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Roundup 6-17-2016

June 17, 2016

The amazingly horrible week that our neighbors down I-4 had this week definitely took some of our attention, so the Roundup is a bit shorter than usual.


Transportation/Planning – Retrograde

— One Small Step Forward

Transportation – TBX, Yours to Discover

— Missing the Point

— Conclusion

Parks – An Aspect of Economic Development

Tampa Heights – Are the Heights Finally Coming?

TIA – Cargo

Transportation – An Interesting Read


Transportation/Planning – Retrograde

In what is both entirely predictable and completely shocking in its ridiculousness,

New and higher fees on developers were just approved in April, but Hillsborough County commissioners are already considering lowering them.

In other words, Commissioners, having failed to provide proper growth management for years until finally moving toward some growth management, are now running away from that again.  Let’s review:

The new mobility fees, approved unanimously April 26, will charge builders more for new construction and make developers “pay their fair share,” as several commissioners put it. The fees are even higher in rural parts of Hillsborough, where growth costs the county more to service with roads, schools, utilities and the like.

They replaced impact fees, which generated very little money for the county and actually incentivized people to build outside the urban core.

It was expected the money would one day become a steady stream of revenue to help fund transportation. Even if commissioners and voters didn’t approve a sales tax increase, at least they walked away from the debate with something in hand.

But here’s why its fate is so closely tied to Thursday’s vote: Developers have to pay significantly higher mobility fees if the county fails to pass a sales tax increase.

In one estimate, the county would collect about $250 million more from developers over the next three decades, or $8.3 million a year, if the sales tax didn’t go up versus a 20-year surcharge.

That’s because the county didn’t want to tax developers double by coupling higher fees with a higher sales tax. But without the tax, the fees will be much higher. Building a single-family home in urban Hillsborough will cost $6,368 in fees without the sales tax. Had it passed, it would have cost $4,581. A bank with a drive-in will cost $7,000 more to build now and new retail space will come with a fee of $3,400 more per 125,000 square feet.

If that was the cost of new development’s impact, then that is the cost.  Why should taxpayers pay for it?

Commissioner Sandy Murman, who helped lead both charges to kill the sales tax, first suggested days after the April vote that mobility fees may need to be changed or delayed.

On Friday, Murman said mobility fees will be reviewed alongside her proposal to allocate future growth in property and sales taxes toward transportation.

“If for some reason it’s not palatable to the development community, then we’ll go back and review these rates just to make sure they’re reasonable as they move forward,” Murman said. “Everything will be reviewed before the actual implementation dates.”

Remember: the mobility fees were unanimously approved about a month before Go Hillsborough twice killed by the exact same people.  Why exactly do they need review?  What do they know now that they did not know then?

“The mobility fee itself is not intended to be the sole source of transportation funding,” Tampa Bay Builders Association president Mark Spada told commissioners during Thursday’s public hearing while backing a sales tax surcharge. “And as such, our support of the fee remains conditioned upon additional funding sources.”

In other words, the Commissioners now know that developers are mad.

No, mobility fees are not supposed to be the only source of transportation funding (though the developers have been getting subsidized roads for years – including when a prominent local politician was the government affairs specialist for the local building association – so they have only themselves to blame if they don’t like the roads).  But mobility fees are intended to cover the impact of new development – and there is nothing wrong with that.  Just because there is not money to add much to the infrastructure or fix problems made in the past does not mean there is not impact of new development or that new development should pay for itself and not continue to be subsidized.

If this area is so desirable (see here) the fees should not be a problem.   People will still come here and pay for the privilege of doing so (as they do in other areas).  There is no reason the people living here now should have to subsidize people moving here or developers building here. (Of course, part of the big sales pitch for the area is the “low cost,” which, in this context, is a ways of saying that new development does not pay the cost of its impact and that impact is not dealt with).

As we said long ago, if the Commission wants anyone to believe that they are interested in fixing our transportation issue, the first thing they have to do it provide a means by which they do not make the problem worse in the future – and that was instituting mobility fees.  We also said that, now that Go Hillsborough is dead, the Commission has an opportunity to show it is a serious body devoted to the best interests of the area.  We are perfectly fine with identifying other funding sources than a sales tax and trying to creatively fund a real transit plan.

But we are not ok with going back to business as usual.  Not only was TED/PLC/Go Hillsborough years of mess, not only was there a waste of money, not only did the final plan look like a plan from 1990, now the County Commission wants to drag us back to 1990.

It could change, but right now, they look like . . . well, we’ll just leave the exact terms to your discretion.

— One Small Step Forward

At least there was one little bit of transportation progress this week.

Tampa Historic Streetcar, Inc. Board voted today to authorize morning commuter streetcar service pilot. Beginning in September, weekday streetcar service will start at 7 a.m. 

While it may seem obvious that the streetcar, to be useful, would serve people living around downtown, but it hasn’t.  Now they are going to try.  Good for the streetcar – and hopefully they will set it up (ticket plans and the like) and promote it for maximum ridership.  It is well past time for the streetcar to be treated and used as a means of transit rather than a tourist attraction.

Transportation – TBX, Yours to Discover

While the TBX idea has been floating around for a while, with a number of votes, a number of demonstrations, and the political class coming out (mostly) for it, there as actually been a surprisingly (well, not really) small amount of detailed coverage about the plan.   The Times did better last week, now that a crucial vote of the MPO is right around the corner.

First, they provided this handy map:

From the Times – click on map for article

The article is really worth reading in full (you can see it here  and another here though it will burden more than minorities), but we’ll highlight a few things.

First, what will “express lanes” (more properly called “variable rate toll lanes”) cost to use?

FDOT wouldn’t give the Times an estimate but the master plan says it could range from 15 cents to $2 per mile. Different road segments could cost different amounts, but at peak times it could cost $30 to cross the Howard Frankland and get to downtown Tampa.

(And the Business Journal also now started to point out the $30 “cross the Howard Frankland to downtown Tampa” run.)

That is an absurd amount, period – especially when there are no decent transportation alternatives provided. Remember, they want to keep cars out of express lanes so the traffic in the lanes moves.  The whole point is to make it too expensive for normal people to use.

Who’s paying for it?

Money for a majority of the construction comes out of the state’s Strategic Intermodal System — a fund consisting of state and federal gas tax dollars that pay for a network of high-priority projects. The remaining 14 percent is covered by FDOT’s district dollars and the Florida Turnpike Enterprise.

So, TBX is funded by gas tax money (FDOT can’t think of any better way to use that money?).  Why not pare it back a bit and drop the express lane requirement? Especially because of this (which we have pointed out):

Where can I get on and off these lanes?

There are 33 exits along the 50-mile stretch of I-275 and I-4 where the first phase of TBX will go.

The express lanes will have only 10 access points in this same span.

Express lanes limit the number of entrances and exits to keep traffic flowing smoothly. When vehicles merge on the interstate, traffic naturally slows down.

The express lanes pretty much ignore the entire area of Tampa north of downtown (other than harming the neighborhood by widening the road even more) and south of Fletcher (will give them a little bit around Bearss).  They are literally useless for most of those people.  Same if you live near Howard or Armenia.  TBX is not meant to help you get around because 1) you can’t use the lanes from your local exit and 2) based on the experience in other areas, congestion does not go away (look at examples around the country – even the express lanes move, the other lanes do not), especially if there is no alternative means of getting around, like real transit.

State planners acknowledge picking access points based on important hubs, like Tampa International Airport, the Gateway area of Pinellas, the Westshore business district and the University of South Florida. TBX funnels traffic to these destinations.

In other words, FDOT knows that most people closer in to the city can’t use the lanes and will be stuck in congested lanes but still wants to spend billions on this project. (Oh yea, most people coming south from USF do not backtrack north to Bearss, so we have no idea what FDOT was thinking there.) As for transit,

What about more buses or rail?

The plan preserves space for express bus or rail along I-275 from Westshore to downtown Tampa to Plant City and beyond. But that transit corridor only runs east-west. It does not continue north along I-275 up to the University of South Florida. As of now, Hunt said, the plan only indicates two stops: one at a transit hub at Westshore and another in downtown Tampa.

The space to be preserved, for the most part, is already there.  TBX contributes nothing there. Not to mention, for maximum effectiveness, rail in a city should not run in the middle of the highway anyway.

The bottom line is that FDOT wants to spend $6 billion for a limited number of people who afford the lanes to go to an even more limited number of places from another limited number of places. . . . and providing no alternatives to roads.  And apparently our legislative delegation and local elected officials, for the most part, are perfectly fine with that.

We are not against widening the highways (though we think the network should actually be expanding in the north part of the area and we are opposed to just bulldozing large swathes of redeveloping neighborhoods), but TBX is so expensive, so poorly considered, and so not helpful to the average person, that there is no way we could get behind it.

— Missing the Point

This week, some business leaders also spoke, not surprisingly, in favor of TBX:

Members of the business community issued a new statement Tuesday urging local officials to vote in favor of Tampa Bay Express, a $6 billion overhaul of the area’s interstates.

The group issued its first letter of support more than a month ago when 20 prominent businesses had signed on in support. That number swelled Tuesday when an additional 60 individuals signed on, including Barney Barnett of Publix Super Markets, Bryan Glazer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tom James of Raymond James Financial, Liz Smith of Bloomin’ Brands and Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The letter urges members of Hillsborough’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, a group comprised of local politicians and prominent leaders in the community, to vote in favor of TBX at a June 22 meeting.

“Those of us who have signed this letter are highly concerned when we hear that some of you are prepared to prematurely reject TBX,” said the letter, sent to all 16 MPO members along with the state and district secretaries for the Florida Department of Transportation.

“Are you really prepared to turn away $3.3 billion in state and federal funds, and send them instead to Orlando, Jacksonville or South Florida? Are you prepared to send a message far and wide that Tampa Bay isn’t interested in fixing its dysfunctional interchanges, adding capacity or easing congestion on its highways?”

Frankly, the main points in the letter sound very much like previous “just do something to show you are doing something”  attitude, which we understand.  However, TBX will not really fix anything, though it will spend a lot of money that could be better spent.

The point is that there is nothing premature in our rejecting the TBX plan.  The express lane plan is bad.  We do not reject the money of fixing interchanges and adding capacity.  We just want to really fix the interchanges and add real capacity that is useful for most people in the area without really damaging neighborhoods that are starting to thrive.  TBX does not do that, and, as we have noted many times, there is no reason for FDOT to play the all or nothing game.

— Conclusion

The reality is that TBX is a failure on the part of the local leadership. Local officials have manifestly failed to plan properly and get together to develop a proper regional transportation plan, leaving it to FDOT.

As far as losing funds, pressure from the business community  – in unison with local officials and the media – on the legislative delegation and FDOT would go a long way to removing the threat of a loss of funds and could get FDOT to do proper, coordinated, systemic transportation planning (assuming local officials could ever get there). In fact, the business community could spearhead a real, regional transportation vision for the area and push local officials to actually develop a regional plan. (No one is pushing them now.)

It is just unfortunate that we will likely be saddled with a decade of expensive and disruptive construction that will just leave us with a very expensive, questionable plan of limited utility and which is too expensive and of no use to most people in the area (and that young talent) – and not much in the way of real transit.  It does not have to be that way.

Parks – An Aspect of Economic Development

Hillsborough County is doing a survey about what people want in parks. You can find the survey here.

You can say what you want, obviously, but we thought we’d throw in our two cents.

In our opinion, we can’t think of a single really nice Hillsborough County park.  While it has some good playing fields and basketball courts in neighborhoods and what trails there are nice, the parks are either made to look rural even in built up areas (like this) or are just very utilitarian (like this). And the trails (actual trails, not bike lanes), while ok for limited neighborhoods, do not connect much of any use and are very incomplete.  They ignore large built up areas and do not conveniently connect to any other jurisdictions trails.  We think they could do much better.

Anyway, do the survey.  Tell them what you think. (once again, it can be found here)

Tampa Heights – Are the Heights Finally Coming?

There was a big press release this week regarding the Heights project.

Four years after Soho Capital purchased the 43-acre Armature Works property, developers are ready to unveil what’s next. And it’s not the site of the next Tampa Bay Rays stadium.

Soho Capital will transform the 68,000-square-foot building into an in-house market, co-work space, two restaurants and event hall space. In addition, the Heights will begin construction this summer on the Pearl, a four-building, 314-unit apartment community with 28,500 square feet of retail space.

They have been working on Armature Works for a while now.  The bigger news was about the apartment building.  The amount of street fronting retail is impressive, see here, (though some early reports seem to indicate a lot of restaurants, which is not necessarily bad, if it can be sustained – but a new neighborhood needs more, which they will hopefully get).  Here is a rendering (you can see more if you click on the rendering):

From Loopnet – click on picture for website

And here is a wider view:

From the Times – click on picture for article

The actual design of the building is a bit hard to make out in the renderings, though it seems ok, if not super inspiring.

Long-term plans call for luxury riverfront condominiums and a 260,000-square-foot office park with at least one hotel. The project is valued at more than $820 million.

To us, more important that the specifics of one apartment building is the complete layout of whole development. Per URBN Tampa Bay, this is the site plan:

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on map for URBN Tampa Bay Facebook page

Having not had a long time to digest this plan we have some first impressions:

  • First, for the area, it has a good density.  Most of the tallest buildings are closest to the river, which, on the one hand, will block the views for everyone else, though, on the other hand, we understand they can charge more for waterfront.
  • There are a few parking garages, such as Parcels 1 and 7, that might actually be taller than the buildings around them, which is not a good look.  However, depending on what is getting built, they may not.
  • Parcel 4, which is in the middle of the site plan has a hotel and surface parking right next to the Armature Works building, which is odd and out of character for the whole area/development.
  • There are also surface parking lots in Parcels 11 & 12 at the left, but at least that is on the edge of the development (beautifying Boulevard as it transitions over the river to the “West River” redevelopment area).
  • There is one more point: the road along the river.  Yes, we get they will have a riverfront sidewalk/walkway/trail, but it seems Tampa is looking to buffer the river from roads.  It is also hard to see what activity there is in the street along the river (like shops and restaurants) In theory, it could be ok (a mini Bayshore, maybe) in the sense it opens a little access, but that is not at all clear and such a road cuts against the entire idea of a real Riverwalk with riverfront amenities.  We would have to see more to really be convinced it will work.

The bottom line is that there is a lot to recommend this plan, with some issues.  Overall, if they build a proper urban neighborhood, and it will naturally be a destination; if they focus on trying to make it a destination, it will not be a proper neighborhood.  From the quotes so far, the developers seem to be looking to build a proper neighborhood, but we shall see.

After decades of talk of redeveloping this area, it is cool to think it might actually happen soon.  We just hope it is worth the wait and is actually developed as the real, mixed-use neighborhood the site plan seems to indicate.

TIA – Cargo

There was an interesting article in the Times regarding how amazon has boosted the cargo business at the airport.

Online retail giant Amazon has opened two enormous distribution centers in the greater Tampa Bay area in the past two years. The company made same-day delivery available to much of the region and, in some cases, within one hour. From here, Amazon also coordinates deliveries to large swaths of the Southeast.

That means millions of packages are gushing out of those warehouses — one in Ruskin, the other in Lakeland — every week.

So where does all the merchandise to stock those facilities come from?

Amazon goods are flowing into Tampa International Airport daily aboard a Boeing 767 cargo freighter plane. Then it’s all shuttled away to the nearby warehouses on Amazon trucks, where the merchandise is sorted, packed and shipped to customers’ doors.

All that Amazon activity has increased the Tampa airport’s cargo activity by 20 percent so far this year compared with last year. The deal has generated more than $275,500 in revenue for the airport over the past seven months in fees and building rental payments, a number which should double by the end of the year, according to airport records. 

So, one daily 767 boosted Tampa’s air cargo by 20%.  That is a good boost, but also says a lot about how little cargo the airport handles.  We know the airport would love to have more cargo and that there are reasons other airports get more (and UPS uses St. Pete-Clearwater instead).  However, looked at in connection with the container business at the Port (and shouldn’t amazon and Walmart distribution hubs bump that up a little, too), it makes one wonder how to really boost cargo transportation from this area and what we can do to get more manufacturing, and thus more shipping, in this area.

It is good to get Millennials and tech companies (really, we are all for it), but it is also good to have actual manufacturing and transportation.  A diverse economy is a strong economy.

Transportation – An Interesting Read

A few months back, there was local news of a Federal Government contest (the Smart City Challenge) for cities to receive grants in transportation.  St. Pete proposed essentially a skyride, while Tampa when for sounding techy.  Well, the Washington Post has started highlighting some of the other cities’ ideas.  We are not even going get into those proposals, but the Post’s article highlights San Francisco, Austin, Kansas City, Columbus, Portland, Pittsburgh, and Denver (surprise), but also lists the other cities and their proposals.

You can read the Post’s coverage here.

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