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Roundup 10-6-2017

October 6, 2017


Transportation – All Those Ideas

— About Studying Transit

— About That Confounded Bridge

— About Those Express Lanes

South Tampa – Ready to Go

West Tampa – Show Us the Money, Revisited

Parks and Taxation, Cont.

Airport – Bring on the Boxes

Rays – No Surprise

Why Not?

A Welcome Idea

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country


Transportation – All Those Ideas

As usual, there is a slew of transportation news this week.

— About Studying Transit

Last week, we noted that while the TB(n)X process is ongoing and coming up with new ideas to mix in with the old (why the old remain is unclear), it is hard to see how decisions can be made when there is still the transit study going on the outcome of which will be relevant to interstate (and other transportation) design (Such as, even though it is not our favored idea, putting transit in the median of the interstate)  Notably, FDOT posted the new options for Malfunction Junction they presented last week on the TB(n)X website (Thanks to a reader for letting us know.  We have to note that we have no idea why FDOT does not post these things before the meetings so more people can look at them.)  You can find them here.

In addition to the old TBX plan (which is not posted but, per reports, was an option at the meeting), there are two options where the interchange is not reconstructed but express lanes are added (though not going north of the interchange).  In those two, there is no room for transit.  There are also two where the interchange is reconstructed (and, regardless of the impression some reports may have given, a decent amount of land is eaten up around the interstate).  In these two, there are appears to be land in the middle of the interstate for some transit going east and west, though not north.  And there is the representation of some sort of conceptual stop around I-275 and Franklin downtown (which is not a particularly useful stop without a useful streetcar, but that is another discussion).

With all that, as if on cue, findings of the preferred transit routes from the transit study came out later in the day last Friday.  Remember, the transit study is rally a review of previous studies, so to a large degree its results were predictable.

Light rail is the top-ranked mode of transit identified to connect Wesley Chapel, the University of South Florida, Tampa, the Gateway business district in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg, according to results from the Regional Transit Feasibility Plan presented Friday.

That route would roughly follow Interstate 275.

The Florida Department of Transportation financed the $ 1.5 million study and it was facilitated through the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority and Jacobs Engineering.

You can find the latest PowerPoint presentation regarding the transit study here.

This is the final ranking slide from that presentation (pg 22 of pdf):

From the Transit Study – click on chart for pdf

As you can see from the list, it is really nothing new (though it is also logical).  The highest ranked path is Wesley Chapel, USF, downtown Tampa, St. Pete using light rail running roughly down I-275.  Of course, to get to USF, it is not going to run exclusively down I-275, but it would seem that some of the intent is to use some of the median of I-275, the cross the Howard Frankland (more about that later).  The second choice is “rubber tire” on the same route.  Notably, the FDOT drawings for redoing the interchange do not include any indication of dedicated land for transit going north on I-275 which goes to our point about coordinating studies and planning (both transportation and urban planning).

The third and fourth ranked ideas are basically the old downtown to USF plan using CSX’s alignment (light rail first and then “rubber tire”)

There is a tie for fifth between the Wesley Chapel to St. Pete route using commuter rail and the downtown to USF route using commuter rail.  We are not fond of the commuter rail idea. Commuter rail is fine for some purposes – actually Wesley Chapel to downtown or Westshore make sense for commuter rail, but if you are trying to get people around Tampa and Hillsborough (and Pinellas, really), commuter rail is not going to cut it. Commuter rail, which lacks frequency, has limited stops, and is basically for, you guessed it, commuters, not really just getting around, has limited utility for getting around and urban area rather than limited point to point usage. (We just don’t see why we should repeat the mistakes of SunRail, which is commuter rail rolling stock.)

Furthermore, we understand why Wesley Chapel is included in options, but it is different from the stretch from USF to Westshore and different from Pinellas County.  Three is no reason that there can’t be a different service to Wesley Chapel than the core of the area, especially in the beginning. (We actually think express buses from there would be fine, at least for now)  In fact, looking at the list of public preferences (pg 21 of pdf)

From the Transit Study – click on chart for pdf

You can see that Pasco favors buses, while Pinellas and Hillsborough favor light rail. (And there is no clear sign of a groundswell for rail or any kind of reasonable urban planning in Pasco) Why not give the people what they want and save money?  It’s a win-win.

Frankly, we did not expect the results to be anything other than the highest ranked alignments, though we would not have been surprised if buses came first (nor would be surprised if buses end up being the top ranked idea when all is said and done for political reasons).

For now, the second highest-rated project was a “rubber tire” option — such as bus or self-driving vehicles — with its own dedicated lane along that same I-275 route. Instead of sitting in traffic and facing the same slow downs as those in their cars, these vehicles would run in exclusive lanes meant for transit.

This option could be incorporated into the state’s Tampa Bay Next plan to add express toll lanes to the region, meaning drivers who opted to pay a fluctuating toll could also use that lane.

Buses, autonomous or normal, have always been a justification for express lanes. That is not going to change.

And note:

What’s not being discussed? How to pay for it. Money and funding sources — such as federal grants or a sales tax referendum, similar to those that failed here in 2010 and 2014 — won’t be part of the discussion until the region has agreed on a viable project with broad support.

“Clearly, that’s the elephant in the room,” said HART CEO Katharine Eagan. “All of us are probably thinking about it or having other conversations, it’s just not part of this process yet.”

Instead, the focus remains on finding an option leaders can agree on. Friday’s rankings aren’t final, and will fluctuate as cost, public input and other things are considered. Planners are expected to recommend a preferred project in fall 2018.

In other words, the rankings are something, but nothing substantial yet.  The same forces that have killed real transit in this area for decades are still there.

Some, such as Hillsborough MPO executive director Beth Alden and County Commissioner Sandy Murman, wondered why projects connecting West Shore and Brandon didn’t rank higher. Representatives from Pasco and Pinellas talked about the importance of getting their constituents on board. It remains to be seen whether the three counties will be able to come together to support one project, especially one that might not have stops in each jurisdiction.

“We’re never going to get something that’s going to make everybody happy,” Pinellas MPO member Jim Kennedy said. “Once we get a firm start, it can grow from there.”

Pinellas MPO member Doreen Caudell said it was “extremely important” to get all elected officials in the same room to identify and move forward with a single plan, even if every city and county isn’t served by whatever project is first built.

“It does feel like some of the top priorities are Tampa-centric, but you have to get through Tampa to get to that beautiful beach in Clearwater,” Caudell said. “Once we take that first step, the next step will happen and then the next. They’re all needed, no matter what order.”

Exactly, Tampa is in the middle of the area and you have to start somewhere.  As for Brandon, it is an important area to connect, but not necessarily the most important, productive or transit ready (and we haven’t seen the Commissioner quoted propose a rail connection to Brandon.  That being said, we’re fine if there are express buses from there running on the Selmon for now.)

While we would have liked real study of the present circumstances, this is the study we have.  The results are predictable but not necessarily way off, at least for the most part. Our area’s problems don’t boil down to not enough studies. It boils down to a lack of political will, poor coordination, and poor planning. We’ll just have to see if any of that has really changed.

— About That Confounded Bridge

And if that was not enough transportation for you, FDOT released their latest idea for the Howard Frankland rebuild.

The Florida Department of Transportation has revised its plans to replace the Howard Frankland Bridge to include better transit accommodations, add an express lane in each direction and a bicycle and pedestrian path, the agency announced Monday.

Construction on the revised project is still set to begin in 2020.

Given all the unknowns about transportation, that is a bit ambitious.  Regardless, what is the plan now?

This massive structure will have four lanes of traffic going south, to St. Petersburg. It will also have four express toll lanes, with two lanes traveling in each direction. Only drivers who pay a toll, which will fluctuate based on demand, can use those lanes.

Those toll lanes will also be available to buses and even self-driving vehicles, whenever that technology arrives in the future. And two of those toll lanes could also be converted for use by a light rail system.

Obviously, variable rate toll lanes were not going to go away. Setting that aside:

The new eight-lane, bike and pedestrian-friendly bridge is projected to cost $120 million more than the six-lane version. However, that old Howard Frankland plan required building a third bridge to accommodate light rail, if regional leaders and voters ever decide to build such a system connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. That third bridge would have cost at least $375 million, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

The third bridge won’t be necessary under the updated plan, Carson said. Instead, two of the express lanes on the eight-lane bridge could be used to accommodate light rail.

Well, sort of, but not exactly.

From the Times – click on picture for article

From the graphic, to add rail, two more traffic lanes would be added to the south span and two existing lanes would be used for rail.  Though, that is an improvement in the sense that it should cost less and rail should be able to get up and running faster.  Of course, there is the question of who would pay for the expansion of the south span.  FDOT had previously said getting rail across the bay would be a, at least partially, local cost.   Is that still their position?  It is not clear.

This is how FDOT describes the changes:

This change includes several important benefits:

And here is a video from FDOT of the construction sequence though we are not sure how useful it is.

As we have already noted, it is an improvement in the sense it should be easier and cheaper (though not without constructing additional lanes) to put rail on the bridge.  We are unclear how they will accommodate future demand without adding lanes unless FDOT is relying on the express lanes and think it is fine for the four free lanes to be completely backed up while people pay ridiculous amounts to use the express lanes (or FDOT plans on taking away the shoulders – or the drawing is not showing extra space they are building now). The pedestrian/bike trail is a bit odd given the length of the bridge and what is at the Pinellas end, but that is a relatively small thing.

Overall, the design better, though flaws remain.  We don’t like variable rate toll lanes for the very concept (the concept incentivizes poor service and decision-making for free lanes because free lane congestion does mean higher tolls.   Regardless of some people’s good intents, eventually, money will play a factor in decision-making.) Moreover, all those dividers waste space where lanes can go – adding capacity.

Moreover, and importantly, the bottleneck at the Tampa end will remain.  FDOT has already moved to add a third lane through the bottleneck, but that leaves the question of the fourth lane and how they get the express lanes through.  And if FDOT has the money to squeeze the express lanes through (or over) the bottleneck, surely they have the ability/money to get the fourth free lane through it, but that is not in the plan.  (And if they can’t squeeze the express lanes though the bottleneck, there really is no point in them, but we suspect, as usual, they are prioritized over the free lanes.)

While it still has issues, we will give FDOT credit for the improvements.  The real question is why it was so hard to come up with even this plan (think about how bad the first few plans were)?  And why were local official so seemingly willing to get screwed?  And, of course, are they going to fix the remaining flaws both on the bridge and at the bottleneck?

— About Those Express Lanes

And speaking of express lanes, congestion and safety, URBN Tampa Bay pointed out an article in the Miami Herald on the most hazardous roads in Florida.

According to a recent study, Miami-Dade County is home to the road with the highest fatalities per mile, the road with the highest fatalities, and the road with the most fatal crashes.

So which ones are they?

Coming in at No. 1 in the state is the I-95 Express Toll in Little River, Miami — a small stretch of just 3.85 miles, according to a study conducted by Stein Law Group and marketing firm, 1POINT21. The data showed that the road had a fatality rate of 7.01 per mile. 

I-275 through downtown Tampa was 51st on the list, which, even with its very poor design and congestion, is quite a bit lower on the list. However, 66th Street in Largo, SR60 near Plant City, 34th Street in St. Pete, and Cortez Road in Bradenton were also in the top 10. You can see the whole list here.  Admittedly, correlation is not necessarily causation, but, because FDOT and express lanes supporters point to I-95 in Miami as a model of why express lanes are good, it is also does not help make FDOT’s argument for express lanes.

South Tampa – Ready to Go

Per URBN Tampa Bay,

Virage Bayshore has applied for a building permit. The tower at 3401 Bayshore Blvd. is 24 stories and 71 condo units. At 287 feet, it will be the tallest building on Bayshore.

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

While it won’t do much on the pedestrian level (unless you like hedges), we have to admit, it should look nice in the skyline.

West Tampa – Show Us the Money, Revisited

A few months ago we discussed a strange circumstance regarding a legal challenge by the developer of suburban style affordable apartment complexes against the Tampa Housing Authority and its project to redevelop the North Boulevard Homes land.  It also involved the County Commission going back on a commitment to vote in favor of funding the Housing Authority project and supporting the suburban developer (surprise).  This week:

Errors in an application have cost the Tampa Housing Authority a 10-year, $21 million tax credit that was earmarked to help build much-needed affordable housing in Tampa’s ambitious West River revitalization project.

The credits were awarded in May to The Boulevard at West River, an apartment block that would include 200 affordable housing units.

But the Florida Housing Finance Corporation last week reversed its decision after an administrative judge ruled that mistakes in the Housing Authority’s application should disqualify it from the award.

Instead, the tax credits will now go to Blue Sky Communities, a private developer that challenged the award in court. Its application to build a 144-unit workforce housing project in unincorporated Hillsborough County earned the same score as the Housing Authority’s but lost out through a lottery.

The setback will mean at least a year’s delay for The Boulevard project, said Leroy Moore, Housing Authority Chief Operating Officer.

So what was the problem?

The Housing Authority’s application fell short in two areas, according to the judge who reviewed Blue Sky’s challenge.

It failed to list all of the development officers of its development partner, Banc of America Community Development Corp. It also overstated the level of affordable housing development experience of the bank’s development officer, Eileen Pope.

Moore said the application was handled by Affordable Housing Consulting, a real estate development company based in Tallahassee. Officials from the company did not return calls seeking comment.

The firm receives performance bonuses based on awards received.

It used the same information that had been used on other successful applications, Moore said. He described Florida Housing’s decision as bad policy, noting that it would produce 144 new housing units instead of 200.

“Those were minor irregularities,” he said. “They have had similar omissions before.”

We are not going to comment on the administrative judge decision except to say that messing up the application is unacceptable. Even if it has happened before, why are there any omissions at all, especially when they are paying consultants regarding the application?  That does not excuse the County Commission for going back on its deal, but why leave it in the hands of an administrative court judge and why does the housing authority have to outsource its application process?  Aside from showing how the tax credit application process is quite muddy, this, plus all the questions that have arisen at the Encore project, really causes concern.

While we think the North Boulevard Homes and environs project could be better, there is no doubt that it is very important for the redevelopment of central Tampa.  Setting aside the County Commission, which often makes bad decisions on development, the Housing Authority really needs to raise its game.

Parks and Taxation, Cont.

The City Council finally decided to raise taxes.

It wasn’t easy, quick or pretty, but the Tampa City Council voted early Friday morning to make another reduction to Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s proposed property tax increase for 2018.

As a result, Tampa’s property tax rate will rise next year from $5.73 to $6.21 in city taxes for every $1,000 in assessed, taxable property value. That’s 14.7 percent above the state’s “rollback” rate, which is the rate the city would have to set to account for the growth in property values and to take in the same amount of property tax revenue next year as this year.

* * *

To make the new tax rate work, the $969.2 million budget will not carry forward $2.1 million that had been earmarked to help cover debt payments that are expected to shoot up over the next six years. The city also will cut $1.1 million from the increased spending that Buckhorn had proposed for the parks, transportation and facilities maintenance departments.

Buckhorn’s original tax increase equalled 9/10ths of a mill, or 90 cents in taxes for every $1,000 of taxable value — the city’s first increase to the millage rate in 29 years.

The whole process was quite a mess.  Hopefully, it will lead to better communication and transparency in future decision-making.  That is what the people actually paying the taxes deserve.

Airport – Bring on the Boxes

It seems that the airport’s cargo growth is moving along, admittedly with some help from Amazon.  On Thursday, the Airport Board approved items in the consent agenda for leasing agreements with both American Airlines and LGSTX, Inc., for space in the old cargo building north of the main terminal, which is also going to be used by UPS. (See here, pg 12-15)

However, there has been a setback in route expansion:

Tampa International Airport’s highly anticipated nonstop route to Salt Lake City is hitting a speed bump.

The new route on Delta Airlines (NYSE: DAL) will begin as originally scheduled on Dec. 21, 2017 and run through Jan. 3, 2018 for the peak holiday period. However, the airline will suspend that service the following day on Jan. 4, 2018 due to lackluster demand.

The airline plans to revisit the route for the winter 2018/2019 season and for its potential beyond that time, airport officials said at the monthly board meeting of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which governs TIA.

While it is normal to have setbacks, there are still disappointing.  We’ll see what happens if and when the revisit the route.

Rays – No Surprise

As the baseball regular season has come to an end, it is in no way surprising to learn:

The Tampa Bay Rays have ranked last in the league when it comes to home game attendance.

This is the sixth year in a row the team has come in at the bottom of Major League Baseball. Attendance shrunk from 2016 to 2017, down about 30,000 to 1,253,619.

As we have noted many times, the Lightning usually draw more people per game than the Rays.  Downtown St. Pete is a very nice place that is getting nicer.  However, for other reasons, it is not a good spot for a baseball team to play.

Why Not?

In other sports news:

The United Bid Committee announced Wednesday that Tampa is among 32 North American cities — including 25 in the U.S. — that have made the cut to potentially serve as a 2026 FIFA World Cup host.

If the United Bid (consisting of cities from Canada, Mexico and the U.S.) is selected by FIFA as World Cup host, at least 12 cities will be chosen as venues for games.

“We received applications from 41 cities across Canada, Mexico and the United States and narrowed the list down after a comprehensive review of each of the communities and facilities,” John Kristick, executive director of the United Bid Committee, said in a news release.

The full list, which can be found here, also includes Miami and Orlando (Orlando hosted games in 1994).   Local officials are fond of talking about international exposure – hosting World Cup games is among the most exposure you can get.

Yes, the competition will be tough and more well-known tourist areas probably have a leg up on us, but like we said about Amazon, you can’t win if you don’t play the game.  We are all for the effort.

A Welcome Idea

There was news from TECO this week (and, no, it’s not about burying power lines or getting rid of the very tall power poles plopped down in people’s lawn without warning):

Tampa Electric Co. is making a substantial commitment to solar energy: the utility on Thursday pledged to build 600 megawatts of solar energy capability — enough to power 100,000 homes — by 2021.

The move piggybacks on a newfound push for solar by all major Florida utilities. Duke Energy Florida announced in August a plan to build 700 megawatts of solar power over the next four years, while Florida Power & Light is in the process of adding 2,100 megawatts by 2023.

“We have long believed in the promise of renewable energy,” Gordon Gillette, CEO of Tampa Electric, said in a release. “We believe now is the time to add large utility-scale solar generation.”

We are not sure they have long believed in solar energy:

The latest promise for extra capacity means that solar will account for 12 percent of Tampa Electric’s generation capacity. It currently has only 27 megawatts of solar capacity.

But that’s ok.

“We strongly feel that solar power is good for customers by diversifying the energy portfolio and for the environment by providing low-cost, zero-emissions energy for Florida’s families and businesses,” said Stephen A. Smith, executive director of nonprofit Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, in a release.

We agree.  Regardless of your views on climate change, why not have clear, renewable energy?

Of course, there is the issue of paying for it.  From Stpetersblog:

The agreement also includes a “general” base-rate freeze, though the company would be able to recoup the additional costs of solar projects through rates. The company said in a news release that the solar projects would cost typical residential customers about $1 a month and would help save money that otherwise would have to be spent in the future on power-plant fuel.

That sounds reasonable, though if they are saving on fuel, that should offset the cost of the investment in solar, at least to some degree. We will see.

Now, about burying those power lines . . .

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

Here is an interesting idea from a Guardian article:

Columbus is the first major US city to give downtown workers free public transport passes regardless of who they work for, and whether they intend to use them. Can the programme change the mindset of this car-centric city?

We are not going to get into all the details.  You can read the article.  Of course there is the money issue and the lack of support from local government, but it is worth contemplating.

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