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Roundup 6-16-2017

June 16, 2017


Transportation – Another Week

— Maybe, But That’s Not Enough

— In Support of That Which Is Not There

— Two More Things

Downtown/Channel District/USF – MOSI, a Little More on the Done Deal

Transportation – Water, Water, Across Water

— Studying

— Clearwater

Downtown/Transportation – Bring the Cars

Westshore – So

Landmarks – Nice, If It Lasts


Transportation – Another Week

 Another week, another bunch of transportation news resolving nothing.

— Maybe, But That’s Not Enough

The Times continued its campaign to support the Tampa Bay Partnership’s plan to merge local MPOs.  First, it had a long article about the MPO issue, which we will not discuss at all because it is basically a regurgitation of previous articles.  Then, a few days later, it had another editorial supporting merging the MPOs.

Now that government and business leaders throughout Tampa Bay are talking about consolidating the decisionmaking process for regional transportation planning, it’s little surprise that some voices would still try to protect their parochial interests rather than embrace the big picture. Consolidating the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in the bay area into a single voice that serves the entire region makes sense. This is not reinventing the wheel, and there are ways to ensure that local transportation priorities are not lost in a new structure that would amplify the region’s voice.

Setting aside that “government and business leaders” are not clearly defined categories, it is not surprising that people are trying to protect their local interests when the government habitually and business organizations often show disregard for local concerns, most recently highlighted by the TBX debacle (and at various other times throughout the recent and not so recent history of the area).  That the Times would ignore that is strange.

Yet Beth Alden, the executive director of Hillsborough’s MPO, says a merger could cause more problems than it would solve. She contends it could create funding disputes, lead to a reduction in professional planning staffs and ultimately reduce public input on transportation policy at the local level. Some critics also complain that a regional MPO would crowd out the priorities of individual counties, leaving local transit projects at the mercy of a board more focused on moving traffic across county lines.

We do not think it is so much about ignoring individual counties, per se.  We think that the regional MPO risks ignoring neighborhoods and normal people, like happens now, but more so.  That is our real concern.  So what does the Times tell us about that?

Some of these concerns may be legitimate. But there are ways to design a regional MPO that can walk and chew gum at the same time. The individual MPOs already consider county-centric transportation planning with an eye toward the impact on the larger region; that’s the reality of living in a growing area of 3 million residents with thousands of commuters who cross county lines every day. But the current system breaks down at the point of integrating local and regional projects. Having three MPOs also dilutes the region’s voice in competing for outside dollars and allows officials in every county to blame the others for not contributing to regional solutions. Rather than become a distraction, a regional MPO would be the common voice for addressing the region’s mobility problems, from the first mile to the last. It also would be the unified voice Tampa Bay needs to build consensus and seek the financing for regional transit projects that are critical to the economic futures of every county.

Basically, it is a “trust us” argument, and that is the problem.  Based on past performance (including very recent past performance), there is no reason to trust “government and business leaders.”  The entire reorganization project, while having some good points, has a TBX, back room feel (especially the part of the TBARTA bill requiring members to be either political officials or “members of the business community” without any explanation, definition, or discussion).

We get the need to have better focus.  We are all for regionalism.  We are for a coordinated regional transportation system.  But the MPO proposal is not directly connected to that.  As we have said before, MPO coordination is possible now. MPO’s can and do pass plans of regional scope. Just look at the 5 year plan the Hillsborough MPO voted on this week.  there is a whole section on regional priorities and FDOT plans and it references.

This TIP incorporates projects prioritized by the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area (TMA, which includes the Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas MPOs) Leadership Group and the TBARTA CCC for inclusion in the 2040 Regional LRTP

(That list being basically TBX even though TBX supposedly is  not a thing anymore. See pg 7-8 of the report, and you can find more in the FDOT project list starting at the 40th page of the pdf file. And see next item)

The missing element here is not a regional structure – it is a regional mentality and, even more importantly, good planning.  The Times tells us what a new MPO structure can do – though it fails to say that the present structure can also do that.  It tells us that neighborhoods can be protected – but it does not tell us how or provide any evidence they will be. (See Howard Frankland and TBX) Without that, the simple repetition of how great things will be with the change is less than convincing.  If they want people to support their idea, we really need is some of the detail of the MPO idea so, if there is actually a sound idea, we can actually get behind it.  Just saying “trust us” is not enough.

And we cannot repeat enough that, assuming they work out representation and protect local neighborhoods, we are ok with the idea, but it really does not matter.  There are already structures in place where MPOs can cooperate.  The real issue is actually cooperating and doing so on a good plans.

— In Support of That Which Is Not There

Which brings us to this week’s transportation denouement, which, ironically enough, was all about a county MPO unsurprisingly approving a regional “plan” (more about that in a bit) that the “business community” was pushing:

The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization — a 16-person board which approves transportation projects — listened to more than three-and-a-half hours of public comment on its Transportation Improvement Program, which lists the county’s priorities for the next five years. Though the TIP includes dozens of projects, from road maintenance to bike paths, the evening’s debate centered around only one of those: Tampa Bay Next, the interstate expansion plan formerly known as Tampa Bay Express.

We are not surprised the MPO voted for it.  That’s de rigueur. But there was something odd that first appeared in the pre-meeting Times reporting.

DOT recently announced Tampa Bay Next, its newest version of its regional plan. Officials have said toll lanes are still included under the new model, but Tampa Bay Next also aims to include transit, bike and pedestrian options.

Money for Tampa Bay Next projects is included in the next five years of projects, something that angers local opponents.

“Even though the FDOT has claimed we are in a “reset” and has rebranded the highway project, it is still very much alive within their new Tampa Bay Next initiative,” said Michelle Cookson, spokeswoman for toll opponents Sunshine Citizens, in a statement.

Tampa Bay Next has garnered strong support from business community representatives, who turned out in large numbers at last year’s public hearing to urge MPO members to vote in favor of the plan.

The oddity reappeared in the reports on the meeting:

DOT officials scrapped toll lane plans for the Howard Frankland Bridge last fall and said the agency was reevaluating TBX. When the department rolled out Tampa Bay Next last month, officials said it would include options other than tolls, such as transit, bike and pedestrian facilities. It was not, local officials said, simply a rebranding of TBX.

Many who spoke Tuesday night were not convinced.

“We’re either in a new day or we’re not,” Fernandez said. “If TBX is still in the TIP, everything to do with this new plan is still a shell game.”

There is definitely an argument for that position, but that was really foreshadowing:

More than $300 million is allocated in the next five-years for land buying for Tampa Bay Next. The plan also includes money to rebuild the Howard Frankland Bridge — which is reaching the end of its lifespan and will soon be structurally deficient — and for construction along I-275 between the West Shore interchange and downtown Tampa.  

* * *

About one in five speakers Tuesday advocated for Tampa Bay Next, which they said provides transportation options for the business community, brings additional highway capacity and includes the much-needed reconstruction of the West Shore Boulevard interchange.

The project also includes plans for express bus and potentially other transit options, supporters said. A vote in support of Tampa Bay Next is not a vote against transit, said Mike Peterson with Greater Tampa Realtors.

* * *

Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans said the Tampa Bay Next has evolved to look at a variety of different options, not just toll lanes. Tuesday’s vote, he said, keeps that project alive and allows that evolution to continue.

“This was a good step forward tonight,” Homans said. “They were voting for collaboration, and they were voting to continue the process.”

We get fixing what needs to be fixed on the interstates (though not express lanes).  And we get wanting money for transit.  We get all those things that a comprehensive, transportation system should be. We even get (maybe) setting aside money for whatever it is as a sort of escrow because there is going to be something (maybe).

What we don’t get is just what exactly this Tampa Bay Next that the “business community” is strongly supporting actually is?  Right now, there is no plan proposed other than TBX, whether FDOT is moving forward with it or not. The TB(n)X website says everything is still being studied?  Which means there is no Tampa Bay Next, yet.  And, yet, it is being strongly supported? If TB(n)X is something other than TBX, it would be nice if it would be pubic described – especially at least a week before there is a vote on it. (And just what toll lanes are already back in the still-to-be-studied plan that supposedly is going to come about after public outreach?  And how does it fit in with the regional transportation that is supposedly being studied and not predetermined?)

Maybe the TB(n)X supporters are just supporting the traditional Tampa Bay something/anything approach (if you listen to the Chamber of Commerce head at the hearing, he basically admitted they were) or are they supporting a plan that has not been made public? (And, just remember, just doing something, anything is not necessarily better than doing nothing.  It may just cause more harm.)

In sum:  The MPO votes are for old plans that are supposedly set aside.  There are a variety of comments in support of a plan that supposedly does not exist.  There are appeals to keep the process going, though it is unclear what the process actually is and will be. And still, no one has said clearly what is going to happen – probably because they do not know (or they just do not want to say, yet).

The fact is that there is no TB(n)X.  Everything voted on is TBX.  Maybe FDOT will show good faith.  Maybe there will be real changes.  But there is no firm, new plan.  People are voting on faith (or with a hidden agenda). Moreover, the MPO – doing exactly what the “business community” wants and negating the argument of the Times above (both that local MPOs can’t act regionally and that they will or do protect neighborhoods) – keeps voting for TBX while saying they expect it to not be built.  And, let’s be honest, much of the MPO did not even know what was in the TBX plan when they were voting for it in previous years.

We are open to a new plan.  We want a new plan.  But there is not new plan right now.

We could really say so much more, but today we’ll stop with this: Trips for a few people to St. Louis (Really? Couldn’t they have found a controversy in San Diego to study?) aside, it is this kind of thing that makes people wonder about the entire process – and about local politics in general.

— Two More Things

In more FDOT new, there was another resignation:

Florida Department of Transportation District 7 Secretary Paul Steinman is resigning his post effective July 14.

Steinman is the second District 7 high-ranking official to resign after Director of Transportation Debbie Hunt left the agency late last year. District 7 covers the entire Tampa Bay region.

It seems to be completely coincidental with the TB(n)X, and we are not going to speculate.  However, it is another change at FDOT at a critical time for our area. It will be interesting to see what effect, if any, it has.

And in other FDOT news:

A former employee of the Florida Department of Transportation was indicted this week, along with her husband, on charges that they schemed to steal more than $300,000 in federal grant money.

Tracy Dean Tronco, 51, was a transit coordinator and passenger operations specialist in FDOT’s Tampa district. She was responsible for administering transportation projects and funds, including grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

She did not tell her employer that she was married to Alejo Tronco-Diaz, 50, who had applied to receive funds for a Hillsborough County church known as Ministerio A Gran Voz De Trompeta Campus Inc., according to federal prosecutors. The church was said to have provided transportation services to the elderly, disabled and unemployed.

Between 2010 and 2015, Tronco helped secure more than $370,000 in federal funds for Ministerio and another church with which it partnered, authorities said. The money was supposed to go toward renovation of a commercial property, job and transportation services and the purchase and maintenance of three vehicles. Instead, prosecutors said, it went into the pockets of Tronco, her husband, and other unnamed conspirators.

Back when we were first discussing the proposed audit of the airport, we noted that the State Senator requesting said that the airport just submitted bills and FDOT assumed they were good.  This had nothing to do with the airport, but maybe FDOT needs to look a little closer at where its money goes and be audited.

Downtown/Channel District/USF – MOSI, a Little More on the Done Deal

There was more news about MOSI.

The museum, known as MOSI, owes more than $2 million to vendors, banks and creditors and doesn’t have the money to pay them.

Additionally, MOSI leaders need $350,000 to bankroll their plan to shutter part of the museum’s building and move operations to a smaller wing of the 80-acre north Tampa campus. Downsizing operations is expected to save money, but in the meantime, they need cash to close the old building and reopen as a smaller science center.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times this week that the county is inclined to pay off those bills and loans and provide the startup money. MOSI will not have to pay back the county.

Key to the financial rescue is Vinik, who has offered to split the cost of the debt with the county in hopes of keeping the museum afloat as it awaits relocation to his downtown Tampa redevelopment project. His share would be about $1 million

Vinik declined to comment Thursday on the details of his contribution, but he confirmed that his charity, the Vinik Family Foundation, has “agreed to share in the costs of preserving this community asset during its transition period.”

First, before we go any further in this discussion, we are going to commend the Lightning owner for offering to put up the money.  Yes, there is a certain self-interest in preserving MOSI before moving it to his project, but he still did not have to do it.  It’s his money.  He could have invested it somewhere else.

Having said that, the story seems a bit odd.  What was the County logic?

Putting the museum in bankruptcy was considered, Merrill said. However, they ultimately decided MOSI, already in significant decline, couldn’t recover from that kind of negative publicity.

And as the owner of MOSI’s building and land, Hillsborough officials were concerned creditors and disgruntled vendors might have showed up on the county’s doorstep asking to be reimbursed.

They also discussed closing the museum entirely until the move downtown, but MOSI would have had to pay back a $2.5 million state grant it received to host an exhibit.

“At that point we had three options, none of which were great,” Merrill said. “We chose the one that we thought was the best of the worst.

“We debated back and forth: ‘Does MOSI still have a brand that has value?’ And we concluded that it does because it still has a strong following and it has a legacy. More importantly for Jeff Vinik, he had to feel comfortable that there was enough of a brand value that it could transition downtown. So that’s why we rejected bankruptcy or just shutting it down.”

We get the cost of just closing it down was higher than the cost of preserving it until the move.  And we get that the Lightning owner had to see some value to put up half the money.  (We are unclear why creditors would be able to go after the County just because it owed the land.  What kind of deals was MOSI doing or is it just politics?)  On the other hand, we are not very happy about having to bail out MOSI, about not knowing what is going to happen with the land, anything about the downtown location and who is going to pay for it, or any other details.

As we have said many times, we are not opposed to the idea of moving MOSI downtown.  But this whole process lacks transparency or any real explanation of the plan and the details (esp. cost) thereof and the responsibility for that is squarely on the government officials.

Transportation – Water, Water, Across Water

– Studying

There was an article in the Business Journal which made us wonder about when a regional transit study is not a regional transit study.

Forward Pinellas, the county’s metropolitan planning organization, is waiting until next year to launch a waterborne transportation study to evaluate the effectiveness of ferries as transit after Florida Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a $1 million appropriation to pay for it.

In all honesty, it is not entirely clear what this particular study is for.  If it has anything to do with ferries like the South County/MacDill or Cross Bay ferry, why is it not being covered in the regional transit study? (quick answer: because the regional transit study is simply a rehashing of old studies, not an actual regional transit study) And if it is just for the small boats running in the Intercoastal, it has nothing to do with the Cross Bay ferry.

— Clearwater

Which gets us to Clearwater Beach and two developments.  The first involving the Clearwater Ferry:

A pilot route between Clearwater and Dunedin will begin in October on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between noon and 10 p.m., according to a news release. This route will be added to the water taxi’s current schedule, which runs between downtown Clearwater, Clearwater Beach, Island Estates and North Beach.

The ferry is also offering a new $60 student pass for unlimited rides to and from Clearwater Beach until Aug. 31, available with a valid ID.

The water taxi served 29,180 riders during the Spring Break season, according to the release.

Expansion is good.  There is really nothing to object to.  If people want to pay for a nice boat ride and not drive,  we see no downside.

The second Clearwater issue, involved – you guessed it – a study, this one about trying to get more people to Clearwater Beach more efficiently:

For the first time since 2010 there is a funding commitment to build a dedicated bus lane connecting downtown Clearwater to Clearwater Beach, now that the state Legislature approved and the governor upheld a $1 million appropriation for an engineering study.

That study will look at the feasibility of building a transit connection as well as how much it would cost. A 2010 study estimated about $12 million, but Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said a revised estimate might be less than that even though construction costs have been on the rise in recent years.

He said the 2010 estimate was “sort of a Cadillac plan” and an updated plan wouldn’t be as extravagant.

Planners want to create a transit route across the Memorial Causeway bridge to alleviate parking and traffic concerns. Clearwater Beach doesn’t have enough parking to accommodate visitors, particularly during peak seasons like spring break, and the causeway is often packed with beachgoers.

There is even a regional component, theoretically:

“This is one of the most productive corridors in Pinellas County, if not the region,” Blanton said. “We struggle a lot with really advancing transit in this region so every little success where we’re able to move the ball forward is good.”

So why is it not in the regional study (surely the real utility is not just a bus ride from downtown Clearwater to Clearwater Beach)?  And what is the Cadillac plan of crossing a bridge in a bus?  Does that mean it is a nice bus as opposed to the normal Tampa Bay area bus service?

To be clear, we are not opposed to a transit connection to Clearwater Beach.  We actually are for the idea.  We just don’t see why every discussion is so vague and nothing can be done comprehensively and in a truly coordinated way.

Downtown/Transportation – Bring the Cars

As anyone who witnessed the original service before the old PTC killed it and it was brought back with taxpayer money knew, the Downtowner shuttle would be successful.  It has been.

Buoyed by hitting the 100,000-rider benchmark in just seven months of operation, the Tampa Downtown Partnership is planning to expand the popular app-based service with the addition of four electric Chevrolet Bolts.

The all-electric car would improve upon shuttle rides with air conditioning and protection from the rain. The service’s fleet of 12 golf cart-like vehicles called GEMs have doors but the windows are usually rolled down since there is no air conditioning.

Bolts can also run longer on a single charge, about 230 miles, compared to the six-seater GEM, which averages about 60 miles before its needs more juice.

* * *

The expansion is needed to meet demand, which in peak periods sees wait times run 30 minutes or longer.

Including insurance, maintenance and driver, each Bolt will cost about $110,000 per year to put on the road. The partnership is seeking sponsorship including advertisers who want their logos on the cars.

The service now costs about $1 million per year.

Launched in October, it covers an area from the north end of Harbour Island to Interstate 275, and from the University of Tampa area to the Channel District. The limitation of the GEM’s batteries means that only six vehicles are on the road at one time while the others are recharging.

The Tampa City Council acting as the Community Redevelopment Area is expected to approve spending about $600,000 to run the shuttle for a second year. The money would come from downtown and Channel District community development funds. The Florida Department of Transportation has pledged to pay $150,000 for three years.

One the one hand, we are pleased with this.  Clearly, it is successful.  On the other hand, we are not so psyched about just having more cars running around.  We get the battery issue and the air conditioning, but the present Downtown is very distinguishable and a local transportation system. In other words, they are developing a brand – at least locally.  We like it that way. Of course, the Bolts could be painted like British police cars (without the lights and “police” written on them.

From Wikimedia Commons – click on picture for url

Then they’d stick out (though it may confuse some tourists).

And there is another thing.  We are curious who is using the Downtowner and how far the average trip is.  Basically, we are wondering what the use says about the walkability or lack thereof of the downtown area.  We do not have the data, and we are not going to speculate.  But it would be interesting to see what it tells us.

Westshore – So

The Business Journal had an article entitled “Is Westshore finally getting a grocery store?” with the tease:

A dark retail box in Tampa’s Westshore business district is a rare opportunity — and a prime storefront that’s been vacant for several months is fueling a lot of speculation.

And a picture of the old Sports Authority building on Kennedy.

First, Westshore had a grocery store at the strip center at the southeast corner of Kennedy and Westshore before it was redeveloped to take out the grocery store.  Second, the Sports Authority is not really in walking distance from the vast majority of residences in the Westshore district, though some people in the houses just south of it could walk (despite much talk of walkability, there really is little sign of any commitment to it in Westshore).

Moreover, giving the lack of walkability, the general Westshore area (the boundaries of which are always pretty fluid) already has two grocery stores within easy driving distance of most of the housing, which is north of 275: the Target at Walters Crossing and a Winn Dixie on Dale Mabry south of Columbus.  On the south side, just go to Trader Joes, Publix or all the other places around Dale Mabry and Henderson.  Just adding some another grocery store to drive to is nothing special or unique.  But it is very Westshore.

Landmarks – Nice, If It Lasts

There was an article in the Times regarding some local landmarks.

Three Tampa landmarks could soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places: The Oaklawn Cemetery near downtown, the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge and the Columbus Drive Bridge. The National Parks Service is expected to consider state recommendations to add the cemetery and Columbus bridge to the registry in the next several months. The state’s review board could consider the Kennedy bridge recommendation at its next meeting on Aug. 10.

“When you have these historic resources and they’re recognized at both the state and the national level for being significant, it calls attention to your local history,” says Dennis Fernandez, Tampa’s manager of historic preservation. That, in turn, supports preserving those landmarks “so future generations can look back and understand what was going on during periods of our own history.”

Lafayette (now Kennedy) Street Bridge, from the West Tampa Chamber of Commerce – click on picture for website

All three deserve to be on the list.  They are definitely parts of local history and they should be preserved.  And that last comment was nice. However, before you get to excited, just note from 2013:

To the delight of skateboarders trying to save it, and the chagrin of city officials planning to honor black history there instead, Tampa’s Bro Bowl is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The designation from the National Park Service comes amid debate over the future of Perry Harvey Sr. Park — home to the iconic skateboard bowl, but also part of the city’s vision for redeveloping the Central Avenue area and honoring its rich history.

And then the City got rid of it. Designation is nice.  Preservation is nicer.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Blaine Wills permalink
    June 17, 2017 11:35 AM

    Your questions regarding Tampa Bay Next are on point. Other than the toll lane (TBX) component that is still there, what exactly is it, other than vague suggestions of additional components like bus and bike lanes? Of course there are no specifics, so the only thing that was really decided last week was to include TBX.

    So 80% (4 out of 5) of the citizens who attended the meeting are opposed to this, yet our brand new regional MPO approves it anyway.

    Here is what I find to be so appalling throughout this entire process. Several of the MPO members who voted in support of this “plan” did so hoping that FDOT would act in good faith in future versions of the plan. One member (who voted for the plan) even stated “there was going to be some explaining to do” if future versions of the plan still included toll lanes.

    What? Why are MPO members voting for Hope? Aren’t they supposed to be the planning organization? Aren’t they supposed to collaboratively plan with and alongside FDOT to develop the comprehensive plan, rather than hoping something good comes down from FDOT?

    The MPO is embarrassing themselves.

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