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Roundup 6-24-2016

June 24, 2016


Transportation – What Did You Expect?

Transportation – That Other Toll Road

Economic Development – Seeking the Youth Fountain

Downtown – Encore Issues

Transportation – What Does Not Need to Be Subsidized

Hillsborough County – Logos by Crockett

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida


Transportation – What Did You Expect?

On Wednesday night, Thursday morning really, the MPO did what the MPO does (here is the board):

The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization voted 12 to 4 shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday morning to keep the divisive $6 billion road project known as TBX on track and part of its long-term funding plans.

But an incremental step for TBX amounted to a big setback for the critics, who oppose the plan to add 90 miles of tolled express lanes to the interstate system linking five counties and viewed the meeting as their chance to stop the project.

Despite mounting opposition from Central Tampa neighborhoods and groups like 1,000 Friends of Florida, the vote to approve the project came as no surprise. Only two of 16 members — Tampa City Councilman Guido Maniscalco and Hillsborough County Commissioner and MPO Chairman Les Miller — had publicly stated their intent to vote against the project before Wednesday’s public hearing.

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner and Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione were the other two dissenting votes.

We could get into all the problems with TBX – especially the scale and the variable rate toll lanes – but we have done that ad nauseam.  The reality is that we never expected the MPO to say “no.”  That is not how Tampa rolls.  We are not even going to get into the fact that those against TBX at the hearing far outnumbered those for.  As we have said, there are parts of the TBX group of projects (because that is what it really is) that are needed – the Howard Frankland, the SR60/I-275 interchange, Malfunction Junction.  But that overall the project is just a very expensive mess and runs completely counter to the idea of revitalizing Tampa (though the City administration supports it – though if you are going to do road diets without real transit, you need more capacity for closer in drivers not express lanes that are useless, but nevermind) or, even, the basic theory behind of variable rate toll lanes that are the main feature. (We have already gone over that).

We are more interested in two points.  First, many of the Chamber of Commerce speakers (and other supporters of TBX) had this point:

Bob Rohrlack, head of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, echoed similar praise for the plan.

“A no-vote is telling the Tampa International Airport [a major economic driver] we’re not going to make it easy for people to get to you,” Rohrlack said. “By voting yes, the conversation continues.”

As with Go Hillsborough, the Chamber has basically taken a “do anything, please” approach to transportation.  It would be good to have a conversation continue, but, with all due respect, what conversation?  FDOT has taken a take it or leave it position. (And we doubt there are hordes of Millennials sitting around waiting for Tampa to build variable rate toll lanes before they move here.)  That is not really a conversation – that is dictation.

And, really, any conversation about TBX should have taken place before the MPO approved it. (Maybe discuss things like HOT lanes instead of what is planned so you actual incentivize people to use the lanes rather than incentivizing people to not use the lanes  and pushing them to already overburdened surface roads, which is what variable rate lanes are designed to do, especially when there is no real alternative to roads. You know, stuff like that.) The time to work out a plan and take account of the interests of the area are before you are told what you have to do by someone else.

And, frankly, no one is saying don’t fix the SR60/I-275 interchange (which is what TIA is interested in); they are saying do that but drop some of the other overblown elements and dump the variable rate lanes.  It is FDOT that is not engaging in a conversation (and local officials, too).  And it is local officials who fail to plan in any rational way that enable it.  That is the real issue – the local failure.

Then there is the odd second point that showed up in a Business Journal article:

The MPO is set to vote whether or not to add the plan to its annual list of transportation priorities during a meeting next week. If that plan is not included in the agency’s Transportation Improvement Plan, the state funds available for a large portion of TBX would likely go to other parts of the state.

However, that doesn’t mean the region would be left with nothing. Interstate 275 at State Road 60 and the downtown “malfunction junction” interchange would still get improvements and portions of the Howard Frankland Bridge will have to be replaced no matter what. Funding sources would still have to be identified though.

That is quite vague but seems to imply that, at the end of the day, FDOT’s threats may be hollow.  (Clearly FDOT’s threat scares the MPO board and other politicians that need FDOT money.)  Because TBX is funded by gas tax, there is no reason that list of projects couldn’t be funded by the same gas taxes.  (Why shouldn’t we get our share regardless of whether we approve 4 segments or 8 segments of a plan?)  It just appears that local officials did not bother to question FDOT.  And there is no reason that money should go somewhere else except that the region has not put sufficient pressure on FDOT (like anyone can be governor – or even president – without support from this area).

If no one was going to bother to check the options before supporting a project that overall is questionable at best and will clearly damage much of the progress the area has made if fixing its urban neighborhoods, why should anyone think they will check after giving it a green light?  The short answer is that they shouldn’t.

As one speaker said, this is a 20th century plan for a place that aspires to be a 21st century city.  You could fix the interstate chokepoints and set up transit (once again, the medians in the highway are already there, TBX has nothing to do with them).  You could do all that and still have money left over from the $6 billion TBX price tag to build some real transit.  But that would take some vision and political will.

The bottom line is that when you put TBX and the total mess that was Go Hillsborough together, you get a perfect illustration of why, despite all the highly touted booms we have had over the decades, we are still behind.

It is just sad, and unnecessary.

Transportation – That Other Toll Road

Speaking of toll roads, the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce voted on the Gandy Connector this week.

The South Tampa Chamber of Commerce is putting its weight behind the Selmon Extension project that would add 1.6 miles of elevated toll roads connecting the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway to the Gandy Bridge.

The chamber group spent nine months discussing the project with the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority before taking a vote.

“We appreciate THEA’s commitment to ongoing communications with the businesses along Gandy Boulevard, as well as their plan to promote business activity during the construction phase of the project,” said Kelly Flannery, CEO of the chamber. “THEA has been communicative with us throughout the research and planning stages and it has resonated with our Board, and our members.” 

Frankly, we think that is the most reasonable position (and, in contrast to TBX, this road has been discussed, dropped, modified, discussed, dropped some more, discussed again, modified again, and now is where it is).  Getting the people who have no desire to stop on Gandy off of Gandy is good for business there.  The biggest problem with the connector is that it is only one lane in each direction.  It is not a perfect solution, but it is reasonable.

Then, the article in the Business Journal, for no apparent reason, decided to complete confuse issues:

Toll lanes are a hot topic in the Tampa Bay area right now as the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization is set to consider this week whether or not to include the Tampa Bay Express project in its list of annual priorities. The TBX plan, as it’s more commonly called, includes 91 miles of tolled express lanes.

Critics argue such lanes only benefit people who can afford to use them while supporters say it lessens road congestion by taking some cars off the non-toll roads.

So, our question is: what do variable rate toll lanes have to do with the Gandy Connector?

Maybe that is just space-filler, maybe it is supposed to provide some context.  But it completely confuses two unrelated issues.  The idea of a toll road, with normal fixed tolls, is not controversial.  The Veterans is tolled.  The Selmon is tolled (and you do not have to pay extra for the reversible, express lanes).  No one is complaining.  What people do not like is variable rate toll lanes. (The government should not intentionally price some people out of getting proper service.) That has nothing to do with the Gandy Connector.

Sadly, as we have documented (including in talking points about both TBX and Go Hillsborough and regarding rail) this complete lack of clarity is a hallmark of discussions about transportation in this area.  One thing this area does not need, especially if we are ever going to actually have a decent conversation about transportation, is more confusion and obfuscation about transportation issues. 

Economic Development – Seeking the Youth Fountain

Coincidentally with the whole TBX thing, the Hillsborough County EDC released a report on attracting Millennials this week:

Chappell, who runs her own marketing firm in Ybor City, is this year’s chair of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. On Tuesday afternoon, she hosted the unveiling of new survey findings that show Tampa Bay compared favorably in millennial appeal against the four peer metro areas.

“Tampa’s business climate, cost of living, affordability and desirability as a place to live were given the highest favorability ratings of all markets,” said the recently commissioned survey that is part of the EDC’s “Millennial Matter Project.”

Yes, this is a cheap area to live in, especially if you do not count costs of (multiple) car ownership and driving everywhere, like paying $30 to cross the Howard Frankland.

The report, which combined two surveys to compare the Tampa Bay region to four other metropolitan areas, looked at factors such as work-life balance, pro-business local and state leadership, and the local labor force and infrastructure, which the millennials surveyed said were important to them.

The other cities – Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas and Nashville – were chosen, said ChappellRoberts President and CEO Colleen Chappell, because they frequently compete against Tampa for business relocation and expansion projects.

“We’re making a very focused effort to not just talk to [millennial CEOs], but with them,” Chappell said.

She is also the 2016 chairman of the EDC.

Chappell presented the findings of the report Tuesday in front of a crowd of approximately 100 at the Beck Group in Tampa. One survey was directed at millennial CEOs, and the other was aimed toward a broader range of millennials.

We are not sure why they limited the survey to those locations and did not look at other locations, such as Austin, Denver, the other Bay area, Boston, NYC, etc. (and why not include Orlando).  Maybe we do not compete with some of those other areas because we are not competitive, but, if so, we need to learn why.  (And, while it is good they talked to regular Millennials, they should also consider asking older people who chose to leave and make their careers elsewhere – many of them were seeking what everyone says Millennials are seeking now.   The failures of economic development and talent retention in this area are not just a recent thing.)

In any event,

One survey surprise: High crime rates ranked high among millennial concerns in cities like Atlanta and Dallas. Tampa boasts the lowest crime rate of the five cities surveyed, a factor that could play well in recruiting.

So does Tampa Bay’s foodie and craft beer scene, a big factor with millennials, the survey found.

We have not seen who was surveyed and we have not seen the questions, but these two points make us wonder a little about the nature of all the questions.  Craft beer is good, but is our craft beer scene so good that masses of Millennials are going to choose the Tampa Bay area over other areas with higher salaries and just as much food culture? And we know people like the beach, but low costs and the beach have not been enough in the past to develop high wage industries – namely because low costs are often offset by low wages and people with a lot of talent can move to other places to get both amenities and higher wages.  Nevertheless, it is a start – at least potentially. (And this area has a history of producing reports touting our low cost and life style, yet we are still asking, “Why we don’t do better?”)

The survey also pointed to some area weaknesses. Of greatest concern was public transportation (or lack of it). It proved a sore point for discussion coming so soon after the recent failure by the Hillsborough County Commission to place the Go Hillsborough initiative on this fall’s ballot. The good news is Tampa Bay’s traffic, while criticized by those who must commute longer distances, would be considered mild in clogged metro areas like Atlanta.

Another concern voiced by millennials in the survey was a perception that they could not easily live and work in the same area. Chappell and Buckhorn said downtown Tampa had momentum on its side with new housing units being built by the thousands. And Jeff Vinik’s Strategic Property Partners’ plan to develop a live-work-play urban neighborhood near Channelside will appeal to many millennials – once it progresses.

Yes, transportation and planning are weak (and most of the old reports pointed to the same problems because they have not changed) – and there are few alternatives to driving.  There is no real way to hide that (nor will TBX change that).  The coverage makes it sound like this survey mirrors a 2014 survey from Transportation for America:

More than half (54%) of millennials surveyed say they would consider moving to another city if it had more and better options for getting around, and 66 percent say that access to high quality transportation is one of the top three criteria in considering deciding where to live next.

Even in a city like Nashville – a rapidly growing region with limited travel options – a strong majority of current millennial residents agree they “would prefer to live in a place where most people have transportation options so they do not need to rely only on cars” versus “a place where most people rely on cars to get around” – 54 percent “strongly” and 19 percent “somewhat” in agreement.  The trick for Nashville  and its peers will be hanging onto to those residents while attracting other talented young people. While 64 percent in Nashville say they expect to live in walkable places where they don’t necessarily need a car, only 6 percent say they currently live in such a place.

Of course, the Tampa Bay area (with – for the most part – or without Go Hillsborough) would not really provide that option, though it has gotten a bit better.

And there is another point we think needs to be made: yes, there is development downtown, but this area cannot put all its hope into the Lightning owner’s project or even on downtown.  A decade or two of growth involves tens or hundreds of thousands of people including families with kids, as well as young singles – who will eventually have families with kids.  They are not going all live downtown (or close in) in small apartments with relatively high rents, though they might want to live near where they work or be able to get around and do most things without driving.  What measures are being taken to account for them?  Where can they live and grow older but still have an urban (or at least walkable) lifestyle?  You have to transform whole neighborhoods (like Hyde Park once was transformed or Seminole Heights is being transformed – though in housing it is pretty much transformed), and you have to connect the various neighborhoods and business centers with real transit and proper streets and proper trails – that is what people want and other areas either already provide or are well on the way to providing.

The EDC survey findings are extensive. They will take time to be absorbed, debated and converted into strategies that might benefit Tampa and Hillsborough County, as well as the overall metro area. 

Good.  But the real issues are still pretty obvious – planning and transportation are bad. (Not to mention low incomes that, to a large degree, negate the low cost of living, which is great for CEOs but not so good for almost everyone else.)

We have nothing against surveys – in fact, we are all for them, provided they are done honestly and without hype.  We hope this survey was done that way and actually contains useful information.  (And we wonder if there was a great clamoring for TBX-like express lanes on the highways.)

We just go back to same question, which should be the question the EDC (and anyone thinking about economic development) always asks itself:

Even if they think nice things about you, if a person can live anywhere (or almost anywhere) they want, why would they choose to live here as opposed to another area that already have so many amenities that we are still talking about?

(Quick answer, not variable rate toll lanes even if they have express buses from far-flung suburbs) That is really the key.

Downtown – Encore Issues

This week, the Housing authority fired the general contractor at Encore.

Construction is on hold after the Tampa Housing Authority on Friday fired the Siltek Group, a general contractor based in Plantation that was managing construction of the $25.6 million building that is about 75 percent complete.

Scheduled to open in the fall, Tempo was one of the city’s signature urban renewal projects. Its completion will now be pushed back to at least early 2017. Roughly 122 units were earmarked as urgently needed housing for low-income residents with the other 81 to be rented at the market rate.

In a letter to Siltek sent June 8, the Housing Authority said the firm failed to use enough construction workers and comply with inspectors, among other issues. The project was also behind schedule and Siltek created an adversarial relationship with its subcontractors, said Housing Authority chief operating officer Leroy Moore.

“We’re getting more and more subcontractors claiming they’re not getting paid,” Moore said.

Siltek also submitted what Moore described as “ridiculous” change orders, including one for $300,000 to cover the cost of solar panels that were part of the contract Siltek signed.

There was also concern that Rene Sierra, a former vice president of Siltek, was still working on the project. According to a plea agreement filed in federal court in Miami last August, Sierra pleaded guilty to defrauding the U.S. government. The case involves several developers who were indicted for submitting inflated construction contracts for low-income housing projects in southeast Florida to obtain additional tax credits and grants.

Sierra is due to be sentenced in September. Siltek told the Tampa Housing Authority that Sierra would not be involved in the Tempo project, Moore said. But the COO said Sierra was seen three times on the Tempo site.

The Housing Authority is also planing legal action against the firm.

We are not going to comment on the facts alleged.  Frankly, we don’t know.  We do know that it is unfortunate that there are problems with building the project.  It is not our favorite design (it’s ok), but it does add a lot to that part of downtown and it should get done.  Just having unfinished buildings sitting around is not good for anyone.

The Housing Authority plans to ask DPR Construction, a general contractor that has worked on the Encore project, to conduct an on-site assessment of the project, which is estimated to take 45 to 60 days.

If the Housing Authority is satisfied with the report, DPR is likely to win the contract to complete the building, Moore said.

At least there is a contingency plan.

This does bring us back, though, to another odd decision by the Housing Authority.

The Housing Authority has parted company with a development firm before. Last year, it quietly terminated a contract with St. Louis firm McCormack Baron Salazar, the lead consultant for its signature West River development. The firm was hired in 2012 on a $350,000 contract.

Housing Authority officials decided the firm’s ideas for the 120-acre site were too suburban and not suited for the urban boom in Tampa’s downtown.

Instead, the authority agreed to pay an additional $280,000 for Miami firm Lambert Advisory to redo much of the master plan.

We don’t know how obvious the issues with the Encore contractor was, but the issues with West River consultant were obvious from the beginning. (See “West Tampa – A Cause for Concern”  from 2012)  We still have no idea why they were hired and the money wasted, in the first place.

The Housing Authority does some good things, and has over the years, but they need to make sure this kind of stuff does not become a pattern.

Transportation – What Does Not Need to Be Subsidized

There was news this week that there will be another business going in near Top Golf, which was part of the subsidized complex that included Bass Pro Shops.

The IFLY chain will open next to the Top Golf attraction on Palm River Road near the intersection of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and Interstate 75. The venture will be another big get for the Brandon area, which has enjoyed a number of big openings in the past few years, including Top Golf and a Bass Pro Shop. 

While the simulated skydiving looks interesting enough, it is hardly a “big get” or a “destination” attraction.

Prices start at $59.95 at IFLY’s Orlando facility for two flights of several minutes each. That’s the freefall equivalent of three skydives from 12,000 feet, according to the IFLY website.

That’s right, just like Bass Pro Shops, there is one of these down the road.  We are not saying we want to drive an hour away to do everything or that we in any way oppose the IFLY concept (we don’t), but it hardly is justification for spending millions that could be put to fixing the roads that really need it.  And, frankly, we think they would have built their facility in the Tampa Bay are anyway (just like Top Golf and Bass Pro).

It is just another reminder that we need a comprehensive look at how the County (and City) plans and allocates it present resources to figure out what we can reallocate and we really need (we are sure we need a decent amount, but what amount) to develop a real, coordinated transportation system and to plan properly.

Hillsborough County – Logos by Crockett

Speaking of the County allocating resources, we were driving around last week and saw a Hillsborough County hearing notice sign.  Something on it looked a bit strange.  Then we realized that it did not have the county seal/logo, which is a picture of the old County Courthouse that the County tore down and replaced with a completely bland courthouse in the name of progress.  The logo with the old courthouse, where the police station now is, looks like this:


From Wikimedia – click on picture for website

However, the sign had a new, stylized logo:

We get that aesthetics are subjective, but what appeal is there in this logo, aside from the font.  The graphic isn’t even the outline of the old courthouse – it looks more like the Sulfur Springs gazebo.

From the Tribune – click on picture for article

Moreover, the colors are more Miami Vice than anything having to do with Tampa or Hillsborough County.  And we have no idea why it was even done (and didn’t the County have more important things to do?).

Someone obviously likes it.  We think it is pretty weak (and totally unnecessary).

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

While there was (very briefly) talk of some regional approach to transportation planning recently and Orlando has actually had a regional approach, this week:

Together we stand, divided we fail.

That seemed to be the consensus among a gathering of South Florida mayors discussing transportation needs and other issues at the Greater Miami Chamber’s Goals Conference.

In order to compete with other heavyweight regions across the country for federal transportation funds, municipalities ought to work together, said several of the participants.

Weston Mayor Daniel Stermer promised to host a tri-county meeting to do just that, inviting officials from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to meet and begin identifying the barriers to transportation solutions on a regional basis.

“It’s about all of us collectively,” Mr. Stermer said.

The past practice of parochialism should be abandoned, he said. “If we don’t, we’re going to stifle ourselves.”

Look at that.  We are, once again, the area bringing up the rear.

And, remember, when you don’t plan anything, you are stuck getting what someone else plans for you.

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