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Roundup 3-18-2016

March 18, 2016


Transportation – Muddle City

— It May Not Be Great, But It’s Not Criminal

— Flippity-Flop

— Immobility Fees

— Studies of Dreams

— Bottom Line

Transportation – The PTC Strikes Back

TIA/Latin America – Cuba Stories

Port – Recycled

Economic Development – Employment, But Is It the Right Kind?

MacDill – Airfest


Transportation – Muddle City

Another week brings more of the transportation planning mess for this area.  We’ll take it in parts.

— It May Not Be Great, But It’s Not Criminal

The investigation into the selection of Parsons Brinckerhoff to do the Go Hillsborough plan found nothing criminal.

A six-month investigation into a $1.35 million consulting contract for the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative has found no criminal wrongdoing or intentional rule-breaking by county officials.

* * *

“There is no evidence of official misconduct or improper influence in the procurement and selection process of Parsons Brinckerhoff,” the county’s contractor on the Go Hillsborough initiative, Ober wrote in a 12-page summary of the investigation.

Nor, Ober said, did the investigation reveal violations of lobbying laws or Florida’s Government-in-the-Sunshine law, and no knowing violations of public records laws.

Investigators cleared Tampa public relations consultant Beth Leytham, a subcontractor for Parsons Brinckerhoff, of allegations she lobbied county officials during the Go Hillsborough procurement process. 

In other words, nothing criminal happened.  It may have been ill-advised, but it was not criminal. (Though none of that has anything to do with the substance of any referendum.)  Time to move on to the substance (it was time long ago, so no reason to delay).   It is just sad that local officials are so lacking in confidence and commitment to really stay focused on the transportation issues rather than this distraction.

In any event, the local papers promptly wrote editorials.  From the Tribune:

The controversy gave the usual naysayers plenty of ammunition to savage Go Hillsborough, and some commissioners are running scared, refusing to back the plan or proposing inadequate alternatives.

That’s unfortunate, because Go Hillsborough offers a realistic strategy to begin addressing Hillsborough’s dreadful transportation network, one that already faces $8 billion in unfunded needs and seems to deteriorate by the day.

Setting aside that the controversy was a self-inflicted wound, $8 billion is somewhere in the top level of the amount reported for the whole TBX project (somewhere between $6-9 billion).

It does not provide the mass transit funding we would have liked, but with more than 40 percent of the tax going to public transit, it would quickly provide residents far more transportation options.

Tax revenue in the city could be used to build a modern streetcar line from Tampa International Airport to downtown. Support for HART would be increased from $6 million a year to $30 million. 

First, why doesn’t it provide the mass transit funding we would like? Second, note the difference between mass transit and public transit.  Yes, it expands the bus line, which is good.  But there is no guarantee at all that the City would build a streetcar or light rail line.  And that does not even go to the problem of ever-expanding the rail to any part of the county (or even the City)? And if express buses are so important, why isn’t FDOT funding them if it has all that money for TBX?

The Tribune’s position is basically that Go Hillsborough as it is now stated is about the best you are going to get, which, given many public officials’ clear lack of interest in really fixing transportation, may be true.

The Times is a little different:

The half-cent sales tax would raise about $3.5 billion over its 30 years, but the majority of the money would be spent on roads rather than on modernizing the transit network to give commuters more options. The county has dragged its feet on committing new revenues to supplement the sales tax, which would offset the weak spending plan. And it has not moved to get ahead of the problem by addressing sprawl, leaving the county to fall further behind on transportation in the years ahead.

* * *

The commission is expected to vote April 20 on whether to put Go Hillsborough on the ballot in November. That doesn’t leave much time to strengthen a plan that is sparking little beyond a community yawn. This investigation got in the way because the county allowed its critics to hijack the Go Hillsborough discussion. Its tepid proposal does the same thing by failing to make major investments in mass transit and fundamentally changing how the region moves goods and people. The state attorney and the sheriff have made a contribution by ratifying the process and clearing those involved of any wrongdoing. The big question is whether the county will address the major flaw that’s been there all along — the lack of ambition that has made Go Hillsborough less a transit plan than a political document.

Exactly.  As we have noted before, Go Hillsborough can still be made better (if not great) with a few tweaks. (See “Transportation – Making Hillsborough Go Better”)  The biggest impediment to doing so is the lack of political will among officials to really develop the plan.  If we are going to have a plan, it may as well be comprehensive.

Frankly, we go back and forth on this issue.  Sometimes, we decide that local officials are just incapable of doing any better, so we might as well support it.  On the other hand, it really is just not that hard to do better, so we should do better.  We do not really want to settle (which is different form making some compromises so various issues in various areas are addressed, which is fine.)  The problem is that local officials simply do not seem to have their heart in getting this done.  (And FDOT is going to spend a huge chunk on some express lanes that will not solve any problems rather than coordinate with local officials.  On the other hand, who is there to coordinate with?)

— Flippity-Flop

Speaking of political will and interest in actually fixing transportation, we give you the Commissioners who cannot even get behind their own process.

Three Hillsborough County commissioners still support a half-cent sales tax hike for transportation. Three are against it. And Commissioner Victor Crist, the swing vote who will likely decide whether it goes to voters on the November ballot, is still on the fence.

“I really would like to move this forward. I really would,” Crist said. “But I have to get comfortable with it and I’m not comfortable.”

Really?  Then tell us what are the improvements you want?  What is your plan?  This has gone on for years.  Surely, you have a plan.

And this:

Murman is standing by her own proposal — which she unexpectedly dropped in November just before a key transportation vote. It’s a mix of new revenue streams that includes a gas tax increase, contingency reserves and BP oil spill money.

She said people are “fed up with the establishment” and won’t vote to raise the sales tax. But her fellow commissioners have other plans for the BP money.

Her plan was DOA.  And this from the former State Senator who suggested the outsourcing to create the plan. (See “Transportation – A Surfeit of Plans”)

And this from a Commissioner who was opposed before he was for before he was opposed again:

“The report has not swayed my position,” Higginbotham said.

Plainly.  (See “Transportation – The Wacky Hijinks of Hillsborough County”)

And even this:

Even the three commissioners in favor of the half cent sales tax option are now divided on how long it should last.

The scary thing is that a clear majority of the Commission is from the same party and they still can’t do anything useful, but they can agree to hand out money to sprawling development.  That says a lot.

— Immobility Fees

Speaking of going on for years with little or nothing happening, a major component of Go Hillsborough is getting proper planning and paying for new burdens on the transportation system, namely mobility fees.  Well. . .

Hillsborough County government is still struggling with how to implement mobility fees, a new way of charging developers for the additional traffic generated by their building projects.

County Administrator Mike Merrill told commissioners Wednesday that mobility fees will significantly increase the amount of money that developers pay over the current proportionate share system. For example, an averaged-sized, single-family home that now costs the builder between $770 and $1,950 in fees would increase to from $6,442 to $9,295.

The fees will also increase costs to developers for multi-family housing, commercial and industrial developments.

But the county won’t reap the full bounty from the new system for five to 10 years because of credits given years ago for roads and other work done by developers that must be honored, Merrill said. Those credits come to between $90 million and $100 million.

In other words, the County messed up to the tune of $90-100 million by failing to have a proper impact/mobility fee system.  Therefore, even if they changed to mobility fees today, the County is in a hole.

Also, builders with development agreements that were granted under previous impact fee provisions will be “grandfathered” and not made to pay mobility fees for a certain time. County administrators suggested the agreements be grandfathered for seven years, but some want to hear from developers and citizen groups before making a final decision.

Merrill said businessmen who have gotten bank loans for large developments under certain financial arrangements should not be forced to start over.

“The point we’re trying to make is it’s a fairness issue,” Merrill said of the grandfathering provisions. 

Indeed.  It is far fairer to make the taxpayer pay for the transportation infrastructure requirements created by these developments.

Actually, we get the idea that there is a problem with changing rules on people who have taken loans based on a previous understanding.  We are sympathetic to that.  On the other hand, for how long will the taxpayer bear the burden for the permissiveness of the County Commission?  Someone is going to pay – is it fairer to put it on the taxpayer that gets basically nothing from the development or the developer?

One way to reduce the credits would be through what Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Wise called a “Dutch auction.” The auction would allow developers who want to sell their credits to bid a certain percentage of the value of the credits and the county would choose the lowest bidders.

“Those that bid the lowest amount, they would get done faster,” Wise said.

County leaders have acknowledged that for decades developers paid a fraction of the real cost of transportation impacts cause by their projects. Impact fees, which were supposed to cover the impact of new development on nearby roads and intersections, were first imposed in 1985 and were never increased after 1989.

Consequently, Hillsborough entered the 21st century with some of the lowest impact fees in the state, one of the reasons for the county’s sprawling development and clogged roads.

When they say the “county would choose the lowest bidders,” they mean the taxpayer would be buying back credits.  We are not sure the incentive for a developer to sell credits unless 1) they are not going to use them or 2) the prices are higher than any mobility fee they would have to pay.  Otherwise, what is the point?

And even if we get mobility fees, if the County continues to plan poorly and fails to really work to build proper transportation (in other words, if it keeps on keepin’ on), how much difference will it make, especially if everything is completely uncoordinated?

— Studies of Dreams

Which brings us to a funny (we think it is funny) article in the Tribune about creating seamless transportation.

One day, commuters might be able to take a bus to downtown Tampa, hop on a modern streetcar at mid-morning to meet with a client, then catch an express bus headed toward the airport.

Stopping at a new intermodal station along Interstate 275, they could catch the people-mover train to Tampa International Airport to make an afternoon flight.

All of this may arise from a series of separate studies on transportation options for the region that eventually will morph into a seamless people-moving system, officials say.

Yea, they might.  But we would be willing to bet there are a whole bunch of articles with similar images of the future going back decades.

The different studies cover different forms of transportation meant to ease the burden commuters bear each time they get in their cars to drive.

Because, no matter what, it is all about driving.

The most comprehensive among them is called a Premium Transit Study, the same kind of study the Orlando area had to conduct before it received funding for its SunRail commuter train. This region’s study began last fall after CSX announced it might be willing to sell 96 miles of track for commuter rail use.

Headed up by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, the study will determine how to connect Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties through various forms of public transit.

The scope of work for the study is now being determined, after which a consultant will be hired, said HART CEO Katharine Eagan.

In other words, the study has not really started, even though Go Hillsborough is reaching its denouement. And wouldn’t the availability of the CSX tracks alter anything in the Go Hillsborough plan and how money should be spent?  And if more money is needed, where will it come from? It stands to reason that the transit study will have some bearing on actual spending – but no one knows what it will say.

Another transit connection that could change local travel dramatically is the TECO Line Street Car System running between Channelside and Ybor City.

The city of Tampa’s Transportation and Stormwater Services Department is preparing to award a grant to study modernizing the street car to make it more of a commuter-friendly form of transportation. A $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation will pay for most of the $1.25 million study.

Public input will be part of the study, said Jean Duncan, director of Transportation and Stormwater Services.

Why isn’t that in the premium transit study? Shouldn’t they be considered together?  And does the study go all the way to the airport or just Tampa Heights?

Another study under way by Hillsborough County is funded by a $475,000 Federal Highway Administration grant and will determine the best locations for Bay ferry terminals to take MacDill Air Force Base employees from southern Hillsborough County to the base.

“We’re looking at the best place for the terminals, the best routes, the best time to construct and what environmental issues exist, like contamination, endangered species or vegetation” that might be destroyed, said Hillsborough County Public Works Director Mike Williams.

“We can’t predetermine where the site would be,” he said, because, again, federal rules don’t allow that. “You’ve got to go in with an open mind and look at various options, even though there is a finite number of sites on the water that will work.”

Local funding to launch a ferry is tied to the county’s Go Hillsborough initiative, which could include a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for road and transit improvements.

At least this funding is in Go Hillsborough, where it should stay.  You want a ferry, others should get things they want.

And where is the TBX study?  There is none.  Why study where new highway lanes should really go or if they make sense?  It is only going to be billions of dollars.  Apparently the state thinks TBX is good enough to pay with state money.  They won’t pay for transit.  They won’t even pay the full cost for express buses on TBX.

What this really points out is how uncoordinated everything really is – which may explain why this area is so poorly planned and transportation never gets fixed.  It is a mass of differing agendas and partial plans with little to nothing tying them together except an intrepid Tribune reporter trying to make it seem different.  Sadly, this has been going on for decades.

— Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there are a lot of studies and mental pictures.  In fact, there are people who can really see what the problems are and how great the potential is.  What there does not seem to be is real political will to create a comprehensive, coordinated plan to create real alternatives and really fix planning.  And after years of TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough, that still seems to be the case.  Until we have that, we will stay pretty much where we are today, except for maybe a few express lanes that really will not help and some studies sitting on a shelf with the multitude of studies that have come before – gathering dust (and maybe a slightly expanded streetcar).  And our competition will keep moving forward, and a good portion of our best young talent will keep moving away.

Remember this from last week:

The companies had varying levels of awareness of the Tampa market, he said, but many executives asked two specific questions.

  1. What incentives are available in Tampa to support a possible relocation?

  2. What is the quality of mass transit in the region? 

Do any of the people contributing to this mess really care about that?  If so, what are they going to do about it?

The litany of stories we reference above show what a bigger mess has been made of our existing transportation mess.  It will be expensive (in cash and political capital) to actually change things and do things right, but can we really afford not to?

Transportation – The PTC Strikes Back

After many months of waiting for the legislature to save them from the mess they have made over ridesharing, the PTC is back to its pandering ways.

Drivers for popular app-based ride-hailing companies could be charged as much as $900 for operating illegally in Hillsborough County, following the Legislature’s failure to pass a statewide framework for legalizing and regulating the industry.

The Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission has decided to start ticketing drivers again and revive its lawsuit against Uber, which is parked idle in the Second District Court of Appeal.

“We had given the Legislature the chance to come up with a different plan and they did absolutely nothing,” David Pogorilich, vice chair of the PTC and a Temple Terrace council member, said Monday. “Because of that, we are forced to enforce them with the only tools we have.”

Actually, they are not forced to do anything.  It is all their choice.

The PTC spent the last few years trying to regulate the emerging ride-sharing industry, suing the companies and ticketing Uber for aiding and abetting drivers to operate illegally in the county. The board agreed to suspend its enforcement activities and lawsuit pending the outcome of legislation that would have provided statewide rules on insurance, background checks and vehicle inspections.

When the Legislature looked as though it was going to end its 60-day session Friday without passing a ride-sharing law, the Hillsborough County PTC took action Wednesday to create its own path to legalizing ride-share companies.

The PTC’s enforcement actions are a “prime example of the government ignoring the demands of the people,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who has unsuccessfully introduced bills to eliminate the PTC. “It is clear that the public demands these services and the government regulators at the PTC should step out of the way.”

Exactly.  Everyone knows that people like ridesharing.  Apparently, Lyft is negotiating with the PTC.  Uber is apparently not as interested.  So be it.

Crist wanted the board to shift the responsibility of regulating ride-share companies to the County Commission. The advantages were that an ordinance could be approved quickly, changed as needed, and be enforced by the county sheriff.

The board also weighed the option of entering into a mediated settlement agreement, but such an agreement would not be binding. Instead, the board opted unanimously to convene a subcommittee to come up with new rules to propose to the board for review and adoption.

It could take up to three years to adopt new rules because the PTC is subject to the Florida Administrative Procedures Act. For example, the PTC approved a new rule that would allow cab drivers to use a smart phone or tablet instead of a meter, but Uber filed an appeal, tying up the rule for a year, PTC Executive Director Kyle Cockream said.

A three-person subcommittee made up of Crist, Pogorilich, and Tampa Council member Guido Maniscalco will convene to write the new rules.

Now, that’s innovation.  (If they are going to regulate ridesharing, why don’t they just adopt the requirements in the House bill?) What would you expect from an organization made up of local elected officials? Surely not good planning and proper transportation.

TIA/Latin America – Cuba Stories

As Tampa tries to get commercial flights to Cuba, there have been a few developments.  First, the US has loosened the requirements to travel there.  Also, there is a continuing push by local businesses and some local officials.

The H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute has been exploring partnerships with counterparts in Cuba, including an institute known for developing a promising vaccine for lung cancer.

Moffitt is still determining its next steps but expects it will continue traveling to the island nation while hosting visitors from Cuba’s medical community, all with an eye toward collaborations in cancer treatment and prevention, as well as in education and research and hospital administration and operation.

The effort is detailed in a letter by Moffitt CEO Alan List to the U.S. Department of Transportation as part of a campaign to bring Tampa some of the limited commercial Havana flights expected to begin later this year.

In all, at least 20 letters from local businesses and civic organizations in support of these flights were submitted to the transportation department Monday during the public comments phase of its application process for distributing routes to Cuba.

Comments from Tampa amounted to nearly a third of all the input from around the U.S., by far the most from any city in the running for the flights.

Which, along with the airport petition, may be having some effect.

“What has struck me about Tampa is the people have been very enthusiastic,” said Matthew Borman, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of export administration, speaking in Tampa on Monday during a briefing he gave on trade with Cuba. More than three dozen local business and civic leaders attended.

As the Tribune editorial pointed out, we definitely deserve it.

Beyond having the nation’s third-largest Cuban population in the United States, Tampa also has strong historical links to Cuba, which includes the cigar industry, the cattle trade and providing sanctuary and support for freedom fighter Jose Marti.

Although you won’t find sympathy for the Castros’ communist regime in the region, resistance to renewed Cuban relations is not nearly as fierce as it is in South Florida.

Most area residents understand that increased travel and communication are more likely to lead to greater freedom and prosperity in Cuba than continuing isolationist policies that have achieved little.

Awarding Tampa commercial flights to Havana should be an easy call. A strong customer base already exists. And as airport officials demonstrated last week, they know how to pull out all the stops in developing new business.

We shall have to see what happens.

Port – Recycled

A proposed oil recycling plant at the Port may be closer to being finished.

NexLube Tampa LLC spent $100 million to build a facility to clean up used oil on Pendola Point before work was suddenly suspended in November 2013. The company said the cost of finishing construction had doubled, but that it wasn’t giving up on the project just yet.

Now, the facility could be up and running by the middle of 2018, port documents show.

The plant is intended to re-refine oil to make 24 million gallons a year of products such as lubricants and diesel, port documents say. Before construction stopped, the company had mostly finished the infrastructure of the facility, including a 56,000-square-foot factory, 20,000-square-foot office building and 30 storage tanks.

To help pay for the rest of the work, NexLube has reached a deal with the German oil processor Puralube for a joint venture to run the factory. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed, but they are expected to close on the deal by the end of May.

And that is good, if not exciting.  While it is not really a priority project in our eyes, the more business the better.

Interestingly, in a Tribune article on the oil recycling, there was this odd little note:

In other action Tuesday, the board also extended the time Port Logistics Tampa Bay has to procure financing for a separate port project — a refrigerated warehouse that would store fresh fruits, vegetables, plants and flowers shipped from South America and elsewhere.

This project has been promoted quite a bit by the Port, like this:

Adding a refrigerated warehouse to the port’s offerings could actually be a game changer for Port Tampa Bay, said Raul Alfonso, port executive vice president and chief commercial officer. Right now, the port has no facilities for refrigerating goods and most fresh products bypass Florida altogether. They are shipped to more northern ports, then trucked back to this state.

(Just a reminder, beware any quote involving the term “game changer.”) It would be interesting to know what the hold-up is.

Economic Development – Employment, But Is It the Right Kind?

There was news this week about employment.

The January unemployment rate in the Tampa metro area dropped to 4.8 percent, a full percentage point lower than it was a year ago and below the national rate.

Statewide, the unemployment rate dropped from 5.1 to 5 percent over the year, an eight-year low, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reported Monday.

Florida leads the nation in job growth, just ahead of Texas, according to new federal jobless reports.

Which is good news.  However, it ties in with a coincidentally published article in the Economist about certain American cities growing with high paying jobs leaving the others behind.  We are not going to quote it at length (you can read it here), but this caught our eye:

Cities have long been the most productive places to do business, because they bring firms, customers and workers closer together. A banker in New York is only a taxi ride away from her clients; a new restaurant there immediately has 8.4m potential customers on its doorstep. Where clever people congregate, innovation results.

For the most successful cities, these advantages seem to be getting bigger. In 2001 the richest 50 cities and their surroundings produced 27% more per head than America as a whole. Today’s richest cities make 34% more. Measured by total GDP, the decoupling is greater still, because prosperous cities are sucking in disproportionate numbers of urbanising Americans. Between 2010 and 2014 America’s population grew by 3.1%; its cities, by 3.7%. But the 50 richest cities swelled by 9.2%.

* * *

Unlike much of America, the area has not shied away from infrastructure investment. Raleigh-Durham airport has been renovated with a helping hand from local businesses. The roads are well maintained, if a little crowded. Bill Bell, the city’s mayor, hopes to develop a light-rail system for the city; in 2011 voters approved a sales-tax increase to help pay for it.

Take note elected officials.  And regarding job growth, this is equally important:

This bears directly on the inequality which matters most: that in wages. Two recent studies suggest that most of the increase in inequality over the past four decades is explained by wage gaps between firms rather than within them. A secretary will probably earn more working for Goldman Sachs than working for the local plumber; it is more lucrative to be a programmer at Facebook than in a corporate back-office. This means that bringing highly skilled workers to an area is not enough to guarantee high wages; the right firms must come to town, too.

Jobs are good, but good jobs are exponentially better.  It is nice to get any jobs, but back office or customer support jobs are not going to get us to the next level.  And to get the good jobs (whether imported or home grown), you have to have the right environment, which involves an urban living and amenities and good infrastructure, including proper transit.  You have to attract the highly skilled workers and the jobs.  And that takes investment.

You can run from the facts, but you cannot hide. (See per capita gross metropolitan product, “Economy/Economic Development – Where Are We Really?”) There is a reason that we are not usual suspects on all those lists.  Namely, because, while we are better, we are not there, yet, and far too much of this area, including political leadership, is still pursuing sprawl, settling, hype, and band-aids.  And others are not resting on their laurels.

MacDill – Airfest

On a lighter note, this weekend is the air show at MacDill.  Go here for information.  It is always a great event.

From the Thunderbird website – click on picture for website

One Comment leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Belcher permalink
    March 18, 2016 1:02 PM

    It is no surprise that Ober did a white wash. He ignored the e-mail between Leytham and Merrill where Leytham laid out exactly how to go about selecting Parson, etal. Of course, Leytham did not name Parson. This was a conspiracy not a smoking gun in the hands of the culprit. How do you explain the $80,000 paid to Herb Marlowe that was supposed to determine what the citizens wanted. Isn’t that what Hillsborough paid to Parsons but at a much higher rate. As far as the only opponents are Tea Partyers, come out to east Hillsborough. The tax is DOA. There is no way we will vote for the tax with the BOCC made up of the same commissioners who paid for a road for Bass Pro, a private road for Idlewild Church, 2.5 million for a “hurricane shelter/community building” that is neither. Building a gas station on wetlands. And how about Newland Properties of Fishhawk who was not required to pay for its development fees that they were legally required to do so. Is it really surprising that Beth Leytham was the public relations person for Newland.

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