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Roundup 11-13-2015

November 12, 2015

The Roundup is being posted a day early this week.


Transportation – The Wacky Hijinks of Hillsborough County

 More TBX

— FDOT Oddness

— For It Before Being Against it, Cont

— Conclusion

Built Environment – Shaping the Universities

— USF – A Step Towards a Campus

— UT/West River – More Money

Rays – We’ll See

Meanwhile, in the Rest of Florida

Port/Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

List of the Week


Transportation – The Wacky Hijinks of Hillsborough County

There was more on the continuing transportation mess in Hillsborough County.

— More TBX

There were a few more developments on TBX this week.  First, we noted this in an article on the questionable outreach on TBX:

The express lanes would be free to car poolers and transit buses. However, other motorists wanting to use the lanes would have to pay a fluctuating toll– a fee to be determined by time of day and the congestion or flow of traffic.

We like the HOV aspect, though we are not sure how that would be enforced.  Is FDOT going to be out there checking cars for the number of occupants and not charging your SunPass if there is more than one person or are they going to use what appears to be basically an honor code system like Washington state appears to use (see here and here). We would love to hear how that can be done effectively.

Regardless, URBN Tampa Bay had another interesting graphic on how much money is going into not really helping the average area resident.

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on graphic for Facebook page

That just does not seem logical to us, especially given that any growth in traffic will either be pushed into the free lanes by design or clog the express lanes, ripping off anyone using them (which, if you want to google it, you will find is not unknown).  (And this does not really make much sense to us either ) And it does not make sense to go forward with TBX without even studying all the alternatives needed to get people who express lanes push off the interstate to where they are going.

In any event, there was another public outreach meeting for TBX this week.

More than 100 people showed up Tuesday night to oppose the state’s plan for express toll lanes on local interstates, saying the project is bad urban planning and that the tolls were so high they would result in “a second mortgage payment” for families.

A vast majority of those who spoke before the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization Board adamantly oppose the Tampa Bay Express project for the toll lanes, with many accusing board members of failing to represent the people and their communities.

The board allowed more than 30 people to speak, but did not comment on their remarks. The MPO approved funding in August for the express toll lanes. The MPO board will get another chance to discuss the toll lanes in June when a final public hearing on the Transportation Improvement Plan takes place.

The MPO is supposed to represent the local population, which is hard to do when you do not allow them to speak. On the other hand, TBX is not about what locals want, and the public outreach is not about whether anyone wants TBX, to wit:

Debbie Hunt, FDOT’s director of transportation development, said the agency is holding public meetings in an attempt to find ways to lesson impacts on various communities, including Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights. She said she will come back to the MPO board in the spring – probably March or April – with a report on those public meetings.

In other words, FDOT is not interested if you want TBX, just how to do small tweaks to make opposition disappear. (Given their support for TBX, it seems this complete lack of local planning is apparently fine with the Tea Party regardless of the claim that “local is better.”)  And the MPO is likewise not that interested in your opinion.  The interesting thing is that the MPO is supposedly creating a Transportation Improvement Plan that does not seem in any way connected to the TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough process, which is about right for local planning.  Why the highway planning process is detached from everything else is still a mystery.

— FDOT Oddness

At the same time that FDOT is trying to force TBX on the Tampa Bay area (and, as explained here by URBN Tampa Bay – and we have explained before – TBX is spending a lot of money for a number of lanes that will not carry very much traffic by design forcing all the rest of the traffic onto the already inadequate lanes) it is also doing some other odd things.  Last week, we mentioned that FDOT has offered – well mentioned, though not really offered yet – to do a comprehensive transit study of the area (completely detached from TBX, apparently). Bizarrely, even if the study happens, it is not coordinated with the TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough process.

Nevertheless, FDOT is also now doing this:

With transit talk heating up throughout the Tampa Bay area, the Florida Department of Transportation said Friday it plans to submit a bid for a prime West Shore Business District parcel that could become a multimodal public transportation center.

Planners have been calling for such a center for years. In June, FDOT identified a string of parcels along Interstate 275 east of West Shore Boulevard as its recommended site. The land is home to a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and Charley’s Steak House.

FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said the department has been trying to buy the land, but the price was too steep. The property recently was acquired by the Blackstone Group, which has solicited new bids, due Tuesday.

A little more detail on this price thing:

The project, known as the Westshore Multimodal Center, gained a lot of traction in 2013. But the idea was killed earlier this year when the landowner, GE Capital, suddenly doubled the price of the land, forcing the FDOT to back off.

The land is currently home to Charley’s Steakhouse and Doubletree hotel at 4500 W Cypress St. But GE recently sold that parcel to the Blackstone Group. Property deed records show a sale went through in August for nearly $37 million.

The FDOT thinks the new owners will be more willing to play ball — and to do so at a more reasonable asking price than when GE doubled the price tag last spring.

“They advertised it,” FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said. “So we’re putting a bid on it, and the bids are due Tuesday.”

It is unlikely that the price will go down, but maybe it will.  If it was too expensive before is FDOT going to pay the new full price?  And, of course, why didn’t FDOT just pay for the land as a public purpose like they do with all sorts of homes for highway projects? And how will that tie into the streetcar extension that FDOT is to be studying? And how would that all tie into a transit system, possibly based on the CSX tracks? And, of course, why is there no plan for a transit center downtown?  You really need more than one hub for a proper system. Apparently, it will be a while before we might know:

“Everyone wants to know: How quickly can FDOT provide us with an evaluation of CSX?” asked Clearwater City Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito.

The answer wasn’t one many wanted to hear. The initial study could take 18 to 24 months, FDOT district director of transportation development Debbie Hunt said. And that’s just the beginning of the process.

Which is probably (though hopefully not) about 10 years before the County Commission will collectively have the political will to do anything about transportation.

In any event, it is an interesting development, especially with no actual plan for any transit.

Another interesting development that coincidentally is happening as opposition to TBX has emerged is this:

Pinellas County buses might soon bypass congestion by driving along the shoulder of Interstate 275, a time-saving maneuver not available to every other motorist stuck in traffic.

* * *

If approved, buses could travel along “breakdown lanes” of a specific route any time traffic dips below 35 mph.

Shoulders need to be at least 10-feet wide. That’s part of what FDOT’s study is evaluating. It also requires approval from state lawmakers for buses to use space that’s now reserved for ambulances, police cars and tow trucks.

This is already done in other places (you can read the article).  And, yes, it might speed up bus times.  It may be a small element of a broader transportation overhaul, but the real problem is that no one in Hillsborough or Pinellas has any idea what the overhaul will be other than building more roads which likely will not really relieve congestion. (see here)

Strange how all this is happening as there is now opposition to the road building program.

— For It Before Being Against it, Cont

Speaking of lacking a plan, even though the TED/PLC folks voted to move forward with a half cent plan for Hillsborough County, that does not mean it is any closer to reality with Commissioners (who are needed to put the referendum on the ballot) running away from it, like this:

As a candidate for the Hillsborough County Commission last year, Republican Al Higginbotham promised to support a sales tax for transportation projects if it was approved by a city-county board called the Policy Leadership Group.

On Thursday, the leadership group voted 8-3 to recommend that the county commission put a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax on the November 2016 ballot. Higginbotham voted against the measure.

So why the flip-flop?

More importantly, Higginbotham said he will vote against holding the referendum when the commission makes a final decision in December — an apparent flip-flop.

“I can’t see where I’m going to vote to send it forward,” Higginbotham said after the PLG meeting.

He was asked if that meant he was a no vote on the referendum.

“You can interpret it that way if you like,” he said.

The turnabout, Higginbotham said, was due to recent controversy swirling around the county’s Go Hillsborough transportation effort. Channel 10 news alleged that insider dealings played a part in the hiring of engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to lead Go Hillsborough. The allegations spurred County Administrator Mike Merrill to request an investigation by the sheriff’s office.

Higginbotham said he also was miffed when Merrill decided in August to reconsider a 1-cent tax increase after Merrill had recommended a half-cent increase to the Policy Leadership Group. Higginbotham voted in favor of the half-cent at a July PLG meeting.

Which has to be one of the weakest reasons possible – and, according to this guy in July 2015, is not true:

Some of them had been burned by a failed penny tax referendum in 2010 to fund light rail. Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who aggressively campaigned against that initiative, praised the openness and emphasis on involving the public this time around.

“It’s not a proposal cooked up in back rooms,” he said.

Maybe, maybe not, but if it was back room deal, the Commissioners had nice cushy seats there, and:

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said it will be useful to analyze the Pinellas and Polk initiatives but their election results don’t mean a course change for Hillsborough.

“We want to, obviously, at some point understand what some of the dynamics were,” Merrill said Wednesday. “But we’re a different county. We have different needs. And, frankly, we’re approaching this differently.”

Others, including County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit chairman Mike Suarez, echoed Merrill’s sentiment, adding that Hillsborough is on the right path and has learned from the failed sales tax initiatives.

And this:

Commissioner Al Higginbotham told The Tampa Tribune last week that he is working on a plan to find $80 million to $100 million for repaving and other road maintenance without raising taxes. He wouldn’t give details but said the plan might meet some resistance because it would require cutbacks to other programs.

“I feel like we can fund a lot of our concerns, especially road issues, within our means,” Higginbotham said. “We’re working on a proposal … that will make a major dent in road repair, (traffic) light synchronization and intersection improvements.”

Higginbotham said his effort to ramp up road repaving does not abrogate his promise to support the final program passed by the county’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group. Formed more than two years ago, the group consists of the seven county commissioners, the mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the HART board.

“I think it will complement (the policy group’s plan),” Higginbotham said. “I think it will take pressure off the financing solutions to fund our transportation plan.”

And it is fine to cut some fat – maybe $15 million for playing fields (or a smaller amount on cricket fields) or paying for Bass Pro Shops – as long as there is the acknowledgement that there is a bigger issue.

We could go on, but the point is made – as it was last week.  There is no reason to trust the County Commission to actually do anything about transportation or planning. (Even with this development regarding the Chairmanship of the County Commission.)  They flap in the wind.  So even if FDOT wants to build a transit center, which is not really clear.  Even if FDOT is willing to study actual transit, which is also not clear.  Nothing will happen as long as elected officials continue lack any political will to actually do anything useful. Maybe the majority can find that will, but it should not even be a question.

— Conclusion

The possible silliness in contracting is all on the County Commission, which approve the contract before running for the hills.  They are also the people who have been in the back rooms dealing with any alleged deal maker.  It is all on them.  But it also has nothing to do with whether a plan is good or bad.  The key is the plan, which is still not clear (especially as the planning process is completely disjointed) – and the right of people to actually vote about whether they are willing to tax themselves to finance that plan – which the opponents of any transportation fix want to take away from the people.  The opponents are not afraid the referendum will fail – they are afraid people will actually want to pay to improve their area and it will pass.

The County Commission is the group that did not have faith in their own understanding of the area.  They are the group that chose to hide behind consultants.  They are the ones who ultimately chose the consultants – for reasons good or ill.  They are the ones who can decide what the plan would be.  And now a number of them are the people who are afraid to let the people decide.  That lack of vision and action is the real reason TBX is being foisted on the area.

We have no idea if a referendum will pass, especially given the lack of competence on show every week and the lack of a plan to judge.  But we are not afraid of giving people a choice.  The people have the right to decide.  The County Commission should let them.  That is the ultimate public outreach. (Though FDOT and the MPO should be doing actual outreach rather than just going through the motions.) And it is the ultimate form of representation regarding taxation.  How can you be more conservative than that?

Built Environment – Shaping the Universities

— USF – A Step Towards a Campus

When originally built on a disused airbase back in the 1950’s, whoever planned USF came up with a unique design – essentially put a bunch of buildings as far away from the surrounding city as possible. Throw in the original commuter aspect of the school and the campus was certainly lacking (we won’t even get into some of the early architecture). That original design has slowly been altered, but still lingers on the campus.  This week, the latest step to making USF a more traditional campus was approved by the Board of Governors:

Marking an important step in the University of South Florida’s plans to build a transformational new housing village on campus, the Florida Board of Governors today approved plans to enter into a public-private partnership (P3), with Capstone-Harrison Street, LLC (partnership of Capstone Development Partners, LLC and Harrison Street Real Estate Capital), kicking off the estimated $133 million development that will eventually be home to more than 2,000 students.

* * *

This project will support USF’s relentless efforts to enhance student success, cultivating a culture of on-campus engagement. Studies have shown that active on-campus life has a direct impact on improving students’ academic performance, as well as helping them build stronger connections with their peers.

* * *

Located on the north portion of campus, the village will replace the current Andros housing complex, which has served more than 50,000 students since being built in the early 1960’s. It is expected to feature a combination of suite and traditional style residential beds, a health and wellness facility, an outdoor pool, a dining facility and retail spaces.

The housing project will be built in two phases and construction will meet the standards for LEED Silver certification. Phase I of the project is expected to include the demolition of four existing Andros student residential buildings, adjacent support buildings and outdoor pool. This site preparation will be followed by the construction of a new residential village with about 1,250 beds. Phase II of the project will continue with the anticipated demolition of five remaining Andros residential buildings, adjacent support buildings and construction of approximately 900 beds.

Demolition and site preparation for Phase I could begin in May 2016, with construction beginning in summer 2016. Demolition and site preparation for Phase II could begin in May 2017, with Phase II construction beginning in summer 2017.Completion is expected in June 2018.In total, the project will increase USF’s housing levels by about 1,000 beds, raising the on-campus capacity to nearly 6,500.

This is a rendering:

From the Business Journal – click on picture for article

That will not solve the issue of USF being quite detached from the surrounding area (and basically walled off from it by very wide roads), but it will definitely make campus nicer, which can only help attract and retain talent.

— UT/West River – More Money

The other major institution of higher learning in Tampa, the University of Tampa, has been working on improving its campus for a while, generally with success (though literally walling it off from Kennedy is, to us, a mistake that lessens its impact in the area.  Nevertheless, it is much better than it used to be.  And more seems to be coming:

The University of Tampa is underway in the second comprehensive capital campaign in its history.

The $150 million fundraising effort seeks to grow the university’s endowment, build new facilities and support academic programs, faculty and student scholarships.

* * *

The campaign seeks funding for many new building plans, including the construction of the new fitness center, which has already begun.

Steel is now coming out of the ground as the first of two phases for a new 60,000-square-foot, $20 million facility is well underway.

“It will be the hub of intramural and recreational activity,” Vaughn said, with more than just machines planned, including facilities related to exercise science and other advanced technologies to be revealed this summer.

An existing residence hall will be knocked down with a $55 million replacement next May. Later in the year, a series of what were temporary facilities to hold old fairground exhibits (the State Fair was held on the UT campus until 1973) will come down.

“The computer science center is where the petting zoo was,” Vaughn said.

From the Business Journal – click on picture for article

And that is all good.  It is great to have basically a downtown university that is growing and thriving.  And this is better:

The public acknowledgement of the campaign marks the transition from the silent phase in which $135 million has been raised to-date of the University’s goal of $150 million. The last campaign, which was the university’s first and began in the late 1990s and ended in 2005, totaled $84 million.

Since the last campaign, UT’s enrollment has grown by 77 percent, the academic programs have increased from 80 to 200 and UT has upped its institutional aid to students by 139 percent (from $23 million to $55 million). The university has 8,037 students from 50 states and 140 countries.

Pretty impressive.  Both UT and USF are doing a very good job of raising money and seem to have a good idea of how to improve their campuses and programs.  Now, if UT would just make the real mark on the neighborhood around it and help make it into a real college district, that would be even better.  There is still quite a bit of untapped potential.

Rays – We’ll See

With the election in St. Pete it seems that there is now a majority for a deal that allows the Rays to look in Hillsborough or Pinellas.  Probably, though nothing has happened yet.  So, aside from just mentioning that, we are not going to say anything until something actually happens.

Meanwhile, in the Rest of Florida

All Aboard Florida, which is in the process of building their rail system between Miami and Orlando, announced a new name for their service.

All Aboard Florida, the speedy new passenger-train service scheduled to begin operations between Miami and Orlando in 2017, unveiled some of its new trains Monday, and then promised an immediate upgrade — from eight inches long to about 80 feet.

“I promise you the real thing will be a lot bigger than this,” said All Aboard Florida president Michael Reininger at a press conference where the company released some details about the trains, including the tiny, brightly colored model cars and a name for the service: Brightline.

We will withhold comment about that branding, as it is not really relevant.  What is relevant is that it will not connect to Tampa, which was the subject of a WTSP item (one of the first to really focus on Tampa not being connected).

Developers are already scrambling to build around the train stations to secure millions in economic impact, but Tampa wont see a dime because the train won’t come here. Instead, Brightline will connect Miami to Orlando, with stops in West Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale.

Indeed.  And we risk being cut off from a major infrastructure system in the state, which is in no way helpful to developing this area or luring an HQ.  Connectivity is key – be it internet or physical. The item basically focuses on comments from the Mayor, which is not that odd.  But some of the comments are a bit odd.

“We are far less competitive for corporate relocations and job growth with those mobility options. And this is what the people of this community need to know. They already do. It affects their quality of life. Studies show we spend forty hours a year stuck in traffic,” said Tampa Mayor, Bob Buckhorn.

Buckhorn says Tampa could score its own rail if voters approve a half-cent initiative on the 2016 ballot. That would extend the downtown trolley and the first leg of light rail that would connect downtown to Westshore to the airport.

We understand that the Mayor wants to build something within the City – and we are good with that (assuming the details make sense), but it is really not helpful to confuse intercity rail and local rail (and we are sure the Mayor understands the difference). That happened in the high speed rail discussion, local referendums, and basically every other day.  Confusing the two creates both unrealistic expectations and allows for misleading opposition. While local rail is generally needed to full maximize the benefit of intercity rail, they are different things.  And the downside of not being connected to a statewide transportation system is not really about people commuting but about not being connected to infrastructure an opening up the area to other areas – just like expanding flights.

“Certainly the Canadians, British and German tourists like the west coast of Florida better, and I think we are well-positioned and All Aboard Florida will get that done, and start on the second leg which would be Orlando Airport to downtown Tampa,” said Buckhorn.

We are not going to speak to the tourists (though the international flight stats might be useful for any fact checking) but there is as yet no evidence that Tampa is the next leg. In fact, what little evidence there is would seem to indicate that Jacksonville is the next planned destination.  Hopefully not, but we shall see.  What is interesting is the complete lack of overt lobbying to get an extension to Tampa.

The bottom line is that we need both local rail and to be connected to any intercity rail system that gets built.

Port/Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

We have not really discussed the port in a while (except the real estate development master plan) because not that much is going on. Last week, the Economist had an interesting article on the state of the container business.  It is worth a read (see here).  One thing to point out is this:

The move towards ever bigger vessels poses a risk to ports which lack the capacity to handle them. International trade is shifting towards big, centralised hubs. And smaller ports, somewhat like smaller airports when the hub-and-spoke model for long-haul flights became dominant, are losing many of their direct connections. This has already happened at Portland on America’s west coast, which is no longer served by any regular container routes.

To avoid this fate, port authorities in some countries are now investing heavily in upgrading their infrastructure, to handle larger vessels. Recent development projects in Liverpool and London have already brought traffic back to those British ports. In a similar vein, Indonesia announced details of a $3.6 billion project to upgrade its container ports earlier this month, to ensure it does not lose routes to Singapore, the nearest big hub.

Which is interesting in light of this:

During the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, containerized cargo climbed 15 percent to 1,007,800 TEUs, which are the equivalent of a standard 20-foot container. Nearly 4.9 million cruise passengers sailed through the port in fiscal 2015, more than any other cruise port in the world.

The positive performance comes as PortMiami prepares to receive the big ships that will transit an expanded Panama Canal beginning April 2016. Some $1.3 billion has been spent to dredge and widen PortMiami’s shipping channel, complete a port tunnel to speed truck traffic, buy bigger post-Panamax cranes and build an on-port rail link. The port is now big-ship ready, but until the canal expansion is complete it can only receive bigger post-Panamax ships that come from Europe or transit the Suez Canal.

Now, we know that there is the issue of Skyway and the depth of the channel to the port in Tampa.  We know the strategy is to be a spoke in a hub and spoke system and that strategy has some service.  We know that the port is buying bigger cranes for bigger ships.  We know all that.  And that is fine.  But will it last or will the port be just a small side port on the container routes like is apparently planned for the cruise business?  How will that go as bulk cargo becomes less and less lucrative?

It is really worth a discussion, though that does not really seem to be a priority.

List of the Week

This week we sort of have a list.  The Times had a column about Wallethub’s list of best and worst small cities.

A new ranking of 1,268 smaller U.S. cities looking at 22 factors from affordability and economic health to depth of education and health services and overall quality of life finds Pensacola the highest rated city in Florida, yet still trailing 51 higher ranked places in other states.

Pensacola ranks 52nd overall but 8th in quality of life among all U.S. cities with populations between 25,000 and 100,000 surveyed by the financial analysis website WalletHub. In all, 82 Florida cities are ranked in the 1,268 city survey with Fort Pierce on Florida’s east coast rated the weakest, mainly because of its economy, struggling at No. 1,222.

Among the smaller cities in the Tampa Bay region, Valrico ranks high with the nation’s 17th best economic health, followed by up-and coming Wesley Chapel and Bradenton — all locations, it should be noted, that are close to Interstate 75. Dunedin, Pinellas Park, Largo and Riverview also ranked favorably.

First, none of the locations in Hillsborough County is actually a city (they are unincorporated areas), which makes a difference in terms of services and character.  Second, given the sprawling nature of those locations, how can anyone really decide anything about their characteristics? Just note that Valrico was 181st, Wesley Chapel was 186th, Sarasota was 197th, Bradenton was 518th, Dunedin was 576th, Pinellas Park was 579th, Riverview was 597th, and Largo was 649th.

In any event, you can check out the list.

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