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Roundup 2-3-2017

February 3, 2017

Contents

Transportation – Transport-palooza

– Transit, the Editorial

— Lightning Owner, The Interview

— Reports, The Partnership

—  Lessons, The Senator

— Money, If You Don’t Have It, You Don’t Have . . .

— Conclusion

Transportation – Meanwhile Back in the County Center

— One More Thing

Transportation – A Look at Walking

Downtown/Channel District/USF – Renderings

Transportation – Good/Bad Ferry

— That Other Ferry

Rowdies, Rays, Regions, and Reality

________________________________________

Transportation – Transport-palooza

– Transit, the Editorial

Last week, we addressed HART and PSTA’s slumping ridership and an argument by some that the slump showed that choice riders did not want to use transit.  We noted:

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.

This week, the Times ran an editorial that echoed that view:

These inventive programs promise easier travel for those who already rely on the bus. But it’s hard to see how they will attract many new riders who are willing to give up driving their cars. And that’s what transit agencies need, the audience they call “choice riders” — people who choose to take the bus even though they could drive. But they won’t do it to save money. PSTA has the highest fares in Florida. And they won’t do it for convenience. More than half of PSTA’s routes run no more than once an hour. (Even PSTA CEO Brad Miller acknowledges that hourly bus service isn’t real mass transit; it’s a service for people with no other options.) Both HART and PSTA have smaller budgets than most major metro bus systems in the country. That leaves Tampa Bay transit at the vortex of a self-fulfilling spiral — without more money, fares go up and service is cut, which makes it a less attractive option for commuters. There always are ways to save money by becoming more efficient, from cutting little-used routes to the positive efforts by HART and PSTA to look at combining some operations. But more investment is needed.

Setting aside the bus focus, exactly.  If you provide a product that is not, for whatever reason, targeted at a specific market, it should not be surprising when it does not do well in that market.  For a variety of reasons which are mostly political, our transit services are not aimed at choice riders (quite the contrary), so they should not be expected to do well in the choice rider market.

Tampa Bay cannot do without transit. While overall ridership fell last year — mirroring state and national trends [ed. but, as noted last week, not for rail]— bus usage among low-income people hit a record high. Tourist routes, such as the trolley service in downtown St. Petersburg and the Pinellas beaches, were bustling. What the region has always lacked is a viable, more robust system for commuters and other choice riders who need more reasons to leave their cars at home. Without that, traffic congestion and sprawl will only worsen.

And that is really the point, plus the fact the question we always ask: If someone can go anywhere, and with other places that already provide amenities that they want, why should they come here?

If there are no real choices provided here, people who can will get them elsewhere.

— Lightning Owner, The Interview

Which brings us to a wide-ranging interview in Tampa Magazine (somewhat fluffy) with the Mayor and the Lightning owner.  One thing that stood out in that interview was this:

VINIK: I’m co-chairing a committee for the Tampa Bay Partnership. The Tampa Bay Partnership represents the business community of the whole Tampa Bay area, so I’m co-chairing a committee there looking at transportation.

There’s a premium transit study going on for the whole region going on right now. Jacobs Engineering is leading that effort. It’s [Florida Department of Transportation]-funded. Looking at our transportation system for the whole eight-county region, and you know how bullish I am on economic growth in this area, I think we have the potential from here through Orlando, even to Daytona, but especially over on this side of the state, to be the fastest-growing major economic region in the country over the next 10 to 20 years.

That opportunity is there, and in my opinion, what could screw that up or constrain that would be transportation – roadways too clogged, inability for people to get from point A to point B, people stop moving in because they no longer have confidence that they can get around. As a leader in the business community, I’m going to be one who’s trying to look at all possible solutions for helping out on that subject.

I think, as this study is underway, I’m encouraged to hear that they’re looking at all possible solutions. You’ve got to talk about the streetcars, as the mayor said. You’ve got to include autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing. Bus rapid transit is not talked about much, but it could be a very effective form of transportation. Clearly light rail needs to be part of the discussion.

BUCKHORN: HOV lanes [high-occupancy vehicle lanes].

VINIK: Yes, HOV lanes. I’m optimistic about this study, which is really going to look at all these different solutions to try to figure out what’s best and most flexible for our region. Looking out at our long-term horizon, I’m really hopeful. Talking to business people and others in the community, I really sense that people understand what a critical issue [transportation] is. However that evolves and whether there’s another referendum or not or however that goes on, I think the region understands how important this is, and action will be taken in the years ahead to really enable us to have this growth.

There are a few things here.  First, note, again, that the Lightning owner who has invested and wants to invest a lot more of his money in a very large project downtown and is trying to attract actual businesses and residents downtown keeps bringing up rail.  That is not a political point.  It is practical.

The second thing is that the transit study to date has not been coordinated with the TBX or other highway plans, which is a major flaw in the process.  The transit study is good (and should have been done at the beginning of the TLC/Go Hillsborough process if not before), but transportation planning should have been coordinated.  That is the only way to maximize the utility of various options.

Third, we are all for HOV lanes (even HOT lanes) provided they do not destroy neighborhoods, but that is not going to happen under TBX (the whole point of the “X” being express lanes).  While HOV and HOT lanes promote carpooling which reduces the number of cars on the road, express lanes just encourage people to not use the new lanes built by pricing them out of usefulness to most people.  The Tampa Bay Partnership, through a website and its CEO, has been out front supporting TBX, including taking a free lane from the Howard Frankland:

Rick Homans of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a strong advocate for TBX, said business executives care more about the bottleneck at Westshore, where four lanes currently narrow to two, than the number of lanes on the bridge. The plan aims to fix that by adding an extra through lane at the interchange.

(We addressed the flaws in that reasoning in “Transportation – Willful Ignorance”)

The Lightning owner has spoken in favor of TBX in the past (as has the Mayor), though we have long thought it is because the Lightning owner just wants some investment in the highways, which do need investment, and that was the only thing on offer. The comments about HOV lanes seems to support that view.  (And there is always the point that while executives that may be possible tenants of his project may be able to use express lanes getting to and from work, they also need their employees to get to and from work and most of them will not be able to afford TBX by design. HOV/HOT lanes, on the hand, would help.)

The bottom line is that this area needs to invest in real transportation options to form a coordinated transportation system, not just for the people already here but to compete for the companies and talent that we want to get.

— Reports, The Partnership

That brings us to a Tampa Bay Partnership sponsored report on reorganizing some governance:

Forget the ballot box for now. This is about reorganizing some of the existing key players to think, restructure and then act regionally.

“A one-county approach does very little to solve the regional challenge — the real challenge,” Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Rick Homans said in an interview.

To lend credibility and detail to the notion of taking a regional approach to transportation, the Tampa Bay Partnership today is officially releasing a study titled “The Need for Regional Governance in Tampa Bay” and meeting with nearly two dozen state legislators from this region to discuss the findings. Two business leaders — Tampa Bay Lightning owner and real estate developer Jeff Vinik and Vology CEO Barry Shevlin — are heading the Partnership’s transportation working group on this matter.

The study was prepared for the Partnership by researchers at the Eno Center for Transportation, a long established, non-partisan think-tank in Washington, D.C. that promotes innovative policies in transportation. Eno is named for William Phelps Eno, who a century or so ago helped modernize traffic plans for such major cities as New York, London, and Paris, and was among inventors to popularize stop signs, taxi stands and pedestrian safety islands among other transit features still popular today.

So what does it say?  This is where the coverage focused:

The 18-page study concludes that some core issues — namely transportation, environment, poverty and crime — do not stop at artificial county borders and outstrip the resources of individual cities. Broader solutions are called for.

“The Tampa Bay region needs to reform its transportation governance in response to these trends,” the Eno study concludes. It warns a county-driven transit approach is “out-of-step” with how people and goods move throughout a region. Too many local projects end up competing for too little money, it states, and run counter to federal and state efforts to encourage thinking and action on a regional scale.

The Eno study urges Tampa Bay embrace a regional approach while there seems to be a groundswell of civic, corporate and political willingness to try bolder ideas. “This presents a generational opportunity for real change,” Eno researchers stated. “The region should not miss out on that opportunity.”

Among the study’s recommendations is a merger of the Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco county level metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), along with those in certain nearby counties. The result would be a single regional MPO, which is the norm these days in the vast majority of major metros in the country.

The study’s arrival did not happen in a vacuum. A regional transit feasibility plan backed by the Florida Department of Transportation is also under way that will offer more concrete transportation ideas. The goal, said Homans, is to have a regional vision for transit in the area by some time in 2018, and a plan to phase it in over time.

Setting aside the TBX plan is not done in concert with the transit study yet the Partnership still seems fully behind TBX (whatever it will be) and that going regional is contrary to the city tax idea that seems to never die (and never get passed), if the MPOs and other officials don’t even know what is in proposals (see TBX and Howard Frankland), even merging the MPO’s will not accomplish much.

But that goes to another issue, which is bigger:

If Tampa Bay wants a modern regional transit system, then it needs to modernize the organizations that will govern it, Homans said. “We are at the beginning of a long and challenging process.

Our biggest hurdle,” he acknowledged, “is trust. Creating a regional structure involves building trust between the leaders of the involved counties.”

In other words, the problem is the officials’ lack of political will to actually act regionally and set aside the bickering among various political factions (not parties, factions), not to mention the aforementioned failure of local officials to pay attention to the major issues in the first place.

—  Lessons, The Senator

Which brings us to the thoughts of a State Senator – the same one who was talking about HART and PSTA merging a few years ago .  Setting the scene:

About two dozen area legislators met Wednesday to confirm the need for a regional approach to transportation infrastructure and policy going forward. The two-hour roundtable discussion at Ruth Eckerd Hall was in response to a study released by advocacy group Tampa Bay Partnership that stressed the weak coordination between the counties and barriers to achieving a regional mass transit.

Chairing the Partnership’s working group on the transit effort, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Vology CEO Barry Shevlin said the issue is vital in preparing for area’s projected population growth over the next decade.

“The roads are only going to get more clogged in the years ahead,” Vinik said. “If we wait another five, ten years as a community to make decisions on this, it’s going to constrain our growth.”

Shevlin said all municipalities must begin thinking in a regional mindset and not as insulated units.

Setting aside that once again this argues against the city tax, yes, local officials (like local residents) need to think regionally.  On the other hand, we are going to have at least a few year to wait because of the transit studies.  In any event, the Senator pointed to the past to show that it is possible to have a regional organization that actually does something:

After Pinellas County purchased land in Pasco in 1976 to drill wells and pump water back to its residents, Pinellas’ population boom over the next 20 years took a toll on the supply.

Lakes and wells literally went dry, prompting a massive legal battle in 1994 between Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties without much relief for consumers.

“Lawyers were making millions of dollars in legal fees and really nothing was being accomplished,” Latvala said.

But with collaboration and urgency, elected officials pushed for the creation of Tampa Bay Water in 1998, the regional nonprofit water supply authority that owns the region’s water sources, sells the water to six member governments and has the oversight to prevent the environmental damage that Pinellas’ overpumping once caused Pasco.

The same collaboration and unified effort used to end the water wars must be applied to building a mass transportation system or else the region could face its own transportation disaster.

“If we hadn’t had Tampa Bay Water, we were facing the potential of a building moratorium,” Latvala said. “If we don’t solve some sort of regional transportation problem…that’s going to bog down the continued growth for our region.”

And that makes sense.  It also intersects nicely with this, going back to the Partnership study:

A centerpiece of the Partnership’s study, conducted by the non-partisan Washington, D.C., think tank Eno Center, states Tampa Bay should voluntarily merge its county-based MPO (metropolitan planning organization) structure to a single, independent organization not housed by a single local government.

Poor coordination between the counties is also misguiding services, the study shows. For example, on weekends the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit has 14 buses going from Dover, in eastern Hillsborough County, to Downtown Tampa but “absolutely no weekend service between Downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg or Clearwater, the other two large cities in Tampa Bay.”

That is a great argument to merge HART and PSTA and have a sensible, coordinated transit system for the region.  But, as we discussed previously, Hillsborough officials run like hell from that idea.

— Money, If You Don’t Have It, You Don’t Have . . .

The Tampa Bay water discussion goes to another important point.  While, among other things, they approve plans and act as a gateway to projects getting done, MPO’s do not implement or fund projects.   (Based on past plans, if they did, we would already have a real transit network. And note that state law provides, if they choose, for both coordinating of local MPO’s and having inter-local agreement between them to work on “regionally significant” projects. If local officials wanted to work together, they already could. We are not opposed to merged MPO’s, but one does how a regional MPO would protect neighborhoods from being bulldozed.)

In contrast, Tampa Bay Water has money and authority, which was the whole point.  Applying that to transportation, it seems more logical to us to have a regional system that has to get approval from local MPO’s.  And, even with a regional MPO, the fact is that unless the actual operator of transportation, especially transit, is regional, you won’t have regional transportation.  (That could even involve a regional entity running regional systems that overlays and coordinates with more local entities – which is done in some other areas, like BART and Muni in San Francisco – but you need something with real power.)   As with Tampa Bay Water, to make any regional system really work, the entity charged with making it work needs money and authority to do it.  (The recently discussed HART/PSTA agreement is a small step, but even there, HART is running from any mention of merger so getting it to agree to an overarching agency seems a stretch.)  We think that should be where the focus is.

And the brings us to the part of the Partnership report that most media reports did not focus on:

Similar to the region’s MPOs, the two major transit agencies in Tampa Bay—Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA)—are county-based. Pasco County’s transportation agency is a county department. As a result, among the 20 largest urban areas in the U.S., Tampa Bay is one of only two that do not have any transit operator capturing the majority of market share.[] Furthermore, among the 20 largest metropolitan areas, Tampa Bay ranks, on a per capita basis, last or next-to-last in the most relevant indicators of transit supply and demand, such as revenue miles, unlinked passenger trips, and passenger miles.[]

When transit service is fragmented, or not connected seamlessly, the result can be sub-optimal transit service across the region, including burdensome fare penalties and difficulty for commuters when they transfer to other services.

* * *

This paper recommends that the region’s leaders seek to create a regional governance structure for the operation of transit agencies in the Tampa-St. Petersburg Urbanized Area, which includes the counties of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco. A governance structure that should be considered strongly is an umbrella or coordinating agency, in the form of a Regional Transit Authority, under which the county-based authorities and/or agencies would function. And, to facilitate development of even more regional transit, this new regional authority would be enabled to create inter-local agreements with transit agencies in the neighboring counties of the Tampa Bay region.

* * *

Florida law created regional transportation authorities (RTA) in order to spearhead coordination and public transit operation. The South Florida RTA was created to serve as the owner and operator of Tri-Rail. In greater Orlando, the Central Florida RTA was created to serve as the owner/operator of the transit agency known as Lynx. In the panhandle, the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority was created to provide roadway corridor planning along the coast. The legislature would need to create a regional transportation authority for Tampa Bay, but there is ample precedent for doing so. One idea that merits further investigation: TBARTA has already been enabled by the legislature with most of the functions that a transit agency needs, but it would need to be repurposed and refocused on a specific geographic area and its board governance restructured accordingly.

(You can find the report here, see pages 14 and 15) And then it gets into other structural options.  It is interesting to note that other parts of Florida have moved in this direction.  The closest we have come is TBARTA, which has been starved for funding, and, to be honest, attention. (We highly recommend reading this article and this article, both from 2007.  )

— Conclusion

It is clear our transit is inadequate because, among other reasons, it is planned for need riders.  That, along with poor planning and a still inadequate road system, makes our transportation system threatens to (and probably to a degree already does) hold our area back.  To fix that, we agree with the spirit of the Partnership report, we need to have a truly regional approach, which is a major change. The Partnership report raises some interesting ideas – nothing ground-breaking, but interesting nonetheless. However, without a real change in political culture, we will not get the material changes we need.  And that is where the Partnership push can really make a difference.

Transportation – Meanwhile Back in the County Center

Speaking of our political culture and transportation, when last we checked in with the County Commission, they managed to find a hidden $600 million to throw at the roads.

Hillsborough County Commissioners took the next step in a $600 million transportation plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion and making roads safer.

Commissioners nearly unanimously approved scheduling a public hearing to update the Capital Improvement Plan with priorities as well as a workshop to discuss funding options for expediting projects.

Funding for transportation was approved in October with a plan to span the $600 million investment over the next decade. Deliberations Wednesday served as the first step in fast tracking some of the more troublesome projects.

Those include improvements to Skipper Road, Lithia Pinecrest, Sam Allen Road, Davis Road, 42nd and 46th streets, Van Dyke Road, a portion of 131st Avenue near Nebraska Avenue and some parts of Westshore Boulevard.

The 131st Avenue project was slated for $15 million to widen the road, but was cut to $1.5 million to pay for a study. The remaining funds for that project will instead pay for improvements on Skipper Road and 42nd and 46th streets.

Sadly, the County Commission is determined to not take up their chance to actually methodically work on transportation (rather than the silly PLC/TED/Go Hillsborough process mess) and come up with a comprehensive plan for the future.

Under the approved plan, which the public will weigh in on March 1, congestion projects that would have begun late in the 10-year span of funding will instead be started within the first several years.

Sadly, almost nothing listed will really relieve congestion (even the County’s own list puts it a $346 million out of $600 million); it will more likely just move it. The project list has a lot of resurfacing – which is routine maintenance the County should have been doing for years.  And then there is widening a few roads mostly on the periphery of the area so developers can build sprawling subdivisions and fill up the roads and push cars more quickly to the more congested central areas. There is nothing to deal with where the real congestion is (even the $2 million for Westshore is just making it nicer, not handle more cars or move people around more efficiently, which is fine but not congestion relief), and there is no plan to deal with that. (see this list)   And they still aren’t charging developers the real cost of improvements.

— One More Thing

There are some real oddities, like widening Van Dyke by two lanes near the Suncoast Parkway has a land acquisition cost of $14 million? The construction cost is only  $20 million.  Same for Lithia-Pinecrest – widening it cost $40 million in land acquisition and $49 million to build? (And realigning the Big Bend off ramp has $5.8 million in acquisition costs?) Did no one plan to widen these roads in the first place? Wasn’t that quite foreseeable and that if you really needed to widen them the land values would have gone up substantially?  What kind of planning is that?

Sometimes you really have to wonder.

Transportation – A Look at Walking

There was an interesting article in the Times regarding Hillsborough County planners and walkability.

They stood on the sidewalk of the busy intersection, their fluorescent vests and clipboards catching the attention of passing drivers.

The group, composed of a dozen or so transportation planners, engineers, politicians and law enforcement, scanned the roadway looking for any way to make it safer for those who walk or ride a bike.

To start with, the sidewalk’s steep slope wasn’t compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations. The crosswalk was slanted, not perpendicular to the curb, which is preferred. Across the street, a sidewalk stopped abruptly, leaving nowhere to go for walkers. Bushes, signs and a large green metal box made it difficult for drivers at the stoplight to see people who might cross in front of them.

“There’s no way that driver can see us from that angle,” said Danielle Joyce, director of traffic services for the engineering firm GPI. “It’s a huge safety concern.”

It is good that someone is actually trying to experience the mess that has been created.  Of course, this is the picture in from the Times:

From the Times - click on picture for article

From the Times – click on picture for article

Needless to say, most people crossing the street do not do it with such a large group wearing brightly colored vests and with a Sheriff escort.  Maybe if they did, there would be less chance of being ignored by drivers.  We suggest that, to get the true experience, the planners should walk in smaller groups without vests.  Anyway, what was this all about?

Joyce was one of about 60 people who met Tuesday at the Town ‘N Country Regional Public Library in northwest Hillsborough County. They split into four smaller groups for a Hillsborough County workshop on improving bike and pedestrian safety.

The event was part of Vision Zero, an international initiative dedicated to designing safer roads. The group says that how governments build streets is just as much to blame for pedestrians’ deaths as the decisions of the pedestrians themselves.

In fact, some people do behave carelessly, but that does not change the horrible walking environment in Hillsborough County (and most of the area overall).

Tuesday’s event was the second of four workshops scheduled this year as part of the Vision Zero initiative. The goal is to put together an action plan of five or six realistic changes that can be made in the next two to five years to improve safety for all those who use the roads.

Workshop members discuss everything from short-term solutions, such as adding mid-block crosswalks so people don’t have to walk half a mile to the nearest stoplight to cross, to long-term solutions such as redesigning a street to add buffered bike lanes. 

Those are short-term solutions.  What is really needed is a change in mentality and a change in how things are built.  And while we have nothing against these workshops and it is good for planners to see the mess, what would be much better is if the County Commissioners (and other local officials because it is not exclusive to the County) got out of their cars and started really experiencing their creation.  After having their sidewalk disappear into a swamp because it just ends for no reason or almost being run over trying to cross a street or having to walk in the street because they neglected to provide for a sidewalk or even a curb, maybe they would do things a little differently.

Downtown/Channel District/USF – Renderings

USF finally released renderings of the planned Med School downtown.

The renderings offer an early look at USF’s future facility, which will house a medical school and a cardiovascular research institute. The $152.6-million building is part of the 50-plus acre redevelopment of downtown Tampa, spearheaded by Strategic Property Partners, a real estate firm backed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment.

Skanska/HOK is the design and build team constructing the new facility, which features ample windows to allow reflective light into work and learning spaces.

* * *

The USF Health Morsani College of Medicine and the USF Health Heart Institute will host an estimated 2,275 faculty, staff and students when it opens in 2019. The building will include learning and conference spaces, an auditorium, laboratories, faculty offices and a clinical research and care unit. This new location better positions USF to its primary teaching hospital, Tampa General and the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, on Davis Island.

From USF - click on picture for article

From USF – click on picture for article

From USF - click on picture for article

From USF – click on picture for article

From USF - click on picture for article

From USF – click on picture for article

Setting aside that we are not sure why the rendering made the Channelside/Meridian/Beneficial intersection wider than it already is (six lanes is pretty wide for a road-dieted, walkability-centered neighborhood and, from what we have been told, will scare pedestrians) and that the sun looks like it is rising in the north in the last rendering (but funny lighting and buildings made to look much more towering than they really are is standard for renderings), our initial impression is that the building is not bad (though we’d like to see more detail), and certainly better than the Hyatt Centric project  for the lot across from City Hall or anything we could think of on USF’s campus.

We are assuming the large structure in the back is a big parking garage (which is not that good), and it is not clear if there is really any treatment of the street such as retail (we assume that will be planned for future buildings.)  It is also hard to tell how the glass box office building to the left works in the whole plan or if that is just a place holder in the drawing.  That being said, it’s going to be built anyway, and it definitely could be worse.  What is the timetable?

Construction is expected to begin in August and the building will open in late 2019. The medical school and heart institute will be built with a combination of state and private funding.

Hopefully, some other parts of the Lightning owner’s project will be finishing up by then. That would make this much better.

Transportation – Good/Bad Ferry

There was an item about the trial ferry service in the Times website.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said Wednesday that the ferry connecting St. Petersburg and Tampa is “wonderful.”

But …

“I’ve been unimpressed with the lack of volume of people using it,” Crist added.

Crist blamed what he saw as poor ridership on a “lack of adequate promotion campaign.” He said there’s not enough signage or advertising letting people know it’s there to use.

As it is, Crist, who has a background in advertising, wants the county’s tourism marketing organization Visit Tampa Bay involved from the start as Hillsborough County moves ahead with plans to connect MacDill Air Force Base and Apollo Beach by ferry.

Fine, but the bigger problems are limited schedule, high price, and limited connectivity to other efficient transit (kind of like the streetcar).  Others see it differently:

Ferry organizers have said ridership is strong, growing from 4,700 tickets sold in November to 5,400 in December.

Commissioner Pat Kemp took issue with Crist’s characterization of the Cross Bay Ferry, saying it has yielded a strong return on investment for a transit project.

“Our ferry project now between the downtowns has been extremely successful,” Kemp said.

The funny part is that no one really knows.  Success is relative.  If some people like it, that could be success.  If the boats are only half (or quarter) full, that could be not a success.  What is the measure?  (And it is hard to tell how good a trial is since no one is going to change their lifestyle for an expensive, rare, boat trial, but people might try it.)

As we noted a few weeks ago, the numbers for December were thus: averaging about 175 people a day on ferries with 149 seats usually making four trips (two round-trips) a day (“Transportation – Ferry Numbers” ) which makes it roughly 30% (plus or minus a few percentage points for the vagaries of holiday scheduling) of the seats taken.

The Cross Bay Ferry is a six-month pilot project gauging user support. HMS Ferries, the company facilitating the project, has recorded what it describes as strong ridership. But even ferry supporters acknowledge the number of paying passengers would not support a privately run service without a public subsidy.

What will be more interesting is how much money the operator will want to keep running the service, if they want to keep running it.

— That Other Ferry

There was also news about the other ferry – the proposed one from South County to MacDill.

Ferry service connecting South Hillsborough County to MacDill Air Force Base may soon be coming, after Hillsborough County Commissioners said they plan to spend $750,000 on a professional design and engineering study to begin the process of creating a route. 

Soon is also relative, but more on that below.  There was also more:

Commissioner Sandra Murman took the matter even further, proposing the county should create a ferry route, along with ancillary transportation service to connect riders from their home or office to the dock.

Both motions were approved unanimously.

First, if you are going to have the service, you should also make it easier for people to use it, so that is fine. As for the money for the design and engineering,

Commissioners also voted Wednesday to prioritize a $750,000 design and engineering study to be paid from the $600 million it has set aside over the next decade for transportation projects.

Setting aside that the Commission somehow seems to have money lying around for roads and ferries, but not transit for the vast majority of residents, ok.

The design study for the ferry will tackle two key questions.

The first is how to get residents to the ferry launch spot, a location yet to be determined. The second is how to properly screen passengers headed to MacDill, where security is tight.

Just hold onto the point that they still do not have a docking point.

Then there is also this:

Hillsborough County may say “thanks, but no thanks” to millions of federal dollars already earmarked for a ferry to connect MacDill Air Force Base and south county.

Instead, county commissioners want to see if Hillsborough can pay for the project itself, and maybe get it into the water much sooner.

Significant hurdles remain to fulfill the obligations required to unlock the $4.8 million federal grant to operate a south county ferry. On Wednesday, commissioners asked staffers to study what steps could be skipped if they turn down the federal government’s money and how that could affect the time line for launching boats.

There could be some cost savings, too, in avoiding certain studies and permits necessary to fulfill the grant requirements. But it won’t be anywhere near $4.8 million, meaning the county would have to find money to replace the federal government’s contribution.

The county was already on the hook for about $24 million to build the docks and parking lots and buy the ferries. Commissioner Ken Hagan suggested the $22.8 million still in reserve from the BP oil spill settlement could help pay for the project.

It seems that when South County is involved the County has money to spare.

The $4.8 million grant was announced with much fanfare in 2014 by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and celebrated as a victory by ferry advocates, including Ed Turanchik, the former commissioner who now represents the companies behind the ferry project, HMS Ferries Inc. and South Swell Development Group LLC.

But now Turanchik says it may make sense to forgo the federal money.

“It’s probably the difference between three years and as many as seven years,” Turanchik said.

It may make sense, but it may not. We get that the company is not concerned about the funding as long as there is funding and it comes sooner rather than later.  That is a logical business position for them.  The question is whether it makes sense for the County.  And the first question we have is just exactly where is the ferry going to dock?  So far, that has been an unanswered question that has wasted a lot of time, much for political reasons.  If there is still no known location, who is to say that determining the location will not waste more time making foregoing the $4.8 million just a complete waste of money?

Our position is pretty straight-forward.  We think the South County-MacDill ferry idea definitely has some potential merit.  However, the County, which claims to be so short of transportation money, should not pass on the federal money unless it is absolutely clear that doing so will significantly speed up the process.  And it should also put some money into real transit in the other parts of the County.

Rowdies, Rays, Regions, and Reality

This week, the Rowdies submitted a bid for one of four (two this year and to sometime in the future) MLS expansion teams. As part of the bid/campaign was little flash in Times Square:

From Empire of Soccer - click on picture for article

From Empire of Soccer – click on picture for article

The other cities bidding for teams are Charlotte, Cincinnati, Nashville, Indianapolis, Detroit, Phoenix, St. Louis, Raleigh/Durham, San Antonio, Sacramento, and San Diego.

Which brings us to an interesting column in the Times about the Rowdies, Rays, St. Pete, and, really attitudes in the area.  We’ll skip the first part of the column which related to the Rowdies sales pitch and get to the meat:

Here are my questions: If the Rays, which own last place in Major League Baseball season attendance in recent years, do eventually opt to pursue a new stadium elsewhere, perhaps in Tampa or Hillsborough County, do the Rowdies then become St. Pete’s “hometown” team? That would leave the Tampa side of this metro market with the Rays, the Bucs and the Bolts as home to all three top tier sports franchises. St. Pete has a “Save the Rays” campaign called Baseball Forever intended to show solidarity for the Rays to stay in St. Petersburg (presumably with a new stadium).

But now the Rowdies are knocking on the doors of the very same area businesses, many of them modest in size, to support their MLS quest.

Many of the larger companies in St. Petersburg and Pinellas County already support the Bucs and the Lightning in Tampa. Pro football fever runs high in Tampa Bay and has picked up since the arrival of quarterback Jameis Winston and signs of improving play jn the field. The Lightning, often contenders for the playoffs, are considered one of the best run sports franchises in the country.

First, none of the teams should be “St. Pete’s ‘hometown’” team.  They should all be hometown teams for the region (that’s why they should be “Tampa Bay” not “Tampa” or “St. Pete.” In fact, there is an online petition regarding just that issue and the Rowdies name here.)  The last thing any of these teams really wants to do is limit their market.

Will some businesses be forced to choose between the Rays and Rowdies? Can area residents support baseball and soccer in a hometown city with population of 260,000?

The simple answer is “No,” which is why major league sports don’t go to cities of 260,000.  They go to cities with larger metro areas and regional populations that can support teams.  St Pete is part of the Tampa-St Pete-Clearwater metropolitan area and the 11th largest media market in the US. That is why the Rays are there now and the Rowdies might get to MLS.

Traditionalist fans argue the Rays, as an MLB franchise, are an important icon for the greater Tampa Bay economy and represent a long history of baseball in this part of Florida. But that does not explain the team’s weak attendance and growing criticism of aging Tropicana Field in an era of competitive stadiums.

The weak attendance is due to location.  That was made clear, again, in a Business Journal article on the Mayor of St. Pete visiting the MLB Commissioner this week with this pitch:

“To me it was important to try and get him to understand what the future potentially holds for that site,” Kriseman said.

He ran through renderings from HKS Architects, the New York-based firm commissioned to develop a site plan for the 85 acres of land currently occupied by Tropicana Field and a sea of asphalt. The plans include a “placeholder” for a stadium, but no specifics. Instead, it focuses on developing the rest of the site with office space, retail, residential and hospitality.

“The team has expressed some disappointment in the season ticket sales,” Kriseman said. “When you look at what could be with a stadium surrounded by activity that’s 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, all are potential fans and ticket holders, which isn’t there now.”

Which is fine, but for 82 games a year, that does not change this:

The Tropicana Field site lacks access to fans within a 30-minute drive of Tropicana Field. Sites in Tampa are central to more people.

Nor will it change in the foreseeable future. Even if the Trop gets redeveloped, other locations (including some in north St. Pete) will be more central.  So, you ask, can the Rowdies think it might work in downtown St. Pete?  Simply put, there are fewer games and fewer seats per game.  They do not need as many people to cross the Bay to go to games (though they definitely need people to cross the Bay to go to games to succeed)

And none of this is to say that St. Pete is not a nice place with a nice downtown.  It is and has developed admirably.  But there are demographic and geographic realities.  Ignoring them or acting like St Pete (or Tampa) will truly succeed as a stand-alone entity (without its County or the area as a whole), in this or many other areas, is silly and counterproductive.

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