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Roundup 10-7-2016

October 7, 2016


Transportation – Velkominn

Transportation – TBX Is Not Set In Stone

— The Bottleneck

— Huh?

— The Editorial

— Conclusion

— One More Thing

Transportation – Of Threats and Deals

Economic Development – Where They Say We Are

West Tampa – Looking for the Money

— Meanwhile, At Encore

Rays – No Surprise

Why We Should Ask for More


We don’t usually get into such things but, before we get into the roundup, we just want to say that, as we are finalizing this, our eyes are on the east coast weather radar and our thoughts are with the people under the threat of Matthew.  Here’s hoping it works out ok. And, if it were to be our turn some day and you are told to evacuate, please listen and, as the Governor said, get out.

Transportation – Velkominn

Permit our indulgence. While there was news about TBX (which we get to next) and other things this week, there was surprise news from the airport this week.  We put it first because . . . well, this is just happy news and, while the TBX news was good, the underlying story it tells still highlights ongoing issues as a region.

From Icelandair - click on picture for website

From Icelandair – click on picture for website

Tampa International Airport is adding a fourth European flight to its growing line up: Reykjavík, Iceland.

IcelandAir will offer nonstop flights to Keflavík International Airport near Reykjavík, Iceland’s largest city and capital, twice a week to and from Tampa International Airport beginning Sept. 7, 2017. This is the Tampa airport’s fourth international flight to Europe since 2011, when current CEO Joe Lopano was hired. The IcelandAir announcement comes on the heels of the one-year anniversary of Lufthansa’s nonstop flight to and from Frankfurt at Tampa International Airport, which began last September.

IcelandAir offers flights to 39 cities in 16 countries, including 18 destinations in the United States. The new flight to Tampa will be the carrier’s second to Florida. IcelandAir also offers service to Orlando International Airport. IcelandAir is known for its stopover program, which encourages travelers from Europe or North America to “stop over” in Iceland on transatlantic flights for up to seven nights at no additional cost. The carrier’s main hub is at Keflavík International Airport, where it offers connections to dozens of destinations around the world.

Very cool, and well done airport staff. (The Times article put round-trip prices at $1200. We checked the Icelandair website for a Sept 2017 flight to Reykjavik, and the price was about half that.  We admit, it was a quick check so maybe we missed something.).

And, once again, a really nice graphic:

From Tampa International - click on picture for Twitter page

From Tampa International – click on picture for Twitter page

For those who wonder “who cares about Iceland?” this is key:

“The truth is, this is not about Iceland,” said David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, Pinellas County’s tourism agency. “This is about the connectivity Iceland has to Europe and on to Florida. IcelandAir flies into major international hubs in Europe where our largest group of international visitation comes from. This dovetails very nicely with the other air service that has come to Tampa recently.”

From Icelandair - click on map for website

From Icelandair – click on map for website

Though Iceland is a very popular tourist destination these days.

It is just another sign that there truly is opportunity if this area pursues it properly and aggressively (as opposed to the complacency of the previous administration and the complacency with which our area has approached other transportation and so many other issues).  Once again, local officials can learn many lessons from the airport.

Transportation – TBX Is Not Set In Stone

NOw, to TBX. We have long said that regardless of FDOT telling us that TBX was a take it or leave it proposition, it wasn’t, especially if local officials got together on a unified position and the legislative delegation stressed the point to FDOT.  Obviously, the legislature funds FDOT (and pays their salaries).  It has a say.

Last week, we discussed local officials’ reaction to learning (or already knowing) that the TBX plan for the Howard Frankland Bridge replacement involved turning one free lane in each direction into a tolled lane.  Not surprisingly, this news (whether already known or just learned) when made really public was met with (mostly) disbelief and annoyance (especially from legislators).  In the face of opposition, FDOT changed its mind.

The Florida Department of Transportation reversed course Monday and abandoned a controversial plan to add a toll to an existing lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge when part of it is rebuilt in 2019.

The department also canceled two public hearings on the bridge replacement scheduled for this week.

In a letter from DOT Secretary Jim Boxold to State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the state announced it would keep all four of the bridge’s lanes free for drivers.

A previous plan called for putting a toll on one of the lanes. Officials said it is considered an “auxiliary” lane that exists only to connect the on ramp in Pinellas County to the off ramp in Hillsborough, not to carry traffic across the bridge. By that reasoning, state officials said, the public was not actually losing a free lane on the main bridge connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Monday, Boxold backed down from that position.

“From the perspective of the people we serve in the Tampa region,” Boxold wrote, “the auxiliary lanes on this facility are currently travel lanes.”

That does not surprise us at all.  We have said for a while that TBX has some good things and some bad things, and, that if local officials and, especially, the legislative delegation pushed FDOT, there could be changes.  Low and behold, that seems to have happened with the bridge component (which was always absurd).

“I would like to thank the Department of Transportation for listening to the sentiment of the people of Tampa Bay who opposed having a toll lane on the Howard Frankland Bridge,” said Florida Senator Jack Latvala who recently penned a letter to the agency asking them to ax the toll lanes. “Now we must move forward and focus on solutions to make Tampa Bay transportation easier for our residents.”

Yes, we must – but who knows if local officials will actually really focus.  At least that State Senator has a record of trying to craft some regional solutions, which I more than can be said for most local officials.  However, there is still the matter of what will be on the new bridge.

“At a minimum, we will be replacing the bridge,” said Debbie Hunt, the director of transportation development for the FDOT’s district office in Tampa. “We will still be looking at express lanes. They have not gone away.”

DOT officials said they do not know when the rescheduled public hearings will take place, but the goal is still to begin construction by 2019.

Of course FDOT will still be looking at express lanes; they are beholden to them ideologically, and probably in other ways.  As the FDOT Secretary said:

“We will continue to explore options to add express lanes to this facilty, including the use of the design build procurement as a potential solution.” Boxold wrote. “In the end, our decision will be based on whether the addition of express lanes and the congestion management they achieve is feasible and cost effective.”

Note, it is not congestion relief.  It is “management” because express lanes are not about real relief – they are to provide a select few some relief while everyone else is pushed into congested highway lanes and surface streets.  That is why express lanes are not a real transportation solution for our area.  And a 24 lane interstate through downtown is ridiculous.

And with all the muddle that has gone before, we agree with this:

Some critics of the project remain skeptical that the state will keep its word not to reduce free lanes on the bridge.

“We would like to see a copy of the official documentation that guarantees this will become policy in the Howard Frankland bridge replacement project – not just a press release,” said Michelle Cookson, a member of the anti-TBX group Sunshine Citizens.

Indeed.  Official documentation would be good. Clarity is key. Frankly, FDOT should be very interested now in being very obvious about what they want to do.

— The Bottleneck

While we are discussing fixing problems (like getting rid of the express lane concept), local officials might want to consider this, from a Times column:

The folks at DOT say I’m misguided because the problem is not the traffic on the bridge, but rather the bottleneck as you head into Hillsborough County, where two of the lanes turn into exits.

As part of the overall project, they will be adding a third general-use lane as you exit the bridge, and this should reduce the congestion that leads to back-ups.

“Yes, there could be more cars traveling in the general-use lanes,” said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson, “but it will be a minimal number and it will hardly be noticeable once the interchange is fixed.”

In other words, the fix for the bottleneck where the interstate goes from four free lanes on the bridge to two  (and then eventually back to four) is to spend millions to create a bottleneck where the interstate goes from four free lanes to three (we assume they will toss in an express lane for good measure but that does not fix the bottleneck).  Is that really a fix?  Are that many people really getting off at Kennedy?

Here’s an idea – go from four lanes on the bridge to four lanes on land without having any bottleneck.  In other words, get rid of the bottleneck by getting rid of the bottleneck. (which FDOT managed to do on the west side of the bridge. Here and here)   Of course, local officials are mum on this.  Presumably, since no one was looking at the bridge, no one has looked at the bottleneck.

Frankly, the more one looks at the plan (even beyond the express lanes), the less it makes sense for even fixing the roads (probably because FDOT is so concerned with the express lanes).

— Huh?

And then there was the weird nugget:

Most of the project needed approval from the Hillsborough MPO to include TBX in its Transportation Improvement Plan. That green light came in June amid hours and hours of public testimony mostly in opposition to the plan.

But Pinellas County controls the Howard Frankland portion of the project with nearly $500 million in funding secured to replace the aging bridge. The board approved its part of the plan into the Pinellas Transportation Improvement Plan earlier this year.

Why is that?  Is TBX a regional plan and regional connection or not? Why wouldn’t Hillsborough have a say? Just another part of the weirdness of the whole TBX process.

— The Editorial

Not surprisingly, The Times has an editorial on all this:

The Florida Department of Transportation made the right decision Monday in killing plans to transform a free lane into a toll lane on a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The plan made no sense practically, financially and politically, and the state has removed a thorn from the intense public debate over the larger TBX interstate expansion plan. Local leaders on both sides of the bay deserve credit for speaking out, and they should continue working to ensure that TBX is driven by sound transportation policy and not sheer economics.

Local officials (at least the ones who commented) deserve credit for speaking out, but not much for not knowing what was in the plan.

DOT made the right call, even if it was responding to political pressure. The toll plan has been part of the public discussion for more than a year, yet officials dropped it virtually overnight after confusion surfaced and a local senator with the power over their budget chimed in. That arbitrariness highlights the mixed messages and poor communication that is all too characteristic of TBX. It is inexcusable that after years of planning and public meetings, locally elected leaders and state officials are not on the same page with this massive investment in infrastructure. While the about-face is welcome, it also calls into question whether the larger TBX plan, which includes tolling on the interstates, is being driven by sound planning or by sheer politics and economics.

It took political muscle this time to kill a bad idea. Local leaders should use this episode as a learning experience on the value of keeping up with TBX, and the DOT should recognize the value in listening to local concerns.

Indeed.  But, frankly, most local officials fell in line with the TBX plan pretty easily.  Only when they were called on specifics did most of them say anything (though, to their credit, some did oppose the plan before that).  What we needed before, and definitely need now, is to have a real, regional approach that is not imposed from above and that really makes sense for our area.  And is pushed by our legislative delegation.

— Conclusion

In our mind, there are two takeaways from this incident.  First, it is not at all clear that local officials who approve plans know what they are approving. Some do. Clearly, some do not.

Second, if this area would ever just get its act together, it could dictate what it wants.  It does not have to accept plans from the outside, regardless of what local officials tell you.  (It is just easier to go along with FDOT than work to get a good plan.) There is no reason that we can’t have the good parts of TBX without the bad (and even fix the “good” parts like the half-fix of the bottleneck referenced above). It is a matter of political will – and actually knowing what is planned before approving it.

Once again, the fact this bridge plan (and really the whole thing) even came up is the fault of local officials who have not gotten together and created a proper, workable, regional, transportation plan.

— One More Thing

There was one odd point in a Times article on FDOT volte-face.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported the lost free lane in a story last month. More than a dozen elected officials told the Times they did not know that DOT’s plan included reducing the number of free lanes.

And, in a column:

The detail, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times‘ Caitlin Johnston and Anthony Cormier: Turns out the DOT planned to take an existing lane in each direction on the bridge and transform them into toll “express lanes.” This would mean drivers could pay as much as $6 for the privilege of using a lane that was once free and accessible to all.

And, in the editorial:

The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that elected leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay said they were confused or misled about DOT’s toll plan for the bridge. DOT is replacing the northbound span of the Howard Frankland as part of the $6 billion TBX project, a broad remake of the area’s interstate system. DOT planned to convert one lane in each direction into a toll lane. Drivers who don’t pay would have had access to three free lanes instead of the current four, which sounded counterproductive to smoothly moving traffic.

Which is all technically true but makes it sound like it was a new revelation. As we noted last week, the Times first reported in 2014.  We know because we quoted their article.  It is good they asked people now, but if proper focus was given to TBX/the bridge replacement (and local officials’ treatment of it) back in 2014 the whole plan could have been fixed earlier.

Transportation – Of Threats and Deals

Speaking of the legislature and the need for action, let’s check in the with the PTC.  We’ll go back a couple of weeks.

First, there was this:

Public Transportation Commission Chairman Victor Crist says he and Uber are close to reaching  a temporary operating agreement to keep the rideshare firm in Hillsborough County. But it still remains doubtful if that deal will pass muster from the full PTC governing board.

Then there was a report about the legislative delegation regarding the PTC.

If it comes down to Uber or the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, it’s looking like Uber wins.

Tampa area State Rep. Jamie Grant said he’s willing to file legislation to abolish the controversial agency.

If you are willing to do it and you think it is the right thing to do, why not just do it?

Unless a court rules the PTC lacks authority to regulate Uber or Lyft, the State Legislature is the next recourse for transportation network companies. Lawmakers can do two things to take the PTC out of the Uber debate. They could pass their own set of rules that would supersede the PTC through what’s known as preemption; or they could approve legislation to get rid of the agency altogether.

Which of those paths Grant takes depends on how much support he gets from his colleagues in the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation.

Does anyone other legislator support abolishing the PTC?

“At this point it seems that it’s more important to protect entrenched special interests,” she said referring to the taxi industry whose leaders are pushing for tough rules.

Young can’t commit to filing or supporting bills, though. She’s running a competitive campaign for a newly created Senate district. However that has not stopped Young from being a vocal Uber supporter and PTC critic. She led an effort with another dozen local lawmakers urging the PTC to hold off on rules until after the 2017 legislative session where statewide rules are expected to be approved.

That wasn’t that much, but was it enough to push the PTC? (As an aside, if getting rid of the PTC is good government, isn’t it common sense that it should be done regardless of whether the PTC makes a deal or not?)

Well, then we got this:

Rideshare company Uber has tentatively agreed to tougher background checks while operating in Hills­borough County, though it remains unclear whether the deal will pass muster with a regulatory agency.

Of course, the PTC board still has to pass it. Evidently, once the delegation gets serious, things can get done. Not to mention this deal could have been done in the beginning. We’ll see if the deal passes.

Then we got this:

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist will chair his final Public Transportation Commission meeting Oct. 13. Crist’s term as head of the controversial board expires after that meeting.

Crist will also step down entirely from the PTC in November.

Maybe he can take the executive director, who was going to quit, but then never did, with him.

While a deal would be good, we still think the PTC should be abolished.  If every other county can make it work without a PTC, so can we.

Economic Development – Where They Say We Are

A few weeks ago, we did our annual review of regional GDP’s. (see “Economy/Economic Development – Where Are We Really? 2016 Edition”)  As with most years, we are underperforming – based on our size and otherwise.

This week, the Times had a report of a Brookings study of cities around the world. (You can see the Brooking study here.)

A new Brookings analysis identifies Tampa Bay as one of 16 “American Middleweight” metros that make up a global mix of 123 large cities. The Washington, D.C. think tank sorted all 123 into seven categories based on such competitive factors as their tradable economic clusters, innovation, talent, and infrastructure connectivity.

The “Redefining Global Cities” analysis aims to assess the opportunities and challenges the metro areas may confront to power “the next wave of global economic growth.”

Tampa Bay’s “middleweight” tag feels pretty accurate. Other metros given the same label include Orlando, Miami and Charlotte, among others. These metros are basically the AAA teams trying to make it to the Big League.

That is a bit vague.

In this country, the Brookings study cites two higher categories reserved for metros with more economic muscle and greater innovative firepower. At the top by sheer size are New York and Los Angeles, which Brookings labels “Global Giants.” Only five such cities exist worldwide.

Then there is the sweet spot: the metro level Brookings calls the “knowledge capital.”

This is what every aspiring middleweight metro like Tampa Bay wants to become. Brookings says knowledge capital cities are highly productive innovation centers with talented workforces and elite research universities.

So what exactly is a “middleweight?”

American Middleweights: 16 mid-sized U.S. metro areas striving for a post-recession niche in the global economy.

So, yea, that is about right.  We are definitely not a Global Giant.  But what about these “knowledge capital” cities – where are they?

Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Hartford, Houston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, Stockholm, Washington DC, and Zurich

(pg 18 of the pdf) Well, that looks like a list of the usual suspects.  And, notably, a number have fewer people than we do. (Hartford?)

And who are the “middleweights?”

Charlotte, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Riverside, Sacramento, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Tampa

(pg 18 of the pdf) Aside from Miami and Detroit, they are all smaller than we are, but we cannot say that we do not fit in this category.

From the column:

To attain the knowledge capital tier, Tampa Bay has to vastly raise its intellectual and innovation bar at the University of South Florida, as well as at the other private higher education schools in the area. Tampa Bay also must act smarter and engage more forcefully as a single region, especially on key topics like transportation, workforce quality and the creation of better jobs.

All of this is happening. But it takes time, resources and commitment.

The question is whether Tampa Bay’s progress is taking place coherently, with enough leadership and vision to boost Tampa Bay to “knowledge capital” status before global competition makes even that designation obsolete.

That is definitely a question.  Frankly, it is questionable whether things are being dealt with in a smarter way (really, local officials did not even know what was in the $6 billion TBX plan, and we have no county mass transit plans, let alone regional plans) or whether we are just getting much more of the same old behavior.  Yes, we are getting better but so is everyone else and most of our problems are decades old and still lingering with no clear solution or plan.  Do we really want to be in the same category as Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Riverside or do we truly aspire to be better.  If so, we have to do much more. (A lot more airport-like action, a lot less PTC like action)

In truth, we can’t fault the Brookings report.  But the column did ask one question that seemed a bit odd:

When will Tampa Bay start punching above its weight?

Looking at the regional GDP number we outlined two weeks ago, maybe we should focus on not punching below our weight first.

West Tampa – Looking for the Money

There was news about the “West River” plan.

Tampa has been knocked out of the running for a $30 million federal grant that local officials had hoped to use on the West River redevelopment project.

* * *

Not making the cut came as a “total surprise,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, suggesting that HUD’s evaluators didn’t read the city’s application carefully and could have cleared up any questions with a single telephone call.

We are not surprised Tampa did not get the money.  It has gotten money in the recent past.  But the technicality thing is interesting.  What is that about?

“We are not only profoundly disappointed,” he wrote in a letter to HUD deputy assistant secretary Dominique Blom, “we are troubled by the rationale provided in your letter.”

In its notice to City Hall and the Tampa Housing Authority, HUD said Tampa’s application lacked detail about which members of the local team would be responsible for different parts of the program. As a result, Tampa’s application was disqualified without being considered on its merits.

In his response, Buckhorn offered a point by point rebuttal of how the application outlined the roles of the city, housing authority and Hillsborough County school district and how those players would work together.

Buckhorn said he wasn’t sure whether Tampa could appeal HUD’s decision, but “I’m not going to let this die without asking the question.”

“I thought we had we had put together one of the most competitive proposals that they were going to see this cycle,” Buckhorn said. “To get knocked out on a technicality that could have fairly easily resolved is a disappointment. … It had nothing to do with the substance of the proposal.”

We are all for asking the question, though it seems to us the “rationale” is part of the substance – not the merits of the project, but definitely the substance of the proposal.  That does not mean it couldn’t be fixed or papered over, but still.

So what next?

Getting the grant this year would have been expected to give the Tampa Housing Authority and City Hall more ability to raise money for the West River plan. For example, officials leveraged the $30 million grant at Encore Tampa to bring in another $78 million in funding for a total impact of $108 million.

But not getting the grant does not doom the West River plan, officials say.

“We’re full steam ahead,” Buckhorn said. “We knew there were always going to be multiple entities in this project. This just means the federal government will not be a part of it. …We’re just going to have to go back to the table and sit down with our private sector partners and figure out how the rest of it’s going to work.”

Fine.  We are all for redeveloping North Boulevard Homes and the surrounding area.  We have said before we actually thought the City’s plan was not dense enough.  And remember that the City chose a development team, then dropped it and chose Related, which has the ability (though it is not entirely clear that it has the will) to do a really good project.  But the entire process has not been that smooth.

And Tampa is likely to apply again, assuming the Choice Neighborhood program continues. Buckhorn noted that it took two tries to win the grant for Encore Tampa. 

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  Though it would be nice to know exactly what they are planning to do. (Seems like we have a dearth of clear plans these days). And how much it will cost – especially how much public money it is supposed to cost.  And while we have this time, maybe they should tweak the plan to make it denser (and stop TBX from carving a bigger gash through the middle of the area). Just a thought.

— Meanwhile, At Encore

In a slightly related matter, at the Encore project:

Just one year after it officially opened, a consultant has found that water is leaking into at least 25 apartments in one of the city’s signature affordable housing projects.

The preliminary report on conditions at The Reed at Encore , a seven-story senior living center on the edge of downtown Tampa, found evidence of water damage to baseboards, door jambs and drywall, and possible window seal leaks. At least one apartment may have mold as a result of the damp conditions, the report by IBA Consultants found.

The center was built by the Siltek Group, a Plantation general contractor that the Tampa Housing Authority and its development partner this summer fired while in the midst of completing the neighboring Tempo at Encore apartment tower.

A more detailed report is being compiled to determine where water is intruding. Contractors will use high pressure water sprays and infrared sensors to track how water is spreading behind walls. Housing authority emails show that complaints from residents about leaks and sodden carpet began soon after they moved into the building.

Not good, but such things do happen.  At least the Housing Authority fired the company, and there is a good chance they will sue them.

Rays – No Surprise

Now that the season is over, there was a column in the Times regarding the Rays:

The last pitch has been thrown, and another Rays season has come to an end.

All that remains are the statistics and debates. The final accounting of a season gone sour.

So, tell me, who had the more disappointing effort:

The Tampa Bay Rays?

Or their fans?

Honestly, it’s a tough call. The Rays finished last in the America League East, and won their fewest games in nearly a decade.

On the other hand, Rays fans finished last in Major League Baseball in attendance per game. In case you’ve lost count, that makes five years in a row.


The team averaged fewer than 16,000 fans per game during its 2016 season. That’s nearly half the attendance average of the team’s away games. The numbers don’t look good for St. Petersburg, as city officials continue to take steps to convince the Rays to stay in St. Pete as the team considers future stadium options in the region. 

Blaming the fans is always the best strategy to increase attendance, right?  How about blaming this:

Earlier this year Pinellas County, listed 10 possible sites on that side of Tampa Bay including the Trop site.

Access to businesses, employees and residents within a 30-minute drive of Tropicana Field has consistently been attributed to getting fans in the stands.

Fewer businesses, employees, households and residents are located within a 30-minute commute of Tropicana Field than any of the other proposed sites. To put that in perspective, there are 816,000 people who reside within a half-hour commute of Tropicana Field. Every other site has access to more than 1 million people within that same travel distance.

Needless to say, possible Hillsborough locations are over a million and closer to a lot more. This isn’t that complicated (though the funding is).

Can we finally say that the Rays will not be a success attendance-wise at the Trop location?  Maybe they will have trouble somewhere else, but they will not be a success where they are now.  Let St. Pete move ahead with their interesting plans to redevelop the Trop area and find the Rays a good location in Hillsborough.

Why We Should Ask for More

We often say that we are the biggest swing area in the biggest swing state in the country and that gives us certain power.  We also say that this area does not use its power to get things we want.  This week we got an illustration of that power.

Three of the top 10 ad markets for the presidential race are in Florida.

From NBC News’ latest breakdown:

Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne, FL: $20,935,864

Tampa-St Petersburg-Sarasota, FL: $17,243,115

That’s right.  The i-4 corridor is the location of the #1 and #2 presidential ad markets.  That can be annoying if you are trying to enjoy something on TV, but it is an indication of our regional power.  We need to use that – though, that would require local officials to actually work together regionally and formulate regional plans.

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