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Roundup 1-27-2017

January 27, 2017

Contents

Transportation – FDOT, TBX, Ambiguity

Transportation – Buses, Stats, and Agreements

— Speaking of Which

— Tying It All Together

Port – If They Can Do It . . .

Downtown – Another Apartment Proposal

Tampa Heights – Armature Delay

Economic Development – DoD Conference

Transportation – Wondering About the Ferry

Planning App for the People

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

— Port Everglades

— Brightline

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

— What $3.5 Billion Gets You These Days

— Slow Decline of the Mall

List of the Week

___________________________________________

Transportation – FDOT, TBX, Ambiguity

Given that just last week, they made a presentation about the “new” TBX , there was some interesting news from FDOT:

Florida Secretary of Transportation Jim Boxold will resign from the department on Feb. 3 to work as a lobbyist for Capital City Consulting.

DOT Assistant Secretary for Finance and Administration Rachel Cone will take over as interim secretary starting Feb. 4.

The bulk of Cone’s experience is in communications, not transportation. She previously served as Gov. Rick Scott’s deputy chief of staff, communications director at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and as a reporter at the Florida Times-Union. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Auburn University.

We have no idea what that means for TBX.  Nor do we know what this about the new Howard Frankland plan might mean:

Two extra lanes means the price tag for construction will go up. Jones said the numbers haven’t been worked out yet, but the agency is considering where additional funding can be found. 

If they need more money then it seems that the express lanes aren’t paying for the project.  Given that and the problems with the overall plan, maybe FDOT should rethink the plan and get it coordinated with the transit study, like it should have been in the first place – just like they should never have had a plan to remove a free lane and local officials should never have gone along with such a plan.  But, even with the changes at FDOT, it seems that the one constant is that express lanes are a priority, so, if it involves express lanes, we feel confident that FDOT will find some money somewhere.

Transportation – Buses, Stats, and Agreements

There was news this week that bus ridership of both HART and PSTA had a big drop last year:

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority saw the steepest decline, dropping 10 percent. The agency provided about 1.5 million fewer passenger trips, falling to 13.4 million trips from fiscal year 2015 to 2016.

“Plummeted might be the right word,” said PSTA CEO Brad Miller.

Across the bay, the slide was smaller but still substantial, with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority ridership falling more than 6 percent to just over 14 million rides. That’s nearly 1 million trips fewer than in fiscal year 2015.

It was a sudden drop for the Tampa Bay region after six straight years of growth. The two agencies last year logged the fewest passenger trips since 2011.

That is interesting.  There are the numbers from the Times article (here):

Year HART PSTA Total
2009 11,638,548 12,179,776 23,818,324
2010 12,264,357 12,093,484 24,357,841
2011 13,730,705 13,103,206 26,833,911
2012 14,314,610 14,018,330 28,332,940
2013 14,732,525 14,467,510 29,200,035
2014 15,057,033 14,503,349 29,560,382
2015 15,003,289 14,898,825 29,902,114
2016 14,081,260 13,384,223 27,465,483

Setting aside that both systems still were above their 2011 (and before) numbers, what are the probable causes of the recent drop?

Transportation experts attribute this to a number of factors: lower gas prices, a still-rebounding economy and service cuts. 

And what are people saying?

Transit advocates say not to fear: This is a blip on the radar and all other indicators show bus ridership will rebound and continue to grow in future years. But for those who have spent years opposing increased sales taxes to pay for bus and rail, this is more evidence for why the region should spend less on transit and focus more on roads.

There’s little contesting the causes. Experts agree it’s a combination of the drop in gas prices along with many transit agencies having to reduce routes and frequency during the Great Recession.

“When you have a combination of reduced gas prices, which makes driving more attractive, and service cuts that make some trips more difficult, that leads to shifts in use,” said Darnell Grisby, director of policy development and research at the American Public Transportation Association.

But Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert, who opposed attempts to raise the sales tax to fund transit in 2010 and 2016, said those factors don’t do enough to account for the fact that most people, when given the choice, don’t want to take the bus.

“I’m sure the gas prices have something to do with it, but the bottom line is the choice riders, their choice is not taking the bus,” she said. “They’re driving.”

She said the numbers also validate last year’s decision by Hillsborough County commissioners to not put a sales-tax increase on the ballot in November. The 30-year measure would’ve increased the sales tax by half a penny to raise money for road maintenance, bike and pedestrian improvements, and transit options such as increased bus service and a light rail between downtown Tampa and the airport. 

Setting aside that it has nothing to do with reasons to oppose Go Hillsborough (of which there were many others), the tea party advocate is right to a degree.  As transit in this area exists today, which is underfunded, with limited service, only buses stuck in traffic, and being constantly opposed by certain political factions plus the poor planning and built environment in this area, it makes sense that if gas prices go down more people will choose to drive.

However, her argument is a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If you work hard to make transit as unpleasant as possible and restrict it to a service really for people who have no choice (see this from the Tribune in 2011 ), it is not surprising that people who do have a choice will be less likely to use transit.  If it were properly planned and properly funded in an area with proper planning, it would likely be a bit different – though certainly a percentage of choice riders would choose to drive with lower gas prices.

One thing to note in all this is:

Grisby said it’s unfair to make decisions about funding and the worth of a system based on one year’s ridership numbers. Before 2016, bus ridership had been rising steadily over the past decade. And, though it doesn’t affect Tampa Bay, rail ridership has either stayed steady or increased nationwide. 

How can that be? (The lasts numbers from the APTA are here and long-term numbers here) Probably because if you give people decent transit, even if there are some ups and down in ridership (and the hardcore opponents may never use it), over time, more will choose to use it.

Of course, not since the streetcars were ripped up has this area really tried that.

— Speaking of Which

Which brings us to HART and PSTA cooperating, from Stpetersblog:

A Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) committee approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) on Monday for further collaboration between the two Bay area transit agencies, but not before some members had to tamp down the notion that the agreement could ultimately lead to a merger — and perhaps a tax increase for transit.

* * *

At a meeting of PSTA’s executive meeting held earlier this month in discussing the MOU, PSTA executive director Brad Miller laid out a timeline of how both agencies could approve the MOU in time for himself and Eagan to travel to Tallahassee to present to Tampa Bay area legislators in early February.

That timeline is a concern to Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert, who told HART committee board members on Monday that “all of this merger and regional orchestration has been done … in quiet discussions, without much transparency or time for the public to weigh in.” She called on officials to clearly state in the MOU that “this was not a merger.”

* * *

Board member Karen Jaroch also appeared uncomfortable with the language in the MOU, questioning the need for such “a big, binding agreement,” and expressed concerns about the trip to Tallahassee being planned by PSTA’s Miller next month. 

Setting aside that none of this is surprising, given past statements, (see “Transportation – HART/PSTA, Whatever” and “PSTA/HART – Record Ridership For This Bulwark Against the UN”), it’s not a merger. But even if there is a merger, what is wrong with a merger if it eliminates duplication of bureaucracy and facilities and allows for more efficient use of funds for actual transportation (we’re not saying that is a plan, but that would be the real reason for a merger)?  That would be running government more like a business and serving the area better at the same time, which is what we are told (and to some degree, though not completely, it is true) government should do. Unless, of course, maintaining waste and bad service serves another agenda.

— Tying It All Together

Finally, HART’s emphatic denial that there will be any merger makes us wonder about this from a Times editorial, which involves our first two items this week:

Boxold’s departure [from FDOT] also clouds an effort pushed by Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long to create a regional structure for coordinating and implementing mass transit, which could include merging bus systems and transportation planning. That effort is gaining support and could require legislation this spring to study it. But the effort also will need support from DOT, which could include the study in its work plan. 

We are all for regional coordination and we think the highway plan should be coordinated with the transit study (because that is real planning), but one still has to wonder if, after years of saying that regionalism is the goal and is coming (TBARTA anyone) without real results, there is actually the political will to really get something done regionally regardless of what committees are created and the good intent of those coming up with the idea.  While there are many questions about FDOT, there are far bigger questions locally.

Port – If They Can Do It . . .

Last week, the Port had its State of the Port presentation, which partially focused on the challenges facing ports these days.

Anderson said that several issues, like the consolidation of global carriers, uncertainty following the U.S. presidential election and new regulations placed on the commodities industry made 2016 a tough year to navigate.

Because of this, the port’s annual revenue dropped to $49 million from $51 million, and total cargo remained flat at 37 million tons. But port staff took proactive and strategic steps toward creating opportunities for future growth.

* * *

. . . there are challenges still ahead. The new cranes, which have been operational since this summer, have yet to service a ship the size they were meant to lure to Tampa Bay. No new cars are flowing into Port Tampa Bay from Mexico yet either. And the future of that business is uncertain under President-elect Donald Trump, who has said he wants to impose a 35 percent tariff on cars imported from Mexico.

There is also the odd relationship with Port Manatee and the seeming competition between the two on things like car and fruit imports, and more. (See here, here, here, and here)

Given all that, URBN Tampa Bay noted an interesting item from Citylab.com regarding Seattle and Tacoma:

In the annals of local economic development strategies, cooperating with your closest competitor might rank among the more Herculean tasks of local politicians. But that’s exactly what the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, managed to pull off a few years ago.

Facilities nestled in the picturesque waters of Puget Sound—Seattle to the north, Tacoma to the south—had long jostled with each other for the business of big, ocean-going ships. So in 2015, they created the Northwest Seaport Alliance, a company that now runs two harbors under one aegis.

Leaders of both ports had surveyed the consolidating shipping industry and saw a grim outlook. Shipping lines were growing bigger and cooperating with each other, increasing their negotiating muscle with the port operators whom they pay to load and unload ships of containers and other cargo.

“All of that change is driving ports to look at our business models differently and adjust to the changes we’re seeing globally,” says John Wolfe, CEO of the alliance.

The seaport alliance, though still in its infancy, is a local attempt to solve a global problem. Ports need major investments and workforces need to be ready for the changes. If the partnership succeeds, it won’t eliminate the ups and downs of a notoriously volatile industry, but it may take the edge off.

And clearly, they made some effort to protect the official’s positions:

It took some years, but the Northwest Seaport Alliance scooped the facilities run by port commissioners (who are elected officials, by the way) in both cities into a single company. However, it preserved the existence of the commissions, which have to sign off on major decisions.

We are sure there are a number of different models that our area could follow, but the general idea seems quite sound.  It makes little sense to have two ports so close to each other competing with each other (and investing in duplicative facilities) rather than pooling resources to compete with other areas on behalf of our area, especially since that competition with other areas is not going to decrease anytime soon if ever. For most people living here, it makes no difference if a ship comes to the port in Tampa or just across the county line in Manatee.  What counts is business coming into the area and the opportunity that comes with it.

If local officials really believe in regionalism, they need to start really working toward it in substantive ways – like the ports.  And if people really oppose government waste and favor economic opportunity, they should work on it, too.

Downtown – Another Apartment Proposal

There is another proposal for downtown, just across the street from the Straz in what is now a surface parking lot for the Times building. From URBN Tampa Bay:

Orlando developer Mill Creek is asking for a variance for the Times parking lot to remove a grand oak tree. Mill Creek plans to build a 9 story, 275 unit apartment project with ground floor retail in it’s place. The hearing date is set for April 11th.

We think the variance should be rejected until the project has a better ground level. The project appears to only have one corner of retail on the southeast portion of the lot, and that part is currently a park. We also think the project is lacking density in general.

The site plan is attached. Renderings and elevations have not yet been released.

From URBN Tampa Bay - click on picture for Facebook page

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

As far as we can tell from the documents filed to date, this building will wrap around the Times building to the west and south (so most of the floors in that building will lose their views to the south and west). There will be ground floor parking covered on the street facing west by “townhouses.” (we assume some of the spaces will be for the Times building and may be used by Straz patrons, but that is just our assumption, not a stated fact.) On the far north corner, there will be a garage, though it is not clear exactly how tall.  The rest of the project will have apartments above the first floor, where facing south there will be a lobby and the retail.

As noted by URBN Tampa Bay, it could be denser, but so be it.  Additionally, there is the loss of the green space where the retail will go.  Right now that green space may seem like wasted space but, if a relatively large building were built, it would frame that little space nicely.  It also seems an odd place to put retail, given that it is the farthest location from the Riverwalk and Straz (though it is closer to the rest of downtown) and really sits basically at the end of a highway exit. But, while we would like the green space to remain and just have the building be a little taller, we do not see that as a deal killer in this particular case.

Of course, our view is just a preliminary impression. We would need more to really decide about this project.

Tampa Heights – Armature Delay

There was an article in the Times about the Armature Works renovation.

Since Soho Capital announced their latest plans for the Heights property last year, the company has been marketing the Armature Works building as a premier event and wedding venue and taking bookings for the 2017 year.

“The Armature Works project remains on track. In December, we decided to push back reservations until late summer,” said Adam Harden, principal of the real estate company, in a statement. “However, in an abundance of caution, we decided it would be best to eliminate the possibility that we might have to give someone a relatively short timeframe to change their venue if there were any delays in opening. With this in mind, we let the people who made reservations for events in May know we would help them find an alternative venue.”

Harden declined to comment on how many events were canceled or rescheduled or respond to any questions beyond an emailed statement.

You can read the story for more on the canceled weddings/receptions, but the story raises two issues.  First is the delay in the work.  What is the cause and will it hold back to project?  The second is whether the cancellations will lead to a loss of good will once it opens.  The project, when finished, should be nice, so hopefully it will recover quickly from any less than favorable press once people can actually see it.  More of a concern is whether the delays are big or not and whether they will be one-off or are run of the mill delays or signs of another, larger issue.  The article does not really tell us anything substantive about the delays.

Economic Development – DoD Conference

There was interesting news in the Business Journal:

After five years in Austin, the Department of Defense Innovation Summit is moving to Tampa.

The summit, expected to draw more than 2,000 people, is an opportunity for Tampa Bay entrepreneurs and innovators to showcase their companies and technology.

The Department of Defense chose Tampa for the event because of the innovation economy growing in the region and proximity to the United States Special Operations Command and MacDill Air Force Base, said Marc Blumenthal, CEO of Florida Funders. 

While we tend to think that the move is less about local innovation and more the presence of SOCOM and CENTCOM (and we would not be surprised if maybe there was some deal on meeting space and/or hotel rooms), it does not really matter to us.  We are happy the conference is coming here.  Hopefully, it will lead to more companies related to such work having a bigger permanent presence in our area.  While there are many that have some presence, we could always use more and any spin-off work.

Transportation – Wondering About the Ferry

As most people know, there is a trial ferry service between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Pete going on right now.  We have previously noted that the schedule is very limited and the price quite high for a trial service.  Recently, we have started to wonder about something else regarding the practicality of the service.  First, during the college championship festivities, the ferry was not able to run at certain times of greatest activity in downtown Tampa.

. . . it turns out the bay area’s big weekend means increased demand for dock space near the Tampa Convention Center, and as a result the ferry won’t be running Saturday.

“Due to increased boat traffic by the convention center this weekend, the dock the ferry typically uses is not available on Saturday,” Rich Mullins, a spokesman for the ferry, said in an email Thursday. “A backup dock was also not available due to other operations. The online ticket system has a note that alerts travelers to the change. All other runs are still on schedule: Friday, Sunday and Monday.”

The ferry loads and unloads passengers at a dock owned and operated by the Yacht StarShip dinner cruises charter. Yacht StarShip has provided the dock to the ferry at no charge subject to availability, owner Troy Manthey said, and the dock has two sides, so usually the ferry and Yacht StarShip can use it at the same time.

And now, for the biggest event of the year in Tampa, the ferry also will not be running:

The Cross-Bay Ferry won’t  run  during Saturday’s annual Gasparilla Invasion and Parade of the Pirates, when tens of thousands flock to the biggest event in Tampa Bay.

* * *

[Lack of docking space is] also the problem for Gasparilla. But the Coast Guard also sent out a directive warning vessels that are not part of Gasparilla’s annual boating activities to stay away, officials said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman tried to work out an arrangement with Tampa for the ferry to dock during Gasparilla, but the Coast Guard’s directive put an end to those discussions with Tampa officials, said the mayor’s spokesman Ben Kirby.

In any event, Kirby said the mayor knew going into the pilot project, which ends in April, that the ferry would likely not be able to run during Gasparilla.

We understand the issue, but the ferry’s inability to run on the days it would really be useful and likely have most demand makes us wonder a little more about its utility, especially given that on most normal days there is a lack of useful transit connection at each end for commuters.  On the other hand, there probably is a work around for the docking issue if people put their minds to it.

Once again, we are all for the trial.  It is good because it reveals issues like this, but it is still an issue.

Planning App for the People

There was an article in the Guardian (UK) about an interesting app.

CitySwipe presents local residents with images of potential scenarios and simple yes/no questions, encouraging people to swipe through the options, as if assessing prospective partners. For the time being, it’s fairly basic: a photo of some street art appears with a caption asking: “Do you want more of this?” Folding cafe tables and chairs are shown next to pink park benches, asking: “Which do you prefer?”

It might sound superficial, but the questions move on to attitudes towards walking, bike lanes, housing and beyond. It makes the consultation process effortless, compared with the usual feedback mechanisms of filling in lengthy mailed-out response forms, downloading wordy PDFs, or being accosted by a chirpy volunteer with a clipboard.

It is one of the many tech tools cropping up in the world of town planning, in a bid to make what has always been an opaque and notoriously confusing system more transparent, inclusive and efficient for the public, planners and developers alike.

You can check out more of the article here and the app here.

We admit that we are not totally sold on this idea because there is always the risk of a lot of knee-jerk reactions or having it hijacked by people with specific agendas and not be representative. It is also not clear how it will fit into other planning procedures.  On the other hand, we are all for getting more people engaged.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

— Port Everglades

There is news from Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale:

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will halt work on dredging Port Everglades while it takes another look at potential environmental damage, according to federal court filings last week.

The decision comes after environmentalists and recreational divers sued last year, saying the Corps relied on the same faulty assessment that left a mile-wide swath of dead coral around the PortMiami dredge, far more than originally predicted in the $205 million project completed last year. The Corps said it would hold off work while it considers “new environmental information” and new protections given to five rare corals that might be damaged by the massive dredge. The agency will also provide the court with progress reports on work every 90 days.

What exactly is the work being done?

The $374 million Port Everglades dredge will deepen the channel from 42 to 50 feet and widen its entrance to make way for massive new ships sailing through an expanded Panama Canal.

The channel in Tampa Bay is 43 feet, though there are long-term plans to consider making it deeper according to the Port’s Vision 2030 plan (starting pg 22 of the pdf – listed as page 20 in the document), where we are told:

CHANNEL DEEPENING

Almost all of the Port’s public and private facilities will eventually face limitations on vessel size as global fleet upsizing continues. The cost-versus-benefit analysis for deepening and widening is especially complicated, but without change the Port may lose some opportunity in the long-term 

Indeed, it is complicated.  But, as we noted last week, it is also a question of what we are going to do about it and what we want the port to be long-term: a business maintainer or a growth engine.

— Brightline

There was news about the Brightline rail service connecting Miami to Orlando:

Brightline, the Miami-to-Orlando passenger train service, began track testing Thursday.

Spanning 500 feet, the BrightBlue train will traverse a test track between Park Place in West Palm Beach and Lantana, about 10 miles away, says All Aboard Florida, the company developing Brightline. Traffic impacts are not anticipated. Click on the slideshow to view Brightline’s Jan. 11 unveiling in West Palm Beach.

* * *

“The start of dynamic testing for our first trainset brings us another step closer to the launch of our express, inter-city service this summer,” Brightline President Michael Reininger said.

The southern portion of Brightline, transporting passengers through three stops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, is slated to begin operating this summer. All Aboard Florida expects the second phase of the project, running between West Palm Beach and Orlando International Airport, to begin operating before year-end.

We do not know if there are behind the scenes machinations, but there is still no real news about whether this area is going to be connected at some point to the network.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

— What $3.5 Billion Gets You These Days

As part of our continuing series in large developments, this week we visit Philadelphia.

Drexel University president John Fry wanted his campus to expand into an adjacent neighborhood of innovative businesses, bustling retail, manicured parks, and soaring residential towers.

* * *

The 125-year-old school is teaming with developer Brandywine Realty Trust to transform an expanse of parking lots and industrial buildings between its campus and 30th Street Station into a dense new addition to Philadelphia’s University City district of educational, medical, and research institutions.

The expansion – to be called Schuylkill Yards – is meant to accommodate a student body that has grown from fewer than 7,000 in the mid-1990s to about 26,000 today, while attracting tech firms, biomed labs, and forward-thinking start-ups to the area, Fry said in an interview before Wednesday afternoon’s announcement of the project.

* * *

The development is the latest – and perhaps most prominent – major project in a burst of real estate activity in and around University City.

The University City Science Center, a business incubator and research hub, and developer Wexford Science & Technology are building most of their uCity Square project on a 10-acre parcel just west of Drexel’s campus.

The University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is redeveloping a former industrial site across the Schuylkill south of its campus into a complex of offices, labs, and studios called Pennovation Works. 

From Phjilly.com - click on picture for article

From Phjilly.com – click on picture for article

The idea is in the review/approval stage.

We have no idea if this plan, which is supposed to take decades, will ever get built or, if built, be built as rendered.  Like most mega-projects, there are a lot of variables.  But it is just another sign that there are a lot of cities putting a lot of effort trying to attract tech, biomed, and other innovation to urban areas.  While we are all for the Lightning owner’s project, it should never be forgotten that it has a lot of competition.

— Slow Decline of the Mall

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about the state of the mall business and mall owners walking away from their properties.  We are not going to get into the details.  You can read it here.  It is just another sign of the changes that area planning is ill-equipped to deal with.

List of the Week

The new Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards for Hotels list is out.   Actually, it is a number of top 25 lists of various hotel categories, like overall top hotels, small hotels, bargain hotels, bnb and inns, family, etc.  As far as we could tell, we did not make any of them this year, which is a bit surprising given all the tourist numbers.

 

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