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Roundup 6-12-2015

June 12, 2015

Transportation – Definitively Ambivalent

Yesterday, too late for full comment by us, the TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough outsourced transportation plan was to be unveiled. However, information has started coming out, and, frankly, it is not a cause for much optimism.

When Hillsborough County administration unveils its comprehensive transportation plan at the county commission meeting Thursday, it will recommend asking voters to approve a half-cent sales tax in a 2016 referendum.

A thorough third-party poll shows more than 50 percent support overall, with a higher percentage of those in favor of living in the urban core, said County Administrator Mike Merrill.

Fine.  We understand that.  It is easier to get a smaller tax passed, even if there is less money or it takes longer to get things done – as long as what needs to get done does actually get done. So, what is it for?  The first reports we saw said things like this:

Reflective of public desires, the transportation master plan will focus on a few goals: improvement of existing roads, bridges and other infrastructure; road expansions, intersection improvements and advanced traffic management; revising the land use plan to encourage more urban density; and upgraded and expanded sidewalks and trails.

Also in that list is mass transit. First priority: Improve the existing bus system.

“MetroRapid does not have enough routes, it’s not frequent enough, there’s not enough coverage,” Merrill said.

The public also acknowledges the need for premium transit, modes like Bus Rapid Transit, flex service, circulator buses and city streetcars.

Highest priority routes for BRT are Brandon to downtown Tampa, downtown to Tampa International Airport, and south county to downtown. “Dedicated lines or managed lanes, it has to be true express service,” Merrill added.

(which is not good – especially if buses are in managed lanes, as that would just clog up those lanes and lead to higher tolls) And:

Although the full plan won’t roll out until Thursday, it reflects a more pragmatic approach that various commissions and study groups have advocated. There’s no shortage of think tanks saying that a truly contemporary American city — one that draws young, high-skilled workers — needs to have a robust, multifaceted mass transit system.

“We’re still a very car-centric county,” Merrill said. “While people say they would ride transit, it’s more aspirational. It’s important for us to go in that direction, but right now we love our cars.”

Well, yes, it is aspirational because there is no real transit here so even if people wanted to use it they couldn’t.  And those think-tanks say what they say because, for the most part, it is true (and do you really think the Millennials are going to wait decades for Tampa to figure all this out when they could go elsewhere and get it now).  And then there was this:

One of the critics, Sierra Club member and county commission candidate Pat Kemp, said 30 percent of the proceeds from a half-cent sales tax would produce just $30 million a year for transit. That amount falls short of the money needed to double the fleet of buses for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency — a goal county leaders had supported last year in leadership group meetings.

In other words, there is not even a plan to make the bus network do what the TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough people said it should do.

Based on these reports, our first reaction was that, if this was the plan, transportation would not be solved for decades. But, we also were aware that we had not seen details yet.

Then, there was this column  by the County administrator in the Times that gave a different take on what the money would go for:

Consistent with community feedback, GO Hillsborough is recommending a dedicated half-cent sales tax to be approved by voters in a November 2016 referendum. This would raise $117.5 million annually and $3.5 billion over 30 years to fix our roads first, relieve congestion and nearly double transit service, including the modernization of the streetcar by the city of Tampa. At the same time the half-cent sales tax is implemented, new growth would pay an increased and equitable share for its transportation impacts.

Improvements to roads and transit go hand-in-hand in relieving traffic flow. We believe that an approach that fixes roads, builds bus transit ridership and positions the community for some type of premium transit is a fair and balanced plan that our entire community can support. Importantly, with half-cent sales tax, GO Hillsborough can accomplish many critical improvements for the entire community:

So, there is some ambiguity here. In any event, this is our reaction so far:

– We are ok with the streetcar idea, generally, but have some questions: what exactly is that streetcar modernization that goes to either the airport or USF? (There is no question in our mind it should be the airport, first)  Is it going to be a slow moving streetcar or a real transit system?  Is it part of a bigger plan or just an isolated piece?  Is there any change that the technology used can eventually get to Pinellas and other areas of Hillsborough?  All of that will be critical.  And we do not like the idea of building something as a “demonstration.” Build it right and it will demonstrate what it needs to, but make sure it is built for its utility.

– And what does it mean to partner with FDOT and the Expressway Authority – other than express buses to clog up express lanes?  That is very vague.  And will this underfunded plan really provide a good bus feeder system to any real transit, no matter how small?

– We are also not completely sold that all roads will be taken care of or that the County can really plan properly.  And the idea that new growth will pay its proper share is, based on history and present behavior by local governments, questionable at best.

– While we get that you have to be able to get a referendum past the voters if you are wedded to a sales tax idea, we are not wedded to such a tax.  And while we in no way want to wait, it is more damaging to pass a bad plan than to wait because, after one tax is already passed, it will be even harder to get the money to do what actually needs to be done.  The details matter.

Also last week there was an article about this:

County economic development gurus are working hard to lure a Fortune 500 headquarters to Tampa, business leaders heard Tuesday. They’re going so far as to research which companies are going through a transformation that may make them ripe for a move to looking at which board members have connections to this region.

One obstacle that continues to hinder their path to success, though, is transportation, said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. Homans was guest speaker at the Westshore Alliance monthly luncheon, held in a newly renovated dining room at the Westin Tampa Bay.

We find it hard to believe that even the items listed by the County administrator will really put us over the top compared to other areas that are really investing in their transportation. (To be honest, we don’t think anyone really believes that.)  Once again, the details will matter.  While there are a few good-ish things, the details so far are not really that encouraging.

The bottom line is this – for a fuller opinion, we will have to wait until we can digest the details of the plan. Just remember, it is worse to pass a bad plan with a tax increase than to wait.  And nothing will really work if local planning does not change drastically.

So far, we are decidedly ambivalent. (And definitely not excited.) But, after details come out, we shall see.

Transportation – Building A Road for Fewer People To Use

There has been a minor flurry of news regarding Express Toll Lanes in Tampa and how they are going to mess with Tampa Heights.

Well, in 2006, an agreement was signed by the City of Tampa, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the Tampa Heights Civic Association that the land adjacent to the interstate where the garden, bike path and Center are situated was to be “lent” to the neighborhood, with the understanding that when the interstate began its “Ultimate” expansion, the property would have to be relinquished.

Earlier, in 1996, FDOT had adopted a plan outlining the “Ultimate” expansion, a huge spread of lanes which would cut a painful swath through Tampa’s center. I sat on Tampa City Council and the Metropolitan Planning Organization at that time, but never believed that it would be built because it was such a dreadful plan and so expensive. Surely we would embrace transit and quit widening the interstate and destroying neighborhoods.

Apparently, a misreading of the Tampa/Hillsborough County electorate.  In any event,

Paul Steinman, FDOT District 7’s new director, has decided that the interstate widening — which is meant to allow express toll lanes so that people who pay extra can avoid the congestion of the masses — should take place in Tampa Heights in the midst of these improvements, and not 20 years down the road, but immediately. With little notice or fanfare, FDOT, under the direction of Governor Scott, decided that this “Lexus Lane” project is urgent.

On May 12, the MPO convened a roundtable meeting with neighborhood leaders and FDOT staff moderated by Tampa City Councilman Les Miller, the MPO chairman. The news of the accelerated expansion floored the neighborhood representatives. Then, on June 2, the MPO voted to spend $20 million for right-of-way acquistion [sic].

So right of way is going to be acquired.  No surprise there.  In fact, we need better roads, which will, to some degree hurt the neighborhoods around downtown.  We think that should be limited as much as possible, but, realistically, some of it will happen.

On the other hand, there is the question of whether those roads should be variable rate Express Toll Lanes, which are basically a plan to charge as much as possible to make sure most people do not use the lanes, which seems an odd strategy for building a road.  They exist in South Florida.  So how is that going?

Higher tolls aren’t keeping drivers out of the I-95 express lanes in Miami-Dade County.

And that means it’s increasingly slow-going, especially for northbound commuters who thought they were paying a premium for a faster trip out of downtown Miami.

The state last year raised the maximum toll on the express lanes to $10.50, with the idea it would discourage some drivers from entering. Too many cars mean slower speeds. But apparently, $10.50 is not a big enough deterrent – leaving open the possibility it will go up to $14.

(Sure, the average person on the average income in this area can pay $10 to drive each way, every day to their job.)  But wait, we thought roads were meant to be used?

The state’s goal is to keep traffic in the express lanes moving 45 mph or faster 90 percent of the time. It reached that goal only 59 percent of the time in the afternoon rush hour in both November and December, the most recent data available. Sometimes drivers end up going even slower than the regular lanes, especially where the express lanes currently end at the Golden Glades interchange.

* * *

Officials say delays are much more common in the northbound I-95 express lanes because of the configuration of the Golden Glades, the massive interchange that connects I-95 to Florida’s Turnpike and the Palmetto Expressway.

The northbound express lanes narrow from two lanes to one approaching the Golden Glades. The other lane merges back into I-95, where traffic is often backed up to exit to the turnpike and the Palmetto.

So let us summarize: First, the state expanded a road into a bottleneck. (Though it is building more lanes further north) Then, it raises prices on the road when traffic backs up into the bottleneck.  Even with all that, people still want to use the road – probably because transit is not very good in that direction and the area is planned poorly.  So the state wants to raise the prices so fewer people use the road, which will, of course, increase congestion for the average person who cannot afford $28/day to get to work.  And that plan to increase congestion for most people is somehow a plan to fix traffic congestion for the area as a whole.  And that plan is going to be brought to us.

Of course, South Florida at least has a plan for some more transit – not enough, but more.  In this area, we have no idea if there will ever be useful transit for the average person to use.  Thus, people have to drive.  The roads are absolutely inadequate (and the above referenced plan will not fix that), but the solution is being planned with express purpose of not having those people use those roads.  Add to that our poor planning that will still force people to drive.  What do you think will happen?

There are other questions, such as whether these roads actually pay for themselves?  What is the break even point, including with maintenance?  Has traffic gotten better on any other lanes?  Is the state planning any alternative to using these roads other than to condemn people who cannot pay to overburdened roads? (And forget low cost of living – $28x an average 200 day work year is $5600)  And is the state going to build any free lanes to go along with the express lanes to take all the traffic that the express lanes are not intended to service (or is it going to take lanes away, like the plan for the Howard Frankland?)

It is all very odd.

Transportation – The Corridors

There was an interesting article in the Tribune regarding the Florida’s Future Corridor Initiative. (You can see the Initiative website here)

Over the next 50 years, four out of five people moving to the Sunshine State are expected to plant themselves somewhere between Tampa and Jacksonville.

They’ll contribute to a 70 percent population surge in an area state officials believe must include a corridor to accommodate automated cars, truck convoys, express lanes for mass transit, and more rail for cargo and passengers.

Anyone who has made the trip between here and Jacksonville — there is no direct connection now — gets it, said Jim Wood, the Florida Department of Transportation’s transportation development administrator. There is a lot more to do than widen Interstate 75.

* * *

Two of those corridors connect to Tampa — one runs from here to Jacksonville and one from here to the Space Coast.

As the state’s economy bounces back with new businesses in manufacturing, biomedical research, aerospace initiatives, technology and more, it must have a transportation system to accommodate the growth, Wood said.

FDOT is heading up an initiative to address growth, planning transportation corridors that span dozens of counties and tens of thousands of acres. It’s called Florida’s Future Corridor Initiative. 

There is a certain logic to this, depending on what is done.

The Tampa to Northeast Florida corridor is one of the first being addressed, and by fall, it will be making news, Wood said. “We’re about to mobilize this summer in a very big way.” A steering committee will be named and planning will begin at the local level, he said.

The corridor initiative is all about developing this state into a global business hub and supporting those who choose to make Florida their home for either business or retirement, Wood said.

We do not know about that last part – especially for roads in the middle of nowhere, like the Ft. Myers to Polk Parkway idea.  On the other hand, fixing up 301 or building a parallel road so that there is a limited access road from Tampa to Jacksonville and points north is long overdue. (Initiative page on that corridor here )

Already, the initiative is getting major pushback from environmentalists, who say the corridor plan is nothing more than an excuse for sprawl that will chew up the state’s rural areas and wild lands.

They say the focus should not be on filling in open spaces in the rural areas, but in modernizing existing urban centers with smart growth plans.

That is also true for some of the ideas – like the aforementioned freeway from Ft. Myers to Polk County.

We have no problem with some of the corridor ideas – like bringing the Tampa-Jax connection into the 20th century.  It would also be nice if the state would try to enter the 21st century with a high speed rail network.  But some of the other roads are just going to create a sprawling mess.

We cannot say the idea of looking at these things is bad.  It isn’t.  However, the state should spend money building roads and modern connections that need to be built right now.  The other stuff can wait until there is actually someone other than a developer that wants it.  And any tolls should be flat rate for everyone.

Channel District/USF – Destination Unknown

The legislature’s issues regarding the budget may cause an issue for the moving of the USF Med School.

The USF projects have broad bipartisan support in Tallahassee but must compete with scores of other projects all over the state.

At issue is whether to raise more cash for those projects by borrowing money on the bond market. The House of Representatives likes the idea. Top Senate officials and Gov. Rick Scott oppose it.

With bond money, presumably there could be enough to go around for the USF projects. Without it, don’t count on the full amount.

“If we don’t do bonding, I just can’t see them giving that much money to the University of South Florida,” said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

In Tampa, USF seeks $17 million for the Morsani College of Medicine building and $15.75 million for its USF Health Heart Institute. Plans call for building both on land donated by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik at his billion-dollar downtown development near Amalie Arena.

At USF St. Petersburg, the request is for $12.3 million to complete the construction of a 68,000-square-foot building for the Kate Tiedemann College of Business.

But what either project gets must wait on an answer to a bigger question of fiscal policy.

On Wednesday, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, told reporters he and the House had an agreement that they would not approve any more bonding or financing with borrowed money in the special session.

* * *

Not so, countered House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Basically, the situation is such a mess that, even with all the lobbying by local elected officials, business, and the legislative delegation, we are just going to wait and see.

Channel District/Ybor City – Please Restrain You Enthusiasm

There was an article in the Tribune about the very large, proposed GasWorx project on the old Peoples Gas lot.

Luring development into vacant or rundown areas has been a go-to strategy for the administration of Mayor Bob Buckhorn, with projects such as the Ulele Restaurant at the Water Works Building and Le Meridien Hotel in the historic Federal Courthouse.

* * *

The proposal has been greeted by Ybor Chamber of Commerce leaders and other local developers as a potential boon for the area, bringing needed foot traffic to Ybor City and possibly signaling the start of urban infill work between Ybor and Channelside. 

Indeed.  It could help transform the area and actually connect the Channel District to Ybor, which has long been a goal of many.  When first announced, this was the reaction:

Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Friday that he hasn’t been briefed on the project in detail, but welcomed the proposal. “I think potentially it would take an underutilized piece of property and add some value to it, add some density to it,” he said. “It’s a former industrial site, (providing) great linkage between Ybor and downtown.”

Good comment.  But then there was this:

But city officials are more cautious about a proposed development in the rundown area between Channelside and Ybor City. Local firm Phillips Development recently filed plans to build two residential towers and a grocery store there, on the old TECO People’s Gas site at the north end of Channelside Drive.

* * *

But the scale of the project – some 1.7 million square-feet of development – has city economic leaders adopting a wait and see approach.

“It’s untested in geographic location and much larger than anything adjacent to it,” said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa administrator of economic opportunity. “This is a very ambitious project for this location.”

Huh? For a City that hypes even the smallest development, that is quite the odd approach.  Why would the City care if the urban core has extensive development? And why should the area connecting Ybor to downtown and the Channel District be industrial anyway?  Is that what the City really wants right along the streetcar route?  What kind of planning is that? How many riders is that going to generate?  There is other land in the area that can be industrial.  We thought the City wanted residents in the urban core.

The area between Ybor and Channelside has also been touted as a possible venue for a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays with most attention on the 21-acre site of Tampa Park Apartments, a low-income housing project on Nuccio Parkway.

Still, turning the area into an urban walkable community would be an abrupt personality change.

In addition to the Selmon Expressway, there is the TECO Streetcar line and a CSX railroad to navigate. The area east of Channelside Drive and north of Adamo Drive is dotted with industrial land and warehouses, some of which are tied economically to the nearby Port of Tampa. 

So? There is also housing about two blocks away in Ybor and two blocks to the south. (See map here)

The city has no long-term plans to rezone the area for residential, McDonaugh said.

“It’s valuable to have warehouses to support a port,” McDonaugh said. “Not all of it can be done on port authority land.”

Sure, but there is port land that is being master planned for non-industrial use right now in the Channel District.  Moreover, as we said, there are townhouses two blocks from the site.  Just because there are some warehouses does not mean the City should not support the project.  If the developers cannot get it done, so be it.  But why the reaction from the City – especially the director of economic opportunity?  Isn’t such a potential project an economic opportunity?  If the City really wants to be a city, it should welcome such proposal (assuming all the details stack up) and work to help them get done, especially along the streetcar line.

As we said, for a City that hypes almost everything, it is a very strange reaction.  We leave it to you to decide the cause.

West Tampa – North Boulevard Homes

There was an update in the Times regarding the North Boulevard Homes project.

With demolition expected to start in late 2016, the first resident has moved out of North Boulevard Homes, with about 2,000 more to follow over the next 18 months.

But for the moment, City Hall and Tampa Housing Authority officials have decided this isn’t the time to seek a $30 million federal grant to help pay for the sweeping redevelopment of the area around Tampa’s oldest public housing complex.

That is odd.  There was supposedly a great plan (we think it is ok but could be fixed. See “Master Planning – Something in the West River” ).  What is the issue?

“We didn’t feel we were in a position to be competitive yet,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. “We needed to be more shovel-ready.”

Applications for this year’s round of federal Choice Neighborhood grants were due in February. One reason local officials decided to take more time was that McCormack Baron Salazar, the St. Louis-based urban planning firm hired to create a master plan for the West River area, had indicated it would need tens of millions of dollars in public subsidies to proceed as the master developer for what’s being called the West River area.

Whoops.  Now, we do not know if it is a bait and switch by the planner/developer or just a less that great choice in the first place.

“Great developer,” housing authority chief operating officer Leroy Moore said of McCormack Baron, but “their sweet spot is cities that have resources that far exceed the resources that we have here in Tampa.”

The housing authority paid McCormack Baron $350,000 to create a plan for the West River, but Buckhorn said there was no guarantee the firm was going to be the master developer.

“We got from them what we paid for, which was a great blueprint,” he said. “Our job is to go execute it.”

Setting aside that we are not sure they are a great developer, there are a number of things here.  First, fine there is now a plan.  However, why pick a planner who might be different from the developer?  What is to stop the next developer from changing everything because of “market forces,” its needs, etc?  Second, why pick a planner/developer that is known for asking for more public money than will be available?  Is that not just a recipe for delay?

In any event, what is done is done.  Now what?

To do that, the housing authority and city plan to look for other partners.

In the next 60 days, the housing authority is expected to look for different partners for different parts of the project, such as residential firms for housing and others with experience in office or commercial development for other parts, Moore said. That’s similar to what happened at Encore Tampa, the big mixed-used project being built where the old Central Park Village public housing apartments used to be. There, the Bank of America Community Development Corp. is a co-developer, and individual building projects have a dozen or more sources of financing.

* * *

The next application cycle for Choice Neighborhoods grants could open in the fall, and Buckhorn said the time until then “will give us the ability to build and to bring in more partners, just not financial partners, but social service providers and academic institutions, because a big part of this is not just rebuilding public housing, it’s the job training, the educational opportunities and the social services that are wrapped around the project.”

And, in the meantime, the public housing will be emptied.

We suppose it has been decades since redeveloping the area was first proposed so waiting a little longer is ok.  On the other hand, it has been decades since it was first proposed, so it really needs to move along.  Otherwise, demolition will be just in time for the next recession, and we will have empty lots for years.  We really hope that does not happen. (And this is just another reason to celebrate accomplishment when the actually happen rather than when they are announced.)

Economy – Housing

There was this nugget that should be kept in mind when considering home sales:

Short sales and foreclosures accounted for 23.5 percent of Tampa Bay homes sales in March, almost double the national percentage. Of the 25 largest metro areas reviewed by the data provider CoreLogic, the Orlando area had the largest share of distressed sales, 24.6 percent, followed by the Miami area at 24. 2 percent.

With many cash and investor purchases of houses plus the high number of foreclosure sales, there is a corrective to the simple numbers of sales.

List of the Week

There is much talk of booms and whatnot.  Our list this week gives a better look of where we are – Pew’s list of which metro areas have gained the most jobs since the Great Recession.   It is presented in a map which you can access on the webpage.  The information is given in both percentage growth and raw numbers of jobs, so we have made a ranking both – growth percentage first followed by raw numbers.

By percentage increase

San Jose 23.66 201,700
Austin 22.64 173,000
Nashville 19.28 144,300
Houston 17.76 448,400
San Francisco 17.62 336,600
Orlando 16.57 163,300
Dallas-Ft. Worth 16.52 447,800
Riverside (CA) 16.47 187,900
Denver 16.37 193,600
Salt Lake City 16.20 94,400
Raleigh 15.80 78,000
San Antonio 15.55 130,700
Seattle 14.49 239,000
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale 14.00 305,600
Atlanta 13.61 307,600
Portland (OR) 13.54 131,400
Las Vegas 13.37 106,700
Detroit 13.09 224,200
Tampa Bay Area 12.79 140,400
San Diego 12.76 156,400
Indianapolis 12.76 115,200
Columbus 12.72 116,000
OKC 12.38 69,300
Phoenix 12.26 206,500
Louisville 11.93 68,200
Los Angeles 11.71 612,600
Minneapolis-St. Paul 11.03 191,300
Jacksonville 10.18 58,600
Boston 10.09 161,100
Baltimore 8.98 112,200
NYC 8.56 728,900
Richmond 8.54 49,500
Cincinnati 8.33 81,500
DC 8.08 236,700
Kansas City 7.86 75,200
Chicago 7.80 329,900
Cleveland 6.09 60,100
Pittsburgh 5.81 64,400

 

By number of jobs

NYC 8.56 728,900
Los Angeles 11.71 612,600
Houston 17.76 448,400
Dallas-Ft. Worth 16.52 447,800
San Francisco 17.62 336,600
Chicago 7.80 329,900
Atlanta 13.61 307,600
Miami-Ft. Lauderdale 14.00 305,600
Seattle 14.49 239,000
DC 8.08 236,700
Detroit 13.09 224,200
Phoenix 12.26 206,500
San Jose 23.66 201,700
Denver 16.37 193,600
Minneapolis-St. Paul 11.03 191,300
Riverside (CA) 16.47 187,900
Austin 22.64 173,000
Orlando 16.57 163,300
Boston 10.09 161,100
San Diego 12.76 156,400
Nashville 19.28 144,300
Tampa Bay Area 12.79 140,400
Portland (OR) 13.54 131,400
San Antonio 15.55 130,700
Columbus 12.72 116,000
Indianapolis 12.76 115,200
Baltimore 8.98 112,200
Las Vegas 13.37 106,700
Salt Lake City 16.20 94,400
Cincinnati 8.33 81,500
Raleigh 15.80 78,000
Kansas City 7.86 75,200
OKC 12.38 69,300
Louisville 11.93 68,200
Pittsburgh 5.81 64,400
Cleveland 6.09 60,100
Jacksonville 10.18 58,600
Richmond 8.54 49,500

The first thing to notice is that growth has been ok, but not really a boom relative to other areas.  We are in the middle (if not slightly lower half) on both lists.  The second thing to note is that there is no accounting for the quality of the jobs and their incomes.  So we are doing ok, but not great.

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