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Roundup 4-28-2017

April 28, 2017

Contents

Transportation

– These Were/Are the Corridors

— About That Legislation

— A Little Something

— One More Thing

Port – All Things Are Relative

Channel District – Live, Work, Play

Built Environment – And Also the Trees, Cont

Built Environment – The Perils of Height Limits

Transportation – More On Those Self-Driving Cars

Throw the Flag

______________________________

Transportation

What would be a week without more transportation news?

– These Were/Are the Corridors

The results of the first stage of the premium transit study came out last week. You can see the PowerPoint pdf here plus this scintillating video presentation:

Before we get into them, let’s review what this phase of the study actually was: a study of 60 or so previous studies to determine which would be in the best position for getting federal funding.  It was not an actually study of the present and future needs of the area or what would be best for us.  It was basically dusting off the old work (kind of like how TBX was built on plans from the 1990s).

This is the first big update in the regional premium transit feasibility plan, a cumbersome term for a process that will identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will best serve the region.

A team from Jacobs Engineering expects to narrow that list and recommend three specific projects — including the exact routes and the type of transit that will operate on them — by November, said Jacobs executive Scott Pringle.

Politicians and transit advocates alike have placed a lot of weight on this 2½-year study, which the Florida Department of Transportation paid $1.5 million for and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is overseeing. They hope it can provide some sort of blueprint for one day solving the bay area’s transportation woes.

“I am depending on this study a lot to be a real, unbiased analysis of what this region needs to solve its transportation challenges,” said Tampa City Council member Harry Cohen. “My hope is that they’re evaluating every conceivable option.”

That may be his hope, but it is not even the stated purpose/methodology of the study.  So what corridors did they pick?

The five corridors Jacobs selected are a mix of routes between Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, connecting the area’s densest regions and busiest road corridors:

First, they selected from other studies.  (And why are they looking at only road corridors, if, in fact, that was what they did, which is not actually clear?  Transit is not constrained by road corridors and any study of transit that is constrained to road corridors is instantly prejudiced.)

Second, their selections should surprise no one since they were just pulling ideas from ideas that have already been discussed.  Instead of describing what they found (or subjecting you to the video really does not spend much time on the actual numbers), we just took screen shots of the pdf for the five corridors.

Given that this part of the study is just a rehash of old studies, there is nothing really surprising there (though some of the projections seem a little odd to us).  Our issue with just rehashing what has gone before is not that the previous plans were necessarily bad or that they may not apply to the present.  Some do.  Some don’t.  Our issue is that if you are going to spend the time, do an updated regional assessment.  If you come up with the same thing (which you very well might), fine.  You may find you need to make some tweaks or major changes (see TBX).

For instance, if you look at the charts above of projected population and job concentration overlaid with all five routes (which is very unlikely), you note there are still big gaps of dense population that are completely unaddressed in Central Pinellas and Northwest Hillsborough (where there really is a big traffic bottleneck).  The reason for that is the past studies have ignored those areas, so this study ignores those areas, even though getting people through bottlenecks is one of the things transit is very good for and getting people from where they live to where they work and do other things is basically the purpose of transit.  Notably, the CSX tracks connect most densely populated areas and business centers, with the notable exception of not connecting downtown Tampa to Westshore/Airport (or crossing from Westshore to the Gateway).  We are not saying the CSX tracks are a panacea.  However, using them is worth studying, but it is not going to happen now.

We want this study to be truly useful and come up with some creative solutions to help us have an effective, coordinated transportation system, but the first results point to really just seeing more of the same we have seen before.  We shall have to see what happens.  The future stage of the analysis, where actual choices are proposed, will be more interesting.

— About That Legislation

When last we left the TBARTA legislation, it had just been amended to include:

. . . a feasibility study before any light rail system can move forward, that at least three of the five affected counties must agree with the strategy, and that any rail project must be approved by the Legislature, which would be putting up some of the money anyway.

All of which is unnecessary because, as noted (and we noted before) if there is a request for state money, the legislature would have to approve and, if there isn’t, why should we ask the rep from Lake City?  Not to mention you need a feasibility study for Federal money. And if one county wants to do something and not burden other counties, why does it need their approval?  But anyway, this is what happened this week:

More than a dozen top business local executives went to Tallahassee with an appeal in the days following last week’s political showdown between three GOP senators from Tampa Bay over a regional transit bill.

Keep talking. Please.

The nonprofit Tampa Bay Partnership had planned the lobbying trip anyway.

But the delegation arrived just a day after Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, watched in frustration as fellow Republican senators Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa amended his bill to overhaul the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) during a tense meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee.

As approved on April 17 by the committee, which Lee chairs, the amendment would require legislative approval for any local spending on a light rail system and would prohibit the authority from spending money to push for light rail in a voter referendum. The changes are seen as a serious blow to the independence of the authority.

“The timing could not have been better for this trip because the bill was at a critical point,” said Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans. 

Well, the trip could have come before the machinations and before having to ask people to keep talking (which they should be doing anyway), but it is what it is.

The group’s original agenda was to support a four-part policy agenda, which included Latvala’s transit bill as well as ridesharing legislation, the creation of a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization and money for the Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion project. The group still covered all four topics, but put special emphasis on the TBARTA bill.

Setting aside that TBX is on hold and will probably change because it was plainly a bad plan (even if you like express lanes and 18 lanes cutting through the middle of town),

What emerges may be a hybrid of the original bill. Several partnership members said they felt the legislators were open to collaborating to fix the region’s transportation problems.

“It’s not dead,” Homans said of the proposal. “It’s very much alive.”

The Times article then includes a number of innocuous quotes, which is fine.  So the bill is still around.  And, of course, everyone wants to “fix” the transportation problem.  The real issue is the differing views on what that actually means (does it mean just paving more or does it mean really creating a coordinates, interconnected transportation system built to be expanded and provide real options to roads?)  Per the Business Journal:

Backers of the original bill worry the changes water down the bill’s intent by limiting a new TBARTA’s ability to serve as a regional transit planning arm.

“While there’s still work to be done to ensure the recent amendments to the bill won’t make it more difficult to move forward with new transit projects, we believe that with some key modifications, there’s still room for agreement among all parties,” said Tampa Bay Partnership President Rick Homans. “We’re encouraged by the progress this legislation has made in both the Senate and the House, and look forward to the entire Bay Area Legislative Delegation coming together on the floor to support the future of transportation in Tampa Bay.”

Look, the amendments were intended to make it harder, not impossible but harder, to move forward, especially any rail.  (see here)  To change it to not make it harder would mean getting rid of the amendments.  But that’s not the biggest issue, it’s just an indication of the biggest problem.

As we keep saying, the problem with solving our transportation issues lies far more in the attitudes of those charged with solving them than with the arrangement of the chairs at the table.  Passing this bill will not change that.  We would be much more enthusiastic if the Partnership were focused more on the attitudes than the arrangements, because otherwise, even if the chairs get rearranged, those who want to maintain the road-centric status quo will just do what they have always done.

– A Little Something

Now that the ferry trial run is winding down, there is talk about next year:

Hillsborough County Commissioners sounded impressed by the relative success of the Cross-Bay Ferry pilot project between Tampa and St. Petersburg that concludes at the end of this month, but whether they are prepared to spend another $350,000 to fund a repeat performance later this year remains uncertain.

After hearing a presentation from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, whose leadership led to the project happening, the board passed a motion to have County Administrator Mike Merrill review whether the board can find the funds to subsidize its portion of the four-government pilot project later this year.

The St. Petersburg mayor, who is running for re-election this year, unveiled a PowerPoint presentation filled with statistics to measure who has actually taken the ferry over the past five-and-a-half months. At the end of March, more than 31,000 people had ridden on the ferry, with organizers hoping the total number could hit 40,000 before it ends in 12 days.

Kriseman said that expectations were low for people to commute to work on the ferry, especially with the project using only one boat. During weekdays the service offers only two full round trips, with three on the weekends.

Looking to fund it next year is fine, though we have to note that, as long as it runs on a limited schedule only half the year, it is not a viable replacement for owning a car or around which one can truly plan: in other words it is not truly useful transit.  Moreover, even its biggest proponent knows it is only a potentially small part of a transportation solution:

Curbing his enthusiasm somewhat, Kriseman began his address to the Board by acknowledging that the ferry is hardly the solution to the Tampa Bay area’s vexing transportation issues. “It is simply an additional tool in our toolbox that works toward those solutions that I think all of us seek and know that we’ve got those challenges that we’ve got to address if we’re going to grow out counties and our region,” he said.

Which is true.  Moreover, there is this:

The survey shows that 90 percent of passengers were Tampa Bay residents, but Board Chairman Stacy White said he wanted those numbers broken down further by zip code, questioning how many people living in the outlying parts of both counties were using the service, vs. those living in Tampa and St. Petersburg. 

Which is crucial, and we suspect that its catchment is quite limited.

So, by all means, look at funding it (and here is another interesting blog post about relative effectiveness of transit funding), but there is way more work to do.

— One More Thing

HART rolled out its flashy Tesla experiment this week:

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority on Monday launched an expanded program around the University of South Florida campus to get riders to and from bus stops using Tesla Model X vehicles.

The agency is expanding its HyperLINK program to the university area. Riders can use the service to hail a ride similar to the way they would use Uber to pick them up for a ride to or from a bus station. The subsidized rides are $3 each way.

The service is intended to solve first mile/last mile problems often affiliated with public transportation in areas where bus routes don’t run close enough to the places where people live or work.

Setting aside the $3 price even for transit in a Tesla, while the first mile/last mile issue is a major concern for transit, anyone who rides HART or has attempted to plan a reasonable trip on their app knows that is not really the big issue.  A much bigger issue is that, even if you are near a stop, the trips quickly become very long – impractically long if you are a choice rider and really not cool if you need to use HART.

Which brings us to an interesting item in Creative Loafing from the head of the Innovation Alliance.

I intend to discover first hand just how easy or difficult, it is to abandon my own car & rely on the bus or a rideshare each day. I’ll use HART buses, the HyperLINK system, Uber and Lyft and my own two feet to get from my meetings, four to five of which I have per day, and can occur anywhere in the county. This won’t be easy as our system was not created for people trying to get from home to work [] quickly. I feel a bit like Magellan navigating uncharted territory.  But unlike him, I have wifi on the bus—so I promise to keep you in the loop. 

We will be following along.

Port – All Things Are Relative

We are used to hearing things like this from the Port website:

Port Tampa Bay’s longstanding supremacy among Florida ports is based largely on its leadership in handling of bulk and break‐bulk cargos, including phosphate, steel and petroleum, as well as in the shipbuilding industry.  Port Tampa Bay over the past decade has impressively advanced its container‐handling capabilities and seen a rapid growth in regional distribution facilities.

So, given the claim of supremacy or being the “biggest” port in Florida, there was some interesting information on the Business Journal website that showed up in link in an article on growing cruise business in Florida.

Waterborne cargo value, 2015 Waterborne cargo value, 2014 Containerized cargo value, 2015 Total tonnage, 2015 Cruise passengers, 2015
Port Everglades $25.19 billion $27.13 billion $17.29 billion 24 million 3.77 million
PortMiami $25.05 billion $23.71 billion $20.96 billion 8.61 million 4.92 million
Port of Jacksonville (Jaxport) $23.93 billion $23.35 billion $8.03 billion 17.7 million 366,021
Port Tampa Bay $4.57 billion $4.51 billion $666.38 million 37.37 million 867,114
Port Panama City $3.01 billion $3.15 billion $894.25 million 2.03 million 0

 

From the Business Journal, click here for article.

Admittedly, the information is from 2015 but what is really interesting is how Port Tampa Bay is way out ahead on tonnage but that tonnage is about one sixth the value of cargo of Jacksonville, Miami, and Everglades (Ft. Lauderdale), which is not so good or supreme.  The large tonnage (which is a function of a diversity of uses at the Port, which is a good thing) is good and supports jobs, but it would support more and better jobs if the tonnage was high and the value was also high. (And the value discrepancy is a necessary corrective to the usual discussions about the Port.)

Just like with jobs and income in this area, we have quantity but we need much better quality.  And just another reason to focus on port activity instead of real estate development.

Channel District – Live, Work, Play

There was interesting news about the Channel District this week:

Quality Distribution Inc., a trucking business based off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near I-75 in Tampa, plans to move its headquarters to the ground floor of Grand Central at Kennedy, the mixed-use development at Kennedy Boulevard and Meridian Avenue that includes condominiums and retail space. That’s a relocation of 250 employees and a new 45,000-square-foot headquarters coming to the Channel District in downtown Tampa.

It is interesting that they chose the Channel District rather than the central business district, which is good for expanding truly downtown.  It is also sign that the Channel District, which already had live and play (at least sort of play), may also truly add a good dose of work.

Built Environment – And Also the Trees, Cont

A few weeks ago we discussed moves to change the Tampa tree code.  This week, the Times had more information:

An update of the city’s tree and landscape code is headed to a City Council workshop Thursday, about a year behind the schedule City Hall set in late 2015.

* * *

City officials use the study, which is updated periodically, to create a management plan for a tree canopy that covers about a third of Tampa.“Now we need to update our regulations,” said Catherine Coyle, the city’s planning and urban design manager. The proposed changes are meant to consolidate rules now spread among many city documents, make regulations easier to read and make processes more streamlined and predictable.

They are also meant to help place trees where they’ll not only be healthy, but won’t interfere with sidewalks, foundations or underground utility lines.

And all that is fine, in theory.  But the devil is in the details:

As proposed:

Currently, appealing a denial goes to the city’s Variance Review Board, which can take 60 to 90 days, and appealing that board’s decision goes to the City Council, which can take 60 to 90 more days.

As proposed, appeals would go straight to the City Council.

So what is the reaction?

Architect Joe Chillura, who worked to develop Tampa’s first comprehensive tree ordinance in 1972 as a member of the City Council, said the latest proposal improves on the current code and has adequate protections for trees and improved requirements on what needs to be planted to mitigate for the loss of trees that have been removed. 

But:

Tampa Homeowners, an Association of Neighborhoods — a citywide civic umbrella group — “has been watching this for a long time,” said THAN president Jerry Frankhouser.

“It’s one of our major concerns,” he said. “I think we would like to leave it alone, because we feel that the ordinance is doing the job that it should be doing.”

But Tampa land-use attorney John B. Grandoff III said the proposed changes are “much worse” than the existing code and, “rather than simplify the process” would make “it even harder to develop real estate.”

“It’s very complicated,” he said. “I don’t know how a lay person could apply this new tree code. It requires a lot of technical expertise.”

What’s more, Grandoff doubted that the city has enough staff to apply some parts of the proposed code, such as considering the development pattern within a quarter-mile of a requested removal.

City officials expect a full range of reactions.

Setting aside that the quarter-mile thing seems to run against the whole idea of the ordinance, when you get a prominent land-use lawyer agreeing with the homeowners association umbrella group that the changes are not good (really not good), it is a sign that you need to go back to the drawing board.

As we said, we are not opposed to refining the ordinance in theory, but change should not be for change’s sake.  Development in Tampa is going fine so any changes need to be clearly better than what was before.  That is simply not the case right now.

Built Environment – The Perils of Height Limits

People who want to limit development often turn to height limits, thinking that by limiting the height of a building, you will limit the overall size – the mass. Height limits have a place, say in an area of single family homes or a historic district. However, what usually happens with projects involving valuable land with relatively dense uses (like, say, a downtown) is that, even if you grant a bit of a waiver, you tend to end up with a hulking mess of a building that cuts off view corridors and is even worse than letting a building be taller and slimmer.

Last week there was the reveal of a proposal for a hotel building on St. Pete Beach, where there is a long-running battle over development, especially of buildings actually along the beach.

ST. PETE BEACH – City commissioners voted unanimously April 11 to approve a request for a conditional use permit for a mixed-use development on the site of the Coral Reef hotel property at 5750 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach.

Owners of the TradeWinds Island Grand Resort plan to build a 217-room hotel on the site with an 811-space multi-story parking garage, which will make up the proposed Sugar Sands at TradeWinds Island Grand Beach Resort. The building will include a timeshare sales center, a spa, fitness center, a marketing office and a reception area.

The proposed height is 116 feet, which is the reason for the conditional use permit.

According to Cynthia Tarapani, a certified planner with Florida Design Consultants, the project falls within the current allowable density for the area, which is 75 units per acre. 

Setting aside having 811 parking spaces for a 217 room hotel, this is what the rendering looks like:

From St Beach Today – click on picture for article

It seems to us that is exactly what people complaining about development in St Pete Beach would like to avoid – a huge box blocking off any sight of the beach. (Clearwater Beach is getting a decent amount of hulking boxes, too.)

St. Pete Beach can do whatever it wants, but, for others, we think that makes the point quite well.  We are not against building guidelines, but we are against ineffective or counter-productive ones.

Transportation – More On Those Self-Driving Cars

As we have noted before, many seem to think that self-driving cars are the future, and they may be.  But there are some issues.  Setting aside the litigation goldmine that awaits, there are technical issues.  Elaborating on the hacking issue we referenced a few weeks ago, there is this:

Whether they’re detecting human faces in Snapchat or helping self-driving cars avoid road hazards, artificial intelligence systems depend on computer vision algorithms to distinguish between different types of objects. But researchers have developed tricks to confuse those algorithms, stopping AI from recognizing the contents of images.

A new method developed by German scientists from the University of Freiberg and the Bosch Center for Artificial Intelligence goes further, showing it’s possible to effectively blind machine vision systems from seeing specific categories of objects in a scene, like pedestrians in a road.

You can read the article here.  The point is not that automated cars will never work, they probably will.  But, at least for a while, they are not going to be the fool-proof systems that they are held out to be.  And, of course, they still will take up space on the roads.

Throw the Flag

Every now and then an article shows up with no apparent prompting that draws our interest.  Last week, the Times ran an article entitled “Did you know Tampa’s flag is a ‘monstrosity’? No one else does, either”  This is Tampa’s flag:

From Wikipedia – click on picture for webpage

Are not going to get into the whole article, but, well, actually, we did that.  We wrote about it back in 2015 (see “What We Say about Ourselves – City Flags” ) where we linked to a Ted talk on city flags (a really good Ted talk you can find here) which listed five criteria for a good city flag:

  1. keep it simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.
  2. use meaningful symbolism
  3. use two to three basic colors
  4. no lettering or seals. Never use writing of any kind.
  5. be distinctive

And note that Tampa’s flag (as well as St. Pete’s flag – though they are different) has issues:

On to Tampa:  We get the colors – trying to represent America, and our Italian, Cuban, and Spanish immigrants (Isn’t that forgetting at least one major population group?  Maybe, because it was apparently adopted in 1930, though rarely used while we have been around.).  We get the seal.  We get the subtle T and H (Tampa and Hillsborough) that no one will see unless told.  We are not quite sure why there is a stealth bomber silhouette or what all those stars are for (and why one of them is a different size than all the others).  We also don’t get why the shape is a vague imitation of Ohio’s flag, but we can ignore that.  And when you put them together, it is just . . . well, not much.

The real problem with the flag is it tries too hard to say too much.  A flag does not need to have a statement by every group to be all-inclusive (and, as noted, Tampa’s isn’t all inclusive anyway.  Sometimes by doing to[o] much, you emphasize who you exclude). The best flags are a symbol that people can unify [around] (as the TED discusses with Chicago’s flag or the Washington, DC flag). They are easy to understand and clear.

One the other hand, Tampa’s flag is indicative of the area as a whole in the sense that 1) despite being all put under one umbrella, there is still too much disunity and muddle – especially politically – and 2) the planning, design, and presentation are not very strong.  We would like to have a better flag, but maybe the present flag is a better representation of who we still are.  Hopefully, they both will change for the better.

(see “What We Say about Ourselves – City Flags”)

Do we have a clear alternative to propose?  No (though we have some ideas we won’t get into here), but our opinion hasn’t changed.

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