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Roundup 9-2-2016

September 2, 2016


Transportation – TBX, the Presentation

— And One More Thing

Transportation – Persistently Accomplishing Nothing I, Cont Some More

—  And Yet

— Conclusion

Downtown/Channel District/Transportation – The Shuttle

West Tampa-ish – Down By the Park

TIA/Latin America – Cuba Flights

USF/Transportation – CUTR

Transit – Blame Canada


We hope everyone rode/is riding out Hermine well and stayed pretty dry.

Transportation – TBX, the Presentation

FDOT is back doing public outreach on TBX, which is not really about public input, but whatever.  I also apparently does not provide some really important information, at least if you are going to lose your house.

There’s still no update on exactly which homes and businesses will be affected by the controversial Tampa Bay Express road improvement and expansion project, more commonly known as TBX, but the Florida Department of Transportation kicked off a series of public meetings on Monday night to offer updates on the plan.

The meeting at the Robert Saunders Sr. Library in Ybor City featured a video presentation of plans to enhance the aesthetics of interstate underpasses, retention ponds and other aspects of Interstates 275 and 4. It also laid out a series of additional underpasses aimed at connecting communities long ago split when the interstate was created.

And there are a number of other meetings.  You can see the schedule in the article.  But what exactly is FDOT saying?  Well, according to their website, this is the video presentation they are giving:

You can watch it all yourself, but we wanted to highlight a few things.

Setting aside the fact that the narrator seems to be talking into a speakerphone while sitting across a long table, the first thing we want to highlight is this slide, which has three pictures.

Screenshot from FDOT YouTube video @3:43 – click on picture for bigger version

If you notice the top picture, it shows a bus (presumably an express bus) in the express lanes.  All, and we mean all, the other traffic is in a big traffic jam in the free lanes.  We are not sure that this is FDOT’s vision of how the express lane concept should work, but we would not be surprised if it was given that the entire purpose of express lanes is to price people out of using the lanes to push them into the free lanes, allowing a relatively small amount of traffic to, in theory, move.  But what about all those taxpayers stuck in the traffic jam?  It is just their choice to not pay the excessive tolls (or maybe they can’t). Declare victory and go home.

Next, the article tells us:

The presentation did address some potentially key issues in areas where residents are most concerned with the projects. Most visibly, underpass projects would widen the space beneath the interstate at key points to accommodate both traffic and pedestrian and bike traffic. It would increase lighting to provide additional safety and aesthetic appeal as well as provide potential space for public art and improve landscaping. Other underpass projects could include recreational activities like skate or dog parks.

Which you can see in this slide, which sought to explain how FDOT would reconnect neighborhoods cut by the original construction of the interstate:

Screenshot from FDOT YouTube video @4:41 – click on picture for bigger version

The first thing you notice is that the three streets listed are all in the Westshore area and, even if the interstate cut them, it had no real effect on a historic neighborhood – or really any neighborhood at all.  While we are in favor of connecting those streets, that does not really address the issues of Tampa’s urban neighborhoods.  We assume that FDOT is considering reconnecting some of the streets in the urban neighborhoods, but this update really does not say much about that.  And, if FDOT did reconnect the streets, it would involve not just building new lanes but rebuilding a significant portion of what’s there already especially adding bridges, which would be years of fun.  We are at the point that details are in order.

Moving on, FDOT then tells us that it has spent upwards of $275 million on locally on transit in recent years.

Screenshot from FDOT YouTube video @5:45 – click on picture for bigger version

The first thing you should notice is that they include $194 million for the people mover at the airport.  They are not clear, but we assume that is the Sky Connect which does not leave airport property (yet).  One day it may go to the Westshore multimodal center (though there is a question how multimodal that will be), but we do not consider that transit spending. FDOT should be funding the improvements at the airport.

That leaves $81 million. More than half of that is for the Westshore Multimodal Center land, which is also fine, but we are not completely sure what that will be or when.  Then there is a bunch of money for studies, most of which still need to be done.  That is also fine, but any highway plan should integrate the results of the studies to form a comprehensive, coordinated transportation plan.

Yes, we know that FDOT tells us to run Express buses in the express lanes but they do not pay for them.  And the medians which can be used for transit are already in the interstate (though there is nothing going north of downtown).  TBX provides nothing in that regard.

FDOT also tells us that transit really depends on local decisions (and federal money) and says we need to get our act together like Charlotte and Orlando.  There is no debate there.  Our local officials have failed.

Finally, the video tells us this plan has been in the works for 20 years.  Which gets us back to the main problems with the TBX.  Yes, there have been highway improvement plans for 20 years – because improvements were needed, and still are.  We definitely need a Howard Frankland replacement (though we do not need to lose a free lane), we need a 275/SR60 fix and a Malfunction Junction fix.  We probably need another lane on the interstate.  However, the express lane idea is a relatively recent (and poor) change.   And a 20 year plan does not address changes that have taken place over that time to the area and to attitudes.  Finally, the plan does not really address transit.

We are not against fixing the interstate (and building roads that should have been built years ago like through Pasco County or the Gandy Connector) – we are against ramming a one size fits all (namely express lanes in massive highways) approach to interstate building into our area.

— And One More Thing

The video tells us that TBX is consistent with the City’s In Vision Tampa plan which is either not true (though the Mayor supports it) or an indictment of the InVision Tampa plan.

The fact is that other areas realize that interstates may be needed but are also damaging to the urban fabric. As we have been following for a while, and URBN Tampa Bay noted this week, in Atlanta there are various moves to cover highways with public park areas – see here and here  (like Boston did.) Then there is the idea to deal with 175 that St. Pete’s planners are thinking about  – though we shall see how seriously.  The people proposing, working and building those understand that the interstates rip the urban fabric – which is why a 24 lane interstate should not be consistent with an urban redevelopment plan.  And any plan that thinks it is instantly becomes questionable.

We understand that some of those interstates are sunken rather than above the street, but that is something that has to be dealt with.  It does not change the basic point that, while highways are necessary, they also cause harm.  Before we spend billions on a very disruptive plan that does not even provide transit (just the theoretical possibility of some express buses), we need to really consider it.  There is no reason we cannot pick the good parts and leave the bad parts (24 lanes and express lanes), except that FDOT does not want us to.

But, then again, that comes back to the failures of local officials to plan properly and advocate well.  FDOT is being FDOT.  The local officials are the ones letting the area down.

Transportation – Persistently Accomplishing Nothing I, Cont Some More

There was an article in the Times about how the County’s premature and questionable plan for a countywide TIF would cut cities out of the money.

City leaders who were invited to the table to discuss how Hillsborough County should fix its gridlock are likely to walk away from the conversation empty handed.

A proposal that Hillsborough commissioners are considering to pay for transportation needs doesn’t include any guaranteed money for Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

Also left out is the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, the agency that runs the county’s bus system.

Indeed.  Left out is any plan for transit, especially because the county plan is not a plan at all, it is really just a statement about an idea about an aspirational goal that may or may not ever amount to anything.  It is not binding in any way.  Therefore, as accurately noted by the Mayor of Tampa, you can’t really bond the revenue.  Of course, that is irrelevant to the County because they are not serious about transportation.

Instead, county commissioners are weighing a new plan to dedicate one-third of any growth in property and sales taxes to transportation. If approved on Sept. 8, it would eventually raise about $800 million for road repairs and other fixes over the next decade.

As explained above, no it wouldn’t.  The entire process is just to pretend to do something.

Murman, though, acknowledged that it could be a few years before the county can afford to distribute a lot of its new transportation money. Under the proposal, the county would make 2015 a baseline year. In subsequent years, as the county population grows and home values increase, one-third of any sales and property tax revenue collected that exceeds the 2015 benchmark would be set aside for transportation.

Once again, this idea will not actually designate any money for transportation; it just says the Commission would like to do so if everything else works out.  And it provides no money for transit. It does nothing for our economic development or competitiveness.  It creates no comprehensive, coordinated, transportation system. It is really an abdication of responsibility.  It is all for appearances.  The Commission should reject it and get to work actually trying to do something useful about transportation.

—  And Yet

Amazingly, among all the silliness, the County Commissioner who proposed it actually made a decent point, but it requires some background.

None of that, though, is earmarked for HART or the three cities. However, Commissioner Sandy Murman, one of the architects of the new plan, has said city and transit authority leaders could ask the commission to help pay for a project each year when the county passes its budget.

“We’ll have some pretty healthy revenues to give to projects like the streetcar and HART,” Murman said. “I’m very supportive of helping the cities and HART as much as we can.

* * *

That strategy would produce about $17 million next year and $29 million in 2018, far short of a county maintenance backlog that runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It wouldn’t produce more than $100 million, according to projections, until 2023.

Having to ask the county for money each year presents other challenges. Katharine Eagan, chief executive officer with HART, said it would be difficult to expand operations without a guarantee the money will be there next year to fund it.

Similarly, Eagan and Buckhorn said, it’s unlikely the federal government will view those dollars as a dedicated revenue stream required to land federal grants for transit infrastructure.

Setting aside that there is no guarantee it would actually raise any money, all that is true. So what are the options?

Buckhorn said he and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will ask the Legislature for the authority to put a sales tax referendum on the ballot for city voters to decide. It won’t be an easy sell in Tallahassee, where Republicans dominate government, he said. 

Pretty much – so why the focus on that?

Meantime, Murman had another suggestion.

“The cities can do what we’re doing too,” she said. “They can take their revenues and dedicate it to transportation like we’re doing.”

Setting aside that the County hasn’t actually dedicated the money to transportation, there is nothing stopping the City from actually doing just that.  Yes, tax revenue increases are not consistent, but then neither is sales tax.  And, while we do not favor a city-only transit system (and no one has seen a real proposal for one recently, and, for whatever reason, the transit studies have not already been done), if the City is really concerned about getting revenue for a City system, why not consider it?

— Conclusion

And we say that seriously.  That does not change the fact that the County has completely failed to do its job.  It does not change that the TIF idea, especially as contemplated, is a bad idea – and a real TIF is premature without full study of all potential revenue streams and the pros and cons.  It does not change that the County shows no interest whatsoever in transit and cannot escape the 1980’s planning and economic philosophy. It does not change that we need a comprehensive, coordinated, transportation system.  It does not change that the Commission is devoted to not making this area truly competitive for high paying jobs. And it does not change that there is no actual proposal for City rail. None of that changes.  It is a complete mess that is made worse every week by the lack of political will and lack of interest on the part of local officials.  And there is no reason to think that the Commission will be suddenly seized by inspiration to actually work for a real solution to the transportation issue.

But, even if the County is not serious (and there is no sign they are), if the City is serious, it should be looking at alternative sources of funding – full or partial.

Downtown/Channel District/Transportation – The Shuttle

Years after the PTC killed a private service doing a downtown shuttle,

Downtown Tampa’s highly anticipated, complimentary shuttle service is one step closer to its launch. Tampa Downtown Partnership (TDP) has entered into an agreement with Florida-based company, The Tampa Downtowner Group, LLC as the service operator. Downtowner is a rapidly growing shuttle operator with service in South Florida, Newport Beach, CA, and Aspen, CO. The agreement comes after two years of research, planning, fundraising and the selection process of an operator.

Downtowner is an app-based, on-demand shuttle service that will operate in Downtown Tampa seven days a week, using electric vehicles that carry up to five passengers each. Hours of operation will be Monday to Friday, 6am to 11pm; Saturdays and Sundays, 11am to 11pm. The downtown service operates within Downtown Tampa’s business district, Channel District, River Arts District, the University of Tampa area, as well as the non-gated north end of Harbour Island. 

We are all for this service.  It is just that we did not have to wait seven years for it.  It was here and was killed by local officials and political interests, just to be brought back because it was a good idea in the first place.  (We wonder if the originators gets a cut of the money or if the powers-that-be just screwed them completely.)

Maybe it is a sign that Tampa is learning.  Maybe.

West Tampa-ish – Down By the Park

Per URBN Tampa Bay, the first plan amendment for land near Julian Lane Riverfront Park has been requested.

It has begun. With Julian B. Lane’s renovation moving forward, various adjacent land owners are looking to redevelop the surrounding neighborhood. On September 12th there will be a public hearing to amend Tampa’s comprehensive plan to allow higher density mixed-use development.

The Oakhurst Apartments will be amended from Residential-35 to Urban Mixed Use-60. Various lots south and west of Oakhurst are being amended from Residential-35, Residential-20 and General Mixed Use-20 to Urban Mixed Use-60 and Neighborhood Mixed Use-35. In total, there are 13.35 acres, with a development potential of 731 residential units being requested.

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on map for Facebook page

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on map for Facebook page

From our perspective there are two things here.  First, we are all in favor of having more density, mixed uses, and all that right near the park (though from the maps much of it is actually across from Tampa Prep.)  On the other hand, the request potential is 55 units per acre, which really is not very dense for the middle of the city, especially given that, he Tampa Housing Authority/Related “West River” project is about 80 units an acre with a lot of retail and office space, Altis Grand is about 125 units/acre, and the Related/Tribune site project is about 100 units per acre.  That is especially the case because this is land fronting the park, not farther back from the park where less density could be understandable.

It would certainly be better than what is there now, but it remains to be seen how much better.  Hopefully, at least the top floors will clear the tree line.

TIA/Latin America – Cuba Flights

The US government has given final approval to the daily Southwest flight from Tampa to Havana.

It’s official. Southwest Airlines’ flight to Havana from Tampa International Airport was finalized by the U.S. Department of Transportation on Wednesday.

Dallas-based Southwest (NYSE: LUV) is one of eight U.S. airlines to begin scheduled flights to Havana as early as this fall.

That is excellent.  We would like to have had more flights to more destinations, but given the airline business, even this flight was very good achievement.

“This is awesome,” said Janet Zink, assistant vice president of media and government relations. “We’re thrilled to partner with Southwest Airlines on this new scheduled flight to Havana. We have the third largest Cuban-American population in the U.S., so we’re a natural market for this service. We’re also fortunate to have a community of leaders who continue to show support for this important connection.”

Well, most anyway.  Now, the Port needs to get on the ball.

USF/Transportation – CUTR

While we haven’t heard much for a while from the USF Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), it pops up in many transportation discussions – usually telling us about how buses are so much better than rail, and the like.  This week, there was some news:

The University of South Florida has landed a big name to head its transportation research center.

Dr. Robert L. Bertini is the former U.S. Department of Transportation Administrator. He’s tapped as USF’s director for the Center for Urban Transportation Research, or CUTR.

So who is he?

Bertini comes to USF after previously serving as a faculty member at the California Polytechnic State University’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Before that he held faculty and leadership positions at Portland State Univeristy [sic].

President Barack Obama appointed Bertini in 2009 as the deputy administrator of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration for the U.S. Department of Transportation. During that time he also headed the intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office and chaired the department’s innovation council.

Bertini has received several accolades included the National Science Foundation’s CAREER Award. His research is focused on sustainable transportation solutions, traffic flow theory, intelligent transportation systems, multimodal transportation and proactive traffic management and operations. Bertini is credited with generating nearly $18 million in extrernal [sic] funding during his 20-year acandemic [sic] career.

“I’m looking forward to working with all of my new colleagues and all of our stakeholders to move CUTR to the next level of excellence in multimodal transportation research and education,” Bertini said.

Bertini has authored or co-authored more than 280 publications including journal articles, book chapters and technical reports.

Which all sounds promising, but really does not say much.  So we googled him. Way back in his career, he wrote some articles on rail transit.  More recently, he has written quite a bit about buses and “BRT” (we parenthesize the acronym because it is used so loosely – see MetroRapid). You can see a list of his articles here.  And then there is, not surprisingly, his co-authoring of a piece in this CUTR publication.

Lots of buses and roads, which is fine.  There is need for studying buses and roads.  But they are not the be all and end all for transportation, which has been, at least locally, CUTR’s profile. We are not going to prejudge him or his leadership.  It may be inspired.  Frankly, we have no idea.  However, we are not going to get too excited either.  Only time will tell.

Transit – Blame Canada

There was an interesting piece from about the problems with American transit.  The first reason it is interesting is because it points out that extensive suburbs are not really the reason transit in the US is not as good as the rest of the world.

But there’s a problem with this explanation: Canada. This is also a sprawling country, largely built for the automobile. Canadian cities’ public transit systems, however, look very different.

“Canada just has more public transit,” says transit consultant Jarrett Walker. “Compare, say, Portland to Vancouver, or Salt Lake to Edmonton, or Des Moines to Winnipeg. Culturally and economically, they’re very similar cities, but in each case the Canadian city has two to five times as much transit service per capita, so there’s correspondingly more ridership per capita.”

Pretty much.  In Canada, even small cities by US standards (because almost all are) have extensive transit even if they are similar to US cities.  It is a matter of choice of how you build the suburb and what transit you provide.  But why the difference in choices?

Although history and geography are partly to blame, there’s a deeper reason why American public transportation is so terrible. European, Asian, and Canadian cities treat it as a vital public utility. Most American policymakers — and voters — see transit as a social welfare program.

You can read the whole article for yourself, but as long as officials (and many voters) think of transit as for other people rather than potentially for themselves, they will shortchange it.  And right now it sure seems like they see themselves driving in the express lanes while everyone else is stuck in traffic with no options.

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