles away from overcrowded pockets of regular highway and offer a faster commute to drivers, according to the project’s website.

The exact amount a driver would pay would be based on the actual travel conditions in the express lane at any given time.

The lanes would run along Interstate 275 from north St. Petersburg to south of Bearss Avenue in Hillsborough County. They are also being considered for much of the length of Interstate 75 in Hills­borough and for all of the county’s stretch of Interstate 4, ultimately connecting with the Polk County Parkway.

The Florida Department of Transportation has been developing the toll idea as part of a larger plan to improve the flow of transportation around Tampa Bay, one of the most congested metropolitan areas in the nation. But only this week did the department announce its plan to present the idea to the public. 

We are not sure whose interest is heightened, but let us review the idea of variable rate toll lanes.  These are lanes which allow a driver to pay extra to avoid heavy traffic.  The price changes depending on how crowded the normal part of the road is.  Moreover, the stated purpose of the toll is to be high enough to incentivize most people to stay out of the lane so the traffic in the toll lane will flow.  In other words, if the road is completely congested, the price of the toll lane rises so that most people will not use it.  In other words, the toll lane is supposed to reduce congestion by keeping people out of the lane.  If you do not have the money to pay the toll (and who doesn’t have the money with this area’s awesome average incomes?), too bad.

In any event:

Here is where the toll lanes would run in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties:

And, as we have noted before, FDOT plan on taking one of the four  presently free lanes on the Howard Frankland and making it a variable rate lane – because that will help congestion. (see “Transportation – FDOT Giveth, FDOT Taketh Away”)

As we have noted often, we understand having tolls.  We are ok with the idea that a toll is a user fee.  But this plan is simply providing a service to limited number of people in the name of serving everyone.  Is that really the best use of public transportation money?

Additionally, if you throw in the idea that buses might run on these lanes, how will that affect the toll price?  Will the added traffic make the prices even higher and help fewer people stuck in traffic.  And what will happen to real transit?

In other words, there are a lot of questions, but we doubt that will get in the way.

Transportation – More Streetcar Talk

Now that we know the streetcar is part of the whole Lightning owner’s idea to help develop his project (which is fine with us), get ready for the big push.  Let’s review what he has said:

Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and downtown properties, included revitalized plans for the streetcar in his December announcement about development plans.

“There were very good intentions with the streetcar when it first went into service,” Vinik said. “But, frankly, it needs to run more frequently. It needs to transport guests from one location to another quicker. It needs to become a means by which people can go from their downtown offices to Channelside, to Ybor, to have lunch and to make it back in time for work.”

* * *

“I’m serious when I call it a priority,” Vinik said. “It’s an important part again of transforming downtown Tampa.”

We have no problem with any of those observations.  So what has his interest led to?

Local leaders who have long bemoaned Tampa’s historic streetcar as an under-used, expensive, poorly managed transit option have recently refocused on making it more successful, starting first with discussions of overhauling the ownership structure.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the first step in breathing new life into the program is to abolish its board, which oversees the streetcar along with the city of Tampa and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

“The board has served its purpose,” Buckhorn said. “I think in the streetcar’s next chapter, it will be run by one organization, not a triparty agreement.”

Under the current agreement, HART is in charge of operation and maintenance, but the right-of-way is owned by the city and the streetcar is managed by the Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc. board.

“Clearly, part of the next step is determining some level of ownership for the process,” HART CEO Katherine Eagan said. “The community outreach, the long-range planning, where do all these other things fall? They simply don’t get done because no one’s charged with them.”

Setting aside that this issue has been around a long time and most of the people on the various boards also are involved in other related boards and so should have been more proactive, fine.  At least people are now talking about it.  The question is where will the streetcar go?  Is the City going to run it? HART?  How will it be most integrated into whatever transportation system exists in the County as a whole and the area? What is the proposal?

To reach that point, Eagan said the focus needs to first be on improving the product before expanding its routes or upgrading the cars.

“A streetcar that starts at noon is not a product for a downtown or Ybor worker,” Eagan said. “If it runs every 20 minutes, it’s not a product that’s competitive with any other method of transportation.”

HART has looked into what it would take to increase frequency from 20 to 15 minutes. The more frequent schedule that people are interested in would cost an additional $1 million.

“HART can definitely commit to running a stronger schedule,” Eagan said. “We can make that happen pretty quickly, if the funding is there.”

But the question of funding is a big one for which few seem to have an answer. Federal funding is appropriated toward capital costs, such as expanding routes or upgrading streetcars, Eagan said. Operational funds have to come from elsewhere, and fares and ad valorem taxes for buses can’t be directed to the streetcar.

First, it is not clear that running slow moving cars on a limited path that ignores a main part of downtown will really get the streetcar to the point that it becomes a viable transit option for workers and residents downtown. (If you live in the Element or SkyPoint, does it really make sense to take the streetcar to go anywhere? If you live in Ybor, would you take it to go to the Straz?) It is not clear that incremental improvements will really show the potential or really raise ridership considerably.  If simply improving service is part of a well-defined, overall plan to expand the service and make it a real means of transportation, maybe. What is really needed is to make the streetcar part of a real transportation system – that should be the stated goal, not half measures. (And, of course, there is the question of money to improve the present service.  It would be odd if no one had looked at that, yet.)

In any event, now there is someone who wants to take the lead on the issue:

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has vowed to save downtown’s struggling streetcar — once again.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the mayor also vowed to save it back in 2012. But downtown’s underused, underfunded trolley system remains in distress.

But this time, the mayor said, he really means it.

“I’m happy to take ownership of this,” Buckhorn said, “because I do think we need to resolve this.”

Buckhorn’s latest vow was made during Tuesday’s Tampa Port Authority board meeting, in the very same room where he first vowed — two years, four months and three days ago — to save the trolley.

Back then, he convinced his fellow board members to continue a $100,000 subsidy to the streetcar. Their patience has since worn thin. The port hasn’t paid the streetcar anything since 2012. In October 2014, the board balked at giving the trolley any money until its operator, the nonprofit Tampa Historic Streetcar Inc., came up with a turnaround plan.

Buckhorn already has a solution in mind: the streetcar’s volunteer board — which runs the trolley along with the city and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority — needs to be disbanded.

The streetcar must be run by one entity, the mayor said, and it needs a seven-figure infusion of cash to get it running more frequently and for free. The first step in that process likely will be funding a study of the streetcar, its ridership, the cost and benefits of increasing service and perhaps even expanding it with federal dollars.

Buckhorn said the city would bring the streetcar board, HART, the county and the neighborhood community redevelopment agencies together to start the discussion.

Fixing the streetcar will be a daunting task, the mayor said, especially securing the extra $1 million a year he said it could cost to get the trolley running more often so that more people will use it.

In fact, we believe him that he really wants to fix it now because:

Why would this vow be different than his last one? Two words: Jeff Vinik. The Tampa Bay Lightning owner plans a $1 billion redevelopment of downtown. A revitalized streetcar could add mass transit to that plan.

“Now is the time to get it done,” Buckhorn said.

The reason he didn’t act in 2012, the mayor said, was because he’s had a lot on his plate: “It just hasn’t been at the top of my list of priorities.”

Not only is there motivation because of the potential development, the City tax transit plan went nowhere.  Not that we really care about the reasons.  The streetcar needs (and has needed) to be fixed.  If the Mayor wants to take the lead, fine with us.  The one caveat is that the streetcar needs to be part of an integrated, coordinated transportation system.  If it is run by the City, that is highly unlikely to happen because the City does not really run any other transportation system.  Nevertheless, someone has to do something.

Of course, if the CSX insurance fee ($400,000) can be taken away (or at least made more reasonable – like in other cities in Florida) that would go a long way towards paying for the extra service.  Something to consider.

At least people now seem motivated.

Economic Development – Latest on VC

There was more news in the Business Journal on venture capitalist funding.

With six funding deals totaling $40.65 million last year, the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan statistical area ranks No. 58 on the list of investment data by MSA, compiled by the National Venture Capital Association.

The Lakeland-Winter Haven metro ranks No. 95 with two deals and $11.2 million in total investments in 2014.

* * *

San Francisco was the venture capital leader, with 876 companies receiving $15.7 billion in investments in 2014, more than twice the number of companies and total investment received in San Jose, Calif., No. 2 on the list.

The article provided the following list of Florida cities with their rank and the amount of VC funds.

11 Fort Lauderdale $641.91
40 Orlando $100.91
55 West Palm Beach-Boca Raton $45.44
58 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater $40.65
80 Miami $14.93
95 Lakeland-Winter Haven $11.19
108 Gainesville $7.40

As we noted a while back, there was a Ft. Lauderdale company that got a very large injection of money.  In any event, until we are consistently at least around 20th (though, of course, we would like to be higher), we are underperforming.

Cuba – An Interesting Item

There was an interesting report on NPR.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: More than 800,000 Cuban-Americans call Miami-Dade County home. That’s about 1 in every 3 residents. It’s the largest Cuban-American population in the country and therefore might seem like a logical location for a Cuban consulate. But Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado doesn’t think so. He says one thing Miami definitely doesn’t need is a Cuban consulate.

* * *

ALLEN: But Miami isn’t the only city in Miami-Dade County. The county mayor, Carlos Gimenez, is a bit more circumspect, saying only that it’s premature at this point to discuss whether a Cuban consulate should be located in the county. The three Cuban-Americans who represent Miami-Dade County in Congress are critical of the president’s Cuba proposals and have vowed to block normalization. But elsewhere in Florida, some officials see a Cuban consulate as an opportunity.

REPRESENTATIVE KATHY CASTOR: The Tampa area would welcome a consulate.

ALLEN: Congresswoman Kathy Castor represents Tampa, another city with a large Cuban-American population. It’s a city with long historical ties to Cuba that go back to the 19th century when Miami was still an Indian trading post. Castor supports normalization and, along with other political and business leaders in the city, has worked to promote trade ties with Cuba.

CASTOR: In Tampa, we’ve been more open – our port, our airport. We’ve embraced the current reforms and now are looking forward to the real fall in the relationship.

ALLEN: Tampa’s airport hopes to expand the number of direct flights it already offers to Cuba. The city’s port recently set out a press release saying it’s ready to move to, quote, “aggressively market its first-rate facilities to our Cuban neighbors.” Tampa may get a boost in its bid from those most likely to use a new Cuban consulate, those who travel there or have visitors from the island. Among Cuban-Americans in Florida, a recent poll by the Miami Herald found more opposed a Cuban consulate in Miami than supported. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

It does not really matter if you think the policy is good or bad, if relations with Cuba are going to open up – a Federal government choice – why not have a consulate in Tampa?  Aren’t we trying to open up to Latin America?  Don’t we want more flights and more use of the port?  Isn’t that good for the area, especially when other areas are already pushing to open up trade with Cuba?   If the law is going to change, why allow other areas to move into what is a natural market of ours?

So what did the Mayor say?

When asked today if he would support a Cuban consulate in Tampa, Mayor Bob Buckhorn was careful in his response.

“If that’s the choice…we will be respectful of the law, respectful of the consulate officials,” he replied with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm.

“I’m doing to do what the law requires me to do,” he added. “I don’t think I’m going to cut a ribbon, but I’m not going to be ugly. There’s not going to be violence.”

Well, at least it is not negative.

Cuba – Flights?

Speaking of Cuba, there was an article in the Times regarding Cuba flights.

There’s cautious optimism that the newer, less restrictive rules for U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba set to start today will boost Tampa International Airport’s role as a gateway to the island nation.

“Anything that makes it easier to fly to Cuba benefits us,” said airport CEO Joe Lopano. “Now that we have further liberalization of the travel restrictions, we expect to see growth.”

For decades, U.S. trade and travel to Cuba was severely restricted by the embargo of the island nation. Those restrictions have loosened over the years. In 2011, the U.S. government expanded the number of airports allowed to fly to Cuba and added Tampa to that list.

Since then, more than 164,000 passengers have used Tampa to fly to and return from Cuba. Tampa is the second largest U.S. gateway to Cuba behind Miami.

* * *

By making travel to Cuba easier, the new rules could increase the number of U.S. citizens who will visit — and who might use Tampa International to get there.

During peak times, Tampa had up to eight flights a week to Cuba. It currently has five a week. But the relaxed travel rules could change that significantly, Lopano said.

“I would expect to see the number of flights increase in the next six months,” he said.

And that is all reasonable. We would expect good travel links between Tampa and Cuba.  However, there is another factor:

It has been decades since U.S. airlines could make commercial flights from the States to Cuba, but that is about to change.

JetBlue (JBLU), Delta (DAL) and United (UAL) airlines are already expressing interest in adding the route.

Which leads to a concern.  Those three airlines have hubs in other cities which makes one wonder whether much of the Cuba flight traffic will move to the major hubs, leaving Tampa to only serve its local travelers.

We do not doubt that there will be flights to Cuba in the future, but it would just be a shame if Tampa did not become the gateway to Cuba that it should be.  Of course, developing business with Cuba could help, but that takes work and local official support – especially the boards of the airport and port. (And, no, it is not just a rush for contracts, but if the policy changes, it is illogical to act as though it didn’t.)

If the business is there anyway, why should it go somewhere else?

Channel District – Update on the Martin

There was more news on the Martin this week:

Mercury Advisors, the developer of the project, had predicted the building would break ground by the end of 2014. That didn’t happen, but the project is still in the works, principal Ken Stoltenberg said Tuesday.

“We’re working as fast as we can,” Stoltenberg said, “but we’re at that stage where we have to wait for other people to make decisions.”

Mercury is still working with Atlanta-based Daniel Corp. on a joint venture agreement and in talks with lenders for a construction loan, Stoltenberg said. He said that the financing could be easier once the SkyHouse, a 23-story apartment tower about to wrap up construction a few blocks from the Meridian site, is complete and starts to lease up. That would show investors and lenders that there’s demand for that type of product in Tampa, which is still regarded as a risky secondary market by many.

We hope they get their financing.  Their earlier project Grand Central is probably the best overall project in first wave of development in the Channel District and the Martin is rumored to have a grocery store as part of the project.  Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

There was an interesting article about SunRail in Orlando:

The figure is still fairly astonishing: 9,002.

That’s the number of passengers who rode SunRail on Friday, Jan. 2. It’s nearly triple the number of passengers SunRail has been getting starting in September and continuing through mid-December.

Then something changed. On Dec. 19, a Friday, ridership rose to more than 3,500 passengers. The following Monday ridership topped 4,200. That also happens to be the first day of SunRail’s late night train service. On Tuesday – the night of an Orlando Magic game against the visiting Boston Celtics – ridership topped 4,700. Wednesday tanked, predictably, because it was Christmas Eve.

Heavy ridership was back the day after Christmas with more than 6,400 passengers (Magic vs. Cavs at the Amway that night). The next week was busy, too. Even New Year’s Eve had about 4,200 riders, way more than SunRail had been getting on a typical workday in previous months.

Than [sic] came the big day, which was a mixed blessing for SunRail as eager pleasure riders arrived at stations to find unwieldy crowds and – no surprise to regular passengers – balky ticketing machines that helped gum up the works. That night, Jan. 2, also happened to be a home game for the Magic, which surely contributed to the record 350 passengers who were on the late night train that day.

So what is going on here?

Combine those numbers with recent passenger survey results demanding expanded service and you’re seeing a strong argument for SunRail as something more than a commuter service.

* * *

SunRail was initially conceived as an alternative form of transportation for commuters. And I expect that when workers start tearing up Interstate 4 later this year for the ultimate makeover a lot more commuters are going to be looking for another way to get to and from work.

But SunRail’s numbers also suggest an unanticipated appetite to use the train for dining, shopping and entertainment. Just look at the Orlando Conductor Crawl. A couple of weeks ago, following an after-work beer with a buddy at Tap & Grind on Central, we ran into a huge crawl crowd on the Church Street platform.

In other words, people want a real transit system – not just tourists, not just commuters.

Not surprisingly, SunRail has decided to extend its late-night service through 2015. However, SunRail is making no commitments about adding weekend service or more mid-day trains.

That seems reasonable, considering expansion will require a financial commitment that neither state nor local governments seem eager to make. Never mind expanded service, local governments are still mostly mum about how they’re going to pick up the slack for operating the system when the state transfers that financial responsibility to them in a few years.

Of course money is an issue.  It always is.  However, all this should be a lesson to the Tampa Bay area that a transit system should provide transit – not just a limited service for a limit category of people – to be successful.

Lists of the Week

This week, we have two related lists: wallethub’s 2015’s Best and Worst Cities to Find a Job and nerdwallet’s Best Cities for Job Seekers 2015.

First, the Top 25 (we are not going to do the worst) from wallethub: Seattle; Des Moines; Gilbert, AZ; Sioux Falls; Fremont, CA; Chandler, AZ; Omaha; Salt Lake City; Scottsdale; Plano, TX; Anchorage; Irving; San Jose; Peoria, AZ; Santa Clarita, CA; Fort Worth; Raleigh; Lincoln; Madison, WI; San Francisco; Denver; Columbus, OH; Virginia Beach; Tampa; and Tulsa.  A very Arizona-friendly list but at least Tampa made the top 25. Good.

Now nerdwallet, which is a much shorter list: Lincoln; Ft. Worth; Columbus, OH; Minneapolis; Denver; Austin; Greensboro, NC; Portland, OR; OKC; and St. Paul. Quite the list of usual suspects. (And, per the website, Charlotte was originally in the top 10 but, on review, was moved out of it.)


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