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Roundup 3-3-2017

March 3, 2017

Contents

Transportation – More Tales from the Couch

— Hillsborough

— Pinellas

— The Editorial

Transportation – Gandy/Selmon Connector

West Tampa – Old is New Again

Economic Development – A Big Deal

Hyde Park – Whatever

Economy – Housing

Rowdies – The Plan Moves On

Transportation/Latin America – Cuba Flight Update

Transportation/Downtown – PTC is a Decade Late

Transportation – The Water Taxi

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

_______________________________________

Transportation – More Tales from the Couch

There was more news on transportation/transit, and it keeps reinforcing our argument that it is not that local officials don’t know what needs to be done, they just have other priorities.

— Hillsborough

Probably, not coincidentally, the Hillsborough County Commission was discussing their $0 to $600 million to $800 million road plan.

In Hillsborough, county commissioners evaluated how to spend $812 million allocated for transportation in the next 10 years.

* * *

Hillsborough commissioners each took turns speaking to the need for a better system:

“We have woefully underfunded transit,” Commissioner Pat Kemp said in a Wednesday meeting.

“I fully support additional transit funding,” Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

“I know, as you know, that need is there,” Commissioner Victor Crist said.

“Bottom line is, folks, we do not fund transit the way we should,” Commissioner Les Miller said.

But when the meeting ended, the use of the $812 million remained the same. About $1 million will go to transit projects — a study of a proposed ferry connecting MacDill Air Force Base to south county and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s pilot program for on-demand car service to and from bus stops in south county. The rest, just under $811 million, will go to roads, sidewalks and safety projects.

There were no proposals to take some of that money and allocate it toward bus service. Hagan said after the meeting that he thinks the money is “still subject to being revised” and that he’s “open to considering additional transit funding” within the plan.

When asked if he would be willing to make a motion to move funding from some of those road projects to transit projects, he said, “That’s too early to tell.”

Do we need more funding sources for transportation? Yes, especially if FDOT spends $6 billion on TBX rather than creating a holistic plan.  But if transit was a priority for it, the County would not have gone from no money to $600 million to $812 million basically just for roads, without anything substantial for transit.  That does not show real interest in transit.

Though, this does, at least for one Commissioner:

Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp plans to put up a fight for transit when the board votes Wednesday on its $812 million transportation plan.

* * *

Kemp wants to hold off on spending about half that money, including canceling plans for a $97 million widening of Lithia Pinecrest Road. Instead, she wants to put some of it toward a Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority program that provides vans for people who want to carpool, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s pilot program that offers rides to get people to and from bus stops and a proposed ferry between south county and MacDill Air Force Base.

The rest shouldn’t be spent until Hillsborough studies all the options on the table and conducts a master plan with a vision for solving congestion problems and incorporating transit, she said.

We are all for the basic idea, even if we do not necessarily agree with the transit choices (maybe do the next Metro Rapid line or some other combination of projects). But that is a question that can be worked out.  And what road projects do not happen right now is also a question, but that can (should) be discussed.  More to the point is not spending everything on roads.  Of course, while such a proposal is worth trying, we did not think it would lead to much because the political will is lacking.  And it didn’t:

Hillsborough County Commissioners approved a road-centric $812 million, 10-year transportation plan Wednesday despite calls from residents and one of their own for more transit options. 

Which is in no way surprising. Per Stpetersblog:

Commissioner Sandy Murman praised several of Kemp’s ideas, adding in a motion to come back and potentially incorporate several of her ideas in the two-year budget cycle. But she said it was important to follow “the process,” adding that “we can’t just slap money at HART right now without knowing what we’re throwing money at.” 

Which is odd, because that is HART has a plan.  We think it is quite modest, but it is there and it is a start.  And Go Hillsborough had a HART plan just like it had a road list, you know, the one which the Commission seemed to have no problem slapping $800+ million.  What is the difference? Back to the Times:

“We’ve got to find a dedicated funding source to support transit funding,” Murman said. “Not a band aid approach.”

That is true.  Transit requires recurrent funding, but, then again, so does road maintenance (including maintaining roads that would be expanded), and the County is spending a good chunk the $800+ million on that.  How will they pay next time they need to do maintenance? Even if the future road maintenance money comes out of general revenue, which it should, budgeting still requires being able to come up with the money going into the future.  The Commission’s actions do nothing to solve that or transit.  And just sitting back and saying that studies are under way does not solve the problem, either.  You still need funding.

After Go Hillsborough, the Commission had the opportunity to, as we suggested (See “Transportation – Time to Move On”), take a systematic approach to working out the problem.  They chose to find $800 million for roads and do nothing about transit. There is nothing stopping the Commission from investing in transit now in the interim while they figure out long-term funding, just like on roads, except their own lack of doing it.

And one last thing from Stpetersblog:

Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert supported the proposal, but requested that the county list the projects included in the $812 million, and some of the criteria about why they’re in the plan. “I think it would bring some comfort to making sure that we’re doing the right projects today,” she said.

With which we completely agree.  We may not have the same view on what is “right” in all cases as the person making the request and we’re not so sure that it would bring comfort, but we definitely agree the Commission should justify the spending of the $800 million they said they did not have.  Let them definitively define their priorities rather than always saying they will do something while never actually doing it.

— Pinellas

The Times also details how PSTA (and Pinellas) is doing a good amount of talking.  (Of course, PSTA needs local governments to really do the lifting on funding, and they haven’t.)

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he wasn’t surprised at all that the Times found the region to be one of the worst, most underfunded transit systems in the country, but he was “incredibly frustrated.”

“It puts us at such a disadvantage as a city, as a region and as a state economically,” Kriseman said Friday.

Yes, it does.  But it still does not make the argument for this:

That frustration is amplified as a leader of a city in Florida, he said. The state does not allow cities to put referenda for transit funding on election ballots, and instead delegates that right to counties. As a result, cities are left with limited options to fund transit projects.

Because 1) no one has said what they would do with the City tax money other than the most general statements (which isn’t the best way to convince people to support a new tax or way of getting taxes), and, 2) if we need regional solutions, going even more local will not give them.

“We either get real creative where we look at trying to provide funding ourselves, which is what we did with the ferry project, or we hope we can maybe get some federal dollars,” Kriseman said. “Aside from that, there’s just not a whole lot of options for cities.”

While using the Cross Bay Ferry trial, which is overpriced and poorly scheduled, is not the best example, we totally agree with getting creative – as should the Counties (and we have said it many times).  We suggest that if the cities want people to get behind them for any push, they need to come up with more substance.

— The Editorial

Along with their series of articles, the Times also had an editorial that echoed much of what we have been saying, and, logically, with which we would agree.

An exhaustive account by the Tampa Bay Times published last Sunday chronicled the region’s long history of failure on transit and the profound consequences to residents, employers and the economy. For a region that aspires to be great, this is what holds us back.

* * *

Many of the transit initiatives that failed were hobbled at the start, crafted by committees with a lack of vision and sold to voters with public relations campaigns that never succeeded outside the urban core. A 2010 Hillsborough referendum was supported by city of Tampa voters but opposed by county voters. A 2014 Pinellas referendum narrowly lost in St. Petersburg but was soundly defeated everywhere else. Yet the Times report also shows that tired arguments by transit opponents that Tampa Bay’s geography and density are not suited to mass transit are not viable.

* * *

The region’s elected leaders also need to show more creativity and follow-through. Several Republicans who opposed the Go Hillsborough plan last year that never made it to voters said the initiative wasn’t comprehensive enough. These same leaders had years to shape Go Hillsborough for the better. That didn’t happen, and they cannot now distance themselves by feigning disappointment with an outcome that happened on their watch.

That is true.  But it is also true that Go Hillsborough’s city transit component lacked any (publicly released) detail (and in 2010 the only real transit portion was city-only).  And both the County and City component lacked any vision.  And no real vision has been forthcoming since from the City or the County.

Local leaders also need to make a stronger connection between good transit and good jobs. The cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa have already drawn attention to the role that mass transit plays in growing and enlivening the downtowns. But transit can maximize a region’s entire workforce, creating a newly mobile marketplace for employers and upwardly mobile opportunities for workers who cannot afford a car or the costly rents of a prime location. The time, money and resources saved by cutting commuting times is returned to the community in the form of reclaimed wages, less congested roadways, cleaner air and other tangible benefits.

And that is true, but they need to expand beyond just addressing the need riders to argue for and work to gain choice riders.  People do not need to be trapped in their cars.  Which gets us to this:

Voters in the region have shown they will vote to tax themselves to pay for investments crucial to the area’s quality of life, from public safety and infrastructure to health care and education. It’s past time to invest in transit. Other metro areas struggled through defeats, only to build and expand their mass transit systems. They are moving ahead of Tampa Bay, and this region cannot afford to remain stuck at the bottom of those transit lists if it wants to compete to be an attractive destination to live, work and play. 

The bottom line is that need riders should deserve better service, and the potential choice riders need to be provided an actual choice because, as we keep saying, the real question for developing the economy to its actual potential is this: if a person can live anywhere (or almost anywhere) they want, why would they choose to live here as opposed to another area that already has so many amenities that we are still talking about?

Transportation – Gandy/Selmon Connector

One road project that actually does make sense is the Gandy/Selmon Connector.  WTSP had a report this week:

The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plans to start constructing the Selmon Expressway Extension Project in January 2018.

* * *

The Selmon Expressway Extension Project is expected to be complete and up and running by Fall 2020. The project will be paid for with existing money already raised from tolls.

If so, that would be good, though we are still not completely convinced that one lane in each direction is the best idea.  At least it is something and will provide an alternative to the Howard Frankland.  It should have been done long ago.

West Tampa – Old is New Again

A few years ago, the City put out a master plan for redeveloping the area around the North Boulevard Homes which included demolishing the public housing and rebuilding the area in a more urban way.  It was still not that dense, but it was better.  The Housing Authority then hired a developer that was clearly not good for the job (which was clear when they were selected).  Subsequently, that developer was dropped.  Eventually, the Housing Authority/City chose the Related Group as the developer.  While Related is a fine developer, usually of large, dense projects, in Tampa it has mostly been a mid-density developer (see Pier House and the Tribune property) not up to its usual high standards.

As part of the whole Housing Authority project, the Bethune building, which can be easily seen from I-275 was supposed to be demolished.  This week, there was news about that:

The Mary Bethune High Rise Apartments provided low-cost housing for Tampa seniors for 50 years before it was scheduled for a date with a wrecking ball.

Demolition of the apartments and of the sprawling North Boulevard Homes public housing project was to make way for the West River project, the authority’s ambitious plan to revitalize the area west of the Hillsborough River with a walkable community.

Now, the aging eight-story apartment tower block close to Interstate 275 in downtown Tampa may have won a reprieve.

Tampa Housing Authority officials now say they are planning an extensive rehabilitation of the 1966 building to again provide senior housing and they plan to modify the West River plan to accommodate it, said Leroy Moore, Housing Authority chief operating officer.

“The structure seems to be salvageable,” Moore said. “Both our developer and we are pursuing that as an option.”

So why the change?

The approach means the housing authority can pursue different county and state funding pots than the more competitive sources earmarked for new public housing construction.

“We could potentially close in the next 12 months and be under construction as opposed to doing work to secure funding,” Moore said.

In other words, it is more likely to get done.  And, really, we are ok with that.  While dated in design (and kind of ugly with outdoor “hallways”), the building probably can be updated.  This one change is not really an issue, except how it will fit into the overall plan.  To understand what we mean, you need to know a few things.  First, this is the Bethune building:

From the Times - click on picture for article

From the Times – click on picture for article

The aerial view is here.  Looking at the picture and the aerial, facing the streets are almost all surface parking.  Now consider this:

The idea came from similar projects in Miami such as the Jack Orr Plaza, a 1975 12-story tower block that was restored by Related Group, the developer the Housing Authority is partnering with on the West River project.

* * *

A small group of Tampa tenant leaders toured some of Miami’s restored buildings Feb. 16, including Jack Orr Plaza, as part of a Housing Authority plan to get resident feedback on the Bethune proposal.

“We wanted to give them a firsthand view of substantial rehab projects so they understand this is practically new construction without tearing down the structure,” Moore said.

This is Jack Orr Plaza.

From Miami-Dade County - click on picture for website

From Miami-Dade County – click on picture for website

The aerial view is here.  If you look at the aerial, you might also notice it has large surface parking lots facing the street.  Not really a model of the West River plan that is supposed to urbanize (not enough in our opinion) and make walkable the area.

As you may have guessed, our concern is the parking lots. If the Bethune building is renovated but there is not any better interaction with the street and neighborhood, that is a retreat from the whole idea behind the West River Master Plan.  We don’t mind saving the building and making it better, but that needs to at least fit into the plan.  (It’s just kind of sad that, as the article noted, the Bethune building will be unusually tall – probably be the tallest building – in the redeveloped West River.)

Economic Development – A Big Deal

There was interesting news for a Pinellas County economic power:

Tech Data Corp. has closed its $2.6 billion purchase of Avnet Inc.’s Technology Solutions business.

The deal gives Tech Data (NASDAQ: TECD) a presence in the Asia-Pacific region, a new market for the Clearwater-based IT distributor. It’s expected to boost Tech Data’s annual revenue from $26.4 billion to about $35 billion and increase employment to about 14,000 from about 9,000.

* * *

The deal likely propels Tech Data into the prestigious Fortune 100. Tech Data was No. 108 on the 2016 Fortune 500 list. Northwestern Mutual, the No. 100 company on last year’s Fortune 500 list, had $28.1 billion in revenue. Tech Data would be the Tampa Bay area’s second Fortune 100 company; Publix Super Markets Inc. was No. 87 last year.

It is always good to have large companies succeed here.  Not just because it is good for the company and their employees (and the money they have to spend), it also helps show other companies that this area is good for big companies.

Hyde Park – Whatever

There is a new proposal for a nine story assisted living facility on Hyde Park right near the bridge to Davis Islands (509 S Hyde Park Ave). URBN Tampa Bay posted the filed rendering:

From URBN Tampa Bay - click on picture for Facebook page

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

We can’t really tell much from that, except there is nothing interesting at the ground level (and they did not spend a lot on renderings).  This is the site plan:

From URBN Tampa Bay - click on picture for Facebook page

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

Most of the parking appears to be under the building, which is good.  The biggest issue we have is the lack of street connection.  We get that it is an assisted living facility.  Also, the location can be seen here.

While we usually think street retail is a good idea, this particular stretch of road is pretty much a dead streetscape.  Moreover, it connects to the bridge rather than Bayshore.  Based on that, we are ok (though not thrilled) with the lack of any retail.  On the other hand, there needs to be some better connection to the street for the sake of residents and passersby.

Economy – Housing

Amid a constant stream of reports about the hot housing market focusing mostly on housing prices (see here and here), there was a slightly different report this week.

First-time homebuyers in Florida have among the most obstacles in the nation when it comes to bagging a property, according to a study by Bankrate.com.

The financial information website (NASDAQ: RATE) evaluated home affordability relative to median income, credit availability, unemployment, the tightness of supply in the housing market, and the percentage of young homeowners in every state.

Florida scored very low for credit availability and homeownership among millennials and below average in the job market for young adults. The state also had the eighth-highest percentage of rejected mortgage applications in 2015.

Its housing affordability score was average.

Of course, if income is low and credit is not available, it is likely that most houses will not be affordable.  In any event, we get that this is one survey and is Florida-wide, not Tampa Bay specific, but it does raise some concerns, especially for the future.

Rowdies – The Plan Moves On

The Rowdies MLS attempt is moving forward.

The Tampa Bay Rowdies bid to make the jump to Major League Soccer took a leap forward Thursday when the City Council unanimously approved a citywide vote on the team’s plans to expand their home field to MLS standards.

The May 2 vote means that residents can weigh in on whether the city could negotiate up to a 25-year lease with Rowdies’ owner Bill Edwards for Al Lang Stadium. The Rowdies plant to expand the stadium to 18,000 seats.

Any agreement would have to approved by the council and is contingent on the team getting one of four MLS expansion slots to be decided within the next few years. The first two slots should be decided this year, said former mayor Rick Baker, president of the Edwards Group.

From the Times - click on picture for article

From the Times – click on picture for article

We hope is passes, a deal gets done, and they get awarded the MLS slot.

Transportation/Latin America – Cuba Flight Update

There was an interesting article in the Times regarding Cuba flights:

When word came that commercial flights between the United States and Cuba would resume after more than five decades, major airlines jumped into the competition for routes.

* * *

Now, just six months later, some airlines are scaling back because demand is less than expected — except in Tampa.

Total passengers using Tampa International Airport to fly to and from Cuba is growing to the point that more flights may be added.

“Tampa is a strong market,” said Mark Elias, president of charter operator Havana Air, who hopes to receive landing rights in Santa Clara from the Cuban government within the next month. “We’re happy to be a part of it.”

Southwest Airlines, which began offering daily direct commercial flights connecting Havana and Tampa on Dec. 12, echoed that sentiment.

“Our nonstop service from Tampa Bay to Cuba is performing in-line with our expectation,” spokesman Brad Hawkins said in an email. “There were many days in December when an empty seat was hard to come by.”

How strong?

Passengers traveling to and from Havana through Tampa totalled 7,923 in December, up from 6,693 in December 2015 when only charter flights were available, according to the airport.

In January 2017, the first full month of the commercial service, the number rose again to 8,731 — nearly 32 percent above the same month a year before.

How does that compare to other cities?

The United States and Cuban governments negotiated 110 daily commercials flights connecting the nations — 20 a day to Havana, with nine other cities on the island each receiving 10 a day.

The secondary cities received fewer bids than expected but a dozen U.S. airlines applied for nearly 60 flights a day to Havana from 20 American cities.

Ultimately, eight airlines and 10 airports split the Havana routes. Commercial service to the nine secondary Cuban cities began in August. The first Havana flight took off in November from Miami and Tampa’s launched a month later.

American Airlines has already dropped one of its two daily flights between Miami and the Cuban cities of Varadero, Santa Clara and Holguín.

Silver Airlines, serving all nine of the secondary Cuban cities from Fort Lauderdale, reduced its number of flights to six of these destinations.

JetBlue has switched to smaller planes, with 50 fewer seats, to serve Havana out of Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and New York. It did the same for flights to Camagüey, Holguín and Santa Clara from Fort Lauderdale.

We are happy for the strong performance, especially since we are the only non-hub with Cuba flights.

If Southwest chose to make us a focus city for such flights, they could build on our already developed market as well as their extensive flights into Tampa. (We are sure the airport folks are working on it.) Hopefully, we will get a few more flights that do well.

Transportation/Downtown – PTC is a Decade Late

As we have noted numerous times, years ago there used to be a free electric shuttle downtown that the PTC killed on behalf of the cab companies.  Recently, the Downtown Partnership and local government contracted with an out of down company to provide another one.  What did the PTC say?

. . . now the Downtowner can officially claim the cachet of being a limousine, albeit a low-speed, non-luxury one.

Public Transportation Commission board members approved that designation in a recent decision to regulate the fleet of 12 electric cars that give free rides around downtown. It was done at the request of the Tampa Downtown Partnership, which launched the service in October.

The change is about more than status.

Putting the vehicles under the regulation of the PTC means the cars can legally be used as commercial vehicles like taxicabs. There are no plans to start charging for rides but the partnership plans to sell advertising on the cars, said Karen Kress, the partnership’s director of transportation and planning.

It also means drivers will now be able to accept tips, although the partnership may lower their hourly pay accordingly.

We are all for the electric shuttle, though we also were when it was a local company. It was also not using government money, unlike the present:

But [the Downtowner’s] popularity is also hampering the growth of the service. Only six cars are on the road at one time, while the other six cars are recharged.

That can mean long wait times, sometimes up to 40 minutes.

“People are getting frustrated with the wait time,” Kress said. “We need to find ways to get more revenue so we can expand and enhance the service.”

One option the partnership is exploring is to get more funding from state and local agencies. Kress is scheduled to meet next week with officials from the city, Florida Department of Transportation and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

If the Downtowner can meet some of downtown’s transit needs and complement other transit services, then it might make sense for agencies like HART to switch resources elsewhere and assist in funding, Kress said.

The service costs about $1 million per year. Initial funding sources included a $560,000 award from downtown and Channel District community development funds. The state DOT has already pledged to pay $150,000 for three years. Downtown commercial office towers and hotels have also pitched in with contributions, Kress said.

What this story really tells us is how local government functions for some but not others, and not necessarily for the innovative.  It also tells us that, while we are happy for this option, more, real options (especially ones that connect directly to outside of downtown) are necessary.

Transportation – The Water Taxi

There was interesting news about the big, yellow water taxis in downtown.

The Pirate Water Taxi in Tampa is expanding its fleet with a new direct route along to the Hillsborough River to the Lowry Park Zoo.

Passholders got a free sneak peek at the new route this past weekend, and is now open to the public.

The trip takes about 45 minutes each way, going from the Tampa Convention Center to the Zoo dock located at 7252 North Boulevard, in a City of Tampa park directly across the street from the Lowry Park Zoo.

Pirate Water Taxi built an entirely new 29-seat boat for the new route. It leaves daily from the Tampa Convention Center at 10:00 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 2:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m. And it leaves from the Zoo Dock at 11:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. daily.

It may be a little slow for some, but that is a nice development.  And it is good they are doing well enough to expand.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

With all the talk of transit funding, or the lack thereof, in this area, there was interesting news from the Atlanta area.

For decades, the explosive northern reaches of the five-county core metro area have found themselves in the transit doldrums. That is, more than two million residents in North Fulton, Gwinnett, and Cobb counties have missed out on high-capacity transit access.

Now, many of those folks who’ve gone without are beginning to question why.

The AJC reports that leaders in Roswell, a city served by MARTA bus service, are hoping to push the state legislature to explore funding for a more comprehensive, high-capacity option to stretch north of Sandy Springs.

A resolution was passed by the Roswell City Council that highlighted the potential of northward MARTA expansion to mitigate congestion in not just Roswell, but “throughout the greater Atlanta metro region.” It even went so far as to say the economy and health and safety of the public were at risk if transit wasn’t explored as an option for the area.

* * *

Meanwhile, Gwinnett County also is making moves to explore high-capacity transit options to connect into the heart of Atlanta. According to the AJC, the county is preparing to embark on a transit plan to look at dedicated right-of-way transit service.

While the study isn’t tied to MARTA, the report will outline what options that county has, including heavy rail and bus rapid transit.

We understand that these are just studies and that a transit study is underway here.  The difference is that the areas noted above had a chance to join an existing real transit system, but have avoided it. (see, for instance, here)  It seems they are starting to see things differently.  We haven’t even started a real, regional transit system here.

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