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Roundup 2-6-2015

February 6, 2015

Transportation – Express Lanes Meet the People

Last week, FDOT held a meeting regarding the variable rate toll lane proposal. (You can see the presentation documents here)  So what was the reaction?

Views on the state’s proposed express toll lanes for area interstates spanned the map Thursday night.

Some called the toll lanes a “class system” that would only benefit the wealthier commuter, a system that would feed urban sprawl. Others see the lanes as a reasonable alternative to the gridlock drivers now face. Many inquired as to whether the highway changes would accommodate future light rail.

About 100 interested residents and business owners showed up at the TPepin Hospitality Center in the first hour of a two-hour open house conducted by the Florida Department of Transportation to ask questions about the project called Tampa Bay Express.

* * *

“I live off of I-4 and several times this week, it was a parking lot,” Hammock said. “Really, to me, the high speed rail made a lot more sense, but that’s dead now.”

Joseph Michalsky, a civil engineering student at the University of South Florida, opposes the idea of a toll. “I realize it has worked in other cities to minimize the average commute,” Michalsky said, “but I oppose it because of the cost. Taxpayers already pay for the highways.”

His friend, Austin Prince, a molecular biology major, had even stronger views. “This is an attempt at economic stratification. It may not be the intent, but it will be the result. And not enough people will use it to justify the cost. I don’t believe this is a solution, allowing the economic elite who are price insensitive, to benefit.”

Phil Compton, a Sierra Club representative who was very active in the failed Greenlight Pinellas initiative to build a more robust mass transit system across the bay, inquired about whether the roadways would be able to accommodate light rail, should it ever get the okay here. He found that they will be.

“I’m trying to keep an open mind,” Compton said. “I am concerned it’s a class system.” He said the state should be using some of its money to make this area’s roads safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, instead of just for more vehicle lanes.

“FDOT is making a big commitment here and they didn’t ask anyone in the county if we wanted this. I do applaud the potential for including bus rapid transit,” he said, but he is not happy with a lack of public input into the plan.

Rick Fifer, of Seminole Heights, said more highway lanes are not the answer to gridlock here. “Instead of express lanes, they should put in a commuter rail with spurs to downtown and the airport. They can never build enough roads” to fix the traffic problem, he said.

Not really spanning the map, but so be it. And most pointedly:

“I just wonder if there isn’t a better way to spend $6 billion,” said Laura Lawson, a 43-year-old Seminole Heights resident. “What this is going to do is benefit the people who can afford it.”

Pretty much.

Remember, they are talking about $ 6 billion, which is the amount Hillsborough officials say would be raised by the oft discussed one cent sales tax for transportation. For $ 6 billion, FDOT should be able to come up with something better than adding a few lanes that charge excessive amounts with the goal of not having that many cars drive on them in a metro area with very low incomes. What about different choices other than cars?  What about a modern transportation system?  What about making the area catch up with competitive metro areas?

Of course, locally, we haven’t come up with anything better that people can agree upon either, and, until that happens, we shouldn’t expect much from FDOT.  Which brings us to a Tribune editorial:

There is an important lesson in those numbers. TIA CEO Joe Lopano, who came from Dallas to run the airport in 2011, refused to accept the status quo — or commonly accepted beliefs about Tampa.

When he questioned why the airport had mostly fast-food restaurants and T-shirt shops, Lopano recalls, “I was told people don’t spend money in Tampa, and that was all people would support.”

He reviewed passenger statistics and added more diverse offerings, including Cigar City Brewing, the Columbia Restaurant, Shula’s Bar & Grill and high-end shops.

They are enjoying robust business and generating additional revenue for the airport. The airport also began offering valet parking, where passengers could have their car detailed while they were away, and found a ready market.

All this new revenue enables the airport to keep its passenger costs low, which makes it easier to attract additional flights.

Similarly, Lopano refused to accept the belief that TIA would never attract international flights, and vigorously pursued the market with remarkable success, landing flights to Cuba, Switzerland and Panama.

* * *

Lopano has been able to seize new opportunities because he was able to see Tampa with fresh eyes.

Much the same is happening thanks to Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who realized the economic potential of the downtown Channelside area.

As he recently told us, “There’s vacant land and water on three sides in a major American city. You don’t find that anymore.”

Indeed, a fresh look.  The airport was originally ahead of its time, but previous leadership – both at the airport and in the community generally – allowed it to stagnate. What is notable is that the while Tampa was not seeking international flights, other cities were trying and succeeding in getting them.  The status quo in Tampa was complacency and falling behind.  Similarly, downtown development, while happening, has been slow – much slower than other areas.  And, as noted by both the Tribune and Times, the idea of mixed use megadevelopments is found all over the country.  (See “Built Environment/Economic Development/Downtown – There is Competition” ) While we very much approve of the airport administration and the Lightning owner’s concepts, the fact is that their ideas are not ground breaking in the greater scheme of things, they are just new here. (There is a reason there is not that much vacant waterfront property in other places.) Of course, you have to catch up before you can move ahead (though $ 6 billion in variable rate lanes is not catching up).

It is also important to respect local history and not blindly seek change for the sake of change. The status quo usually became that way for a good reason. But that doesn’t mean it should never been challenged.

Indeed.  Moreover, the status quo may have a bad reason for existing, such as being politically expedient or the narrow self-interests of certain interested parties – or simply a lack of vision.  It should be challenged constantly because the world is competitive and not static.  If it stands up to the challenge, fine.  If not, there needs to be change.

Yet too often we all can be reluctant to embrace the future. You see it on the transportation issue, with many preferring to cling to the strategy of never-ending road building and gridlock, rather than working to develop a diverse transportation network that offers the choices needed to serve the workplace of tomorrow, which will include many young workers who do not want to drive.

Progress takes time, and not every vision is realized. We should always ask tough questions and seek cost-benefit numbers when charting a new course. But prudence should not prevent us from pursuing bold, new approaches to local issues. Communities, like businesses, must adapt to an ever-changing marketplace. Tampa and Hillsborough County will never thrive if an always-was, always-will-be attitude prevails.

We agree.  The only thing we would add is that our conventional wisdom is usually behind the rest of the country by a decade or so. Fixing transportation – as well as most other issues – here is not so much about embracing the future; rather, it is catching up to everyone else’s present.

Economy – What Kind of Jobs

Speaking of low wage jobs,

Compared to other major metropolitan areas in the United States, the Tampa Bay area is lagging behind when it comes to growing its advanced industries sector.

A new Brookings Institute report out Tuesday finds that in 2013, the Lakeland-Winter Haven area had 6,500 jobs supported by advanced industries, North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton had 11,160 jobs and Tampa-St. Petersburg- Clearwater had 76,040 jobs.

In a ranking that Brookings established, all three metro areas failed to make it into the top 50. Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater at No. 58, North Port-Bradenton at No. 88 and Lakeland-Winter Haven at No. 95.

Advanced industry jobs include manufacturing jobs, like designing aerospace products and parts, energy jobs like oil and gas extraction and services like engineering, software publishers and telecommunications, to name a few.

Here is a graphic of the advanced industry jobs:

From Brookings – click on picture for website

The report is here. To be exact, the report finds that the Tampa Bay area ranks as 57th in the number of advanced industry jobs as a percentage of all jobs.   In gross number of jobs, we rank 26th (which is lower than its population rank).  We are 37th in percentage growth (2010-2013). And, at $15.3 billion, we are 29th in terms of the output of advanced industries. For comparison with some metro areas with smaller populations, Austin is 21st with $24.1 billion, Charlotte is 25th with $19.5 billion, Denver is 17th with $30 billion, Indianapolis is 20th with $25.2 billion, and Portland is 11th with $58.9 billion.

So, once again, yes, we have made progress, but we are still behind where we should be.

Economic Development – Survey Says

As we noted a while back, as part of the EDC’s effort to attract a corporate headquarters, there was a survey of business leaders outside the Tampa Bay area. (See “Economic Development – The Time Is Now (As It Has Been For a While)” )  There was more news about the results.

A survey of national business leaders rates the Tampa Bay area high in factors that weigh heavily in decisions about where to move factories or corporate headquarters, such as having a pro-business environment with minimal red tape.

The same survey, completed last year, showed the business leaders have negative perceptions about the quality of the Tampa area’s workforce and about its transportation system.

* * *

Homans said the Tampa area scored highest in 10 of those 20 factors.

“The funny thing is the exact areas where we are strong, they point out, are those that are big challenges in their markets: the high cost of doing business, bureaucratic interference, local and state officials not being pro-business,’’Homans said Wednesday in a report to the Hillsborough County Commission.

In addition, Tampa-Hillsborough improved in 17 of the 20 decision-making factors compared to the area’s rating in a 2002 survey.

“That’s a big change in perceptions of the (local) market,” Homans said.

However, the area’s transportation problems loom large in decision-makers’ thinking about the area, rating right behind the perceptions that highly skilled workers are in short supply. Their negative opinions mirror those of local government and business leaders who for years have preached about the nexus between transportation and economic development.

The city and county also received poor marks for lacking “class A” office space and _ in a seeming catch-22 situation _ for not having enough corporate headquarters. Homans said the latter drawback was a factor in Mercedes-Benz’s decision to move its U.S. headquarters to Atlanta instead of Tampa.

To some degree it is a Catch-22.  But the area could still fix its transportation system – which involves more than variable rate toll lanes – and do things to attract talent – which includes fixing the transportation system and changing the way the area is built to provide more choices in how people live. (And stop subsidizing sprawl and retail)

No one said any of this will be easy (though changing the code and not subsidizing sprawl is not that hard).  However, it is much harder if elected officials do not have the political will to really make the needed changes and to find creative ways of doing so.  The actions of the TED group to date does not inspire confidence, but things can always change.

Economic Development – Maybe

And a little more about jobs – or potential jobs:

Tampa Bay’s quest for a corporate headquarters relocation has focused on a new target: an e-commerce retailer that employs more than 500.

The efforts of economic development leaders to woo corporate relocations are usually conducted in secret, out of the public eye. But this particular effort was revealed in emails obtained from Pinellas County. The campaign even has its own cool code name: “Project Monaco.”

The company was not identified in those emails, however. Nor was it identified to local leaders. Even the identities of the company executives set to travel to the bay area next week will not be revealed to the local executives and politicians they meet with during their visit and tour of Tampa Bay.

“Their identities will likely remain confidential during the course of the visit,” according to the email from the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

The unidentified company is considering several locations around the nation, according to the emails, but in Florida it is only considering Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The company’s tour of the bay area was arranged by Tampa Hillsborough’s EDC and its counterpart, Pinellas County’s economic development arm.

We have no idea what the company is, but they would definitely be welcome.  Hopefully, something will come of this.

Port – Looking to Cars

There was news that the Port made a little progress in its search for car import customers.

The Volkswagen Group recently put Port Tampa Bay on its short list of American ports vying to receive a new stream of Mexican-made Volks­wagens and German-made Audis.

Port Tampa Bay made its pitch over the summer. Volkswagen hasn’t picked a winner yet, but port officials said the multinational eliminated Tampa from the competition before Christmas.

What’s important to port officials, however, is that they were in the running in the first place.

“This was the first time that Port Tampa Bay was invited to be a part of a formal bid for a major auto manufacturer,” said Wade Elliott, the Tampa Port Authority’s vice president of marketing and business development. “It was the first time we were even in a position to be considered for that.”

We suppose that is something.  So, are there details?

The port hasn’t landed any auto deals yet. But Tampa Port Authority officials hope their recent participation in the Volks­wagen competition is a sign that they’re attracting the attention of auto manufacturers.

The other ports competing for Volkswagen’s business are Baltimore, Brunswick, Ga., Houston, Jacksonville and Port Manatee. Although Tampa officials think the bay area is well situated to attract ships carrying vehicles from Mexico, its location may have hurt its chances in this deal.

That’s because the Audis made in Germany will be delivered via the Atlantic Ocean. East Coast ports with established auto import hubs are much closer to those shipping routes.

“We understand that Volks­wagen’s desire to deliver Audis made in Germany in an expedited manner gave the East Coast ports a geographical advantage,” Elliott said.

If that is the reason, Port Manatee should be eliminated. (The article was not clear if Port Manatee was still in the running or just was trying for the business.)

We are all for trying to get new business and hope the Port achieves some success in this endeavor.  However, given what the port says, it seems that most European automakers may look elsewhere.  Time will tell.

Rays – Something, But Not Much Yet

The saga of the Rays continued last week.  First, the new Baseball Commissioner made some comments about Montreal being a decent market,  then said he did not mean to say he wants the Rays to move to Montreal.    In the meantime, the Hillsborough County Commission retained an MLB connected law firm to do . . . well, wait for now.  What are they waiting for?  St. Pete, of course.  So what is going on there?

Seven weeks after Mayor Rick Kriseman’s proposed deal to allow the Rays to search for a new stadium site fell apart over city council objections, Kriseman and team president Brian Auld are scheduled to meet this week.

It will be the pair’s first conversation, aside from a brief season’s greetings call from Kriseman to Auld, since Dec. 18 when the city council voted 5-3 to reject a previous memorandum of understanding that would have allowed the Rays to look for a new site, but only in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Auld and Kriseman will likely spend most of their time discussing future development rights for Tropicana Field that are contained in the team’s current contract, which expires in 2027. It was the issue that helped derail the December vote, after council member Karl Nurse asked if the Rays still expected to enjoy a 50-50 revenue split on development rights if the team chose to leave. Auld responded the city should follow the contract.

And after the first meeting:

Mayor Rick Kriseman emerged from a meeting with the Tampa Bay Rays Wednesday saying he hoped to have an agreement to let the team look for new stadium sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties by Opening Day.

Well, that is something – though no one really knows what yet.  As for the St. Pete City Council, which would have to approve a deal:

Meanwhile, it remains unclear exactly what the council will accomplish Feb. 19 when it meets in a workshop to explore stadium options in the city. The effort was initiated during the same December meeting in which the council rejected Kriseman’s initial deal with the Rays.

One council member, Jim Kennedy, has released a list of questions that he would like answered, including all stadium sites that might interest the Rays and the standards by which the team would rank those sites — questions only the Rays could seemingly answer.

But council chairman Charlie Gerdes said he didn’t think the team should participate as the workshop is supposed to be about how the city would build a stadium for the Rays.

He thought Kennedy’s requests didn’t fit into that framework.

“I don’t think they’re appropriate for discussion in this workshop. They’re outside the scope of what we said we’re going to do,” Gerdes said.

Indeed, St. Pete collectively (not all individuals involved) has long acted as though the opinion of the target of the effort is not particularly relevant.  Maybe that is because, it is widely believed (probably true) that the Rays want a new stadium in Hillsborough County.

The wait continues.

List of the Week

Our list this week is wallethub.com’s 2015 best and worst metro areas for STEM jobs.  You can find the methodology on the main website.

The Top 30 are as follows: Houston; Austin; Raleigh; Denver; Omaha; Seattle; Oklahoma City; Salt Lake City; Columbus, OH; Cincinnati; Pittsburgh; Nashville; Baltimore; Wichita; St. Louis; Dayton; Des Moines; Colorado Springs; Charlotte; Birmingham; Madison, WI; Albany-Schenectady-Troy, NY; Dallas-Fort Worth; Ogden-Clearfield, UT; DC; Detroit; Atlanta; Phoenix; Harrisburg-Carlisle, PA; and Winston-Salem.

Florida cities scored poorly: the Tampa Bay area is 60th; Jacksonville is 74th; Palm Bay-Melbourne is 75th; Orlando is 83rd; Lakeland-Winter Haven is 91st; Ft. Myers is 94th; Daytona Beach is 95th; Sarasota-Bradenton is 98th; and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale is 100th. So, in terms of Florida, we are doing ok.  Regarding the rest of the country, not so much.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. B. Wills permalink
    February 6, 2015 9:08 AM

    Regarding Express Toll Lanes: Besides all the drawbacks mentioned above, there was another detail in one of the articles about this effort that involved re-striping existing highway lanes to narrow them, and make room for the express lanes. We have more than our share of dum-dums who insist on playing with their smartphones while driving…can you imagine how many more accidents we’ll see with narrower lanes? The Tampa Bay area needs a regional, elevated METRO system with express runs for commuters and local runs for shorter trips. Not Lexus lanes, and not at-grade, slow-moving light rail. If the state can scare up 6-11B for the insane concept of express toll lanes, it seems that we should come up with a better state-of-the-art plan, and demand that money from the state to fund it. It is our turn for the state to step up.

  2. Eric permalink
    February 8, 2015 1:09 PM

    I’m all in for the toll lanes. Even if we build out the worlds best rail system the need for more roads is still there. At least with tolls, the lanes can be paid for and funded by users. No matter what method of transportation, it should be funded by users. No subsidies for any of it. Subsidies got us into this mess.

    • February 8, 2015 9:10 PM

      We understand that argument. We do need more roads, and we are consistent that tolls roads are ok. The problem with the variable rate lanes is that they expressly are tolled to reduce the number of cars using them, which hardly seems like a real solution to congestion on roads that will have ever more cars. They are specifically made to not help most people.

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