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Roundup 2-9-2018

February 9, 2018


Transportation – It is What We Thought It Was, Cont

USF – Mystery Solved

— One More Thing

Airports – More News

Walkability/Bikeability – Closing Bayshore

Channel District – No

Transportation – Ferry Stuff

Parks – Down By the River


Transportation – It is What We Thought It Was, Cont

The Regional Transit Plan is not getting universal acclaim. (We have previously discussed our opinion here and here).

Leaders in Hillsborough politics and transportation are speaking up this week about their concerns with Tampa Bay’s latest proposal to bring transit to the region.

Bus rapid transit, known as BRT, emerged last month as the lead option for Tampa Bay’s first premium transit project, featuring dedicated routes. The initial briefing on this 41-mile project along Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Petersburg was met with relatively positive feedback during its public unveiling at a tri-county Jan. 19 transportation meeting.

There was opposition as usual from Tea Party and No Tax for Tracks members, directed at most transit projects. But now some traditional transit supporters are also pushing back against the proposal, questioning whether its alignment along Interstate 275, its reliance on highway shoulders and elevated stations would really provide the premium transit system that so many are clamoring for.

Setting aside for now those that oppose all transit, what are the some officials saying?

“I think it’s a huge mistake to be thinking about this, which isn’t really a BRT system,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said at Tuesday’s meeting of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. “It’s an express bus system.

* * *

“I hate that you keep calling it BRT,” Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez said at Monday’s HART meeting. “There are parts of it that are BRT, but they aren’t really a real BRT.”

As we have pointed out previously, that is true. It isn’t really BRT (and nowhere near “gold standard” BRT).  The County Commissioner had more to say:

“The is not gold standard BRT,” Kemp said during a Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting on Tuesday.

* * *

Instead, Kemp said the plan, which connects St. Petersburg and Wesley Chapel along Interstate 275, is more like an express bus. She said an express bus along the highway is fine if it has limited stops, but it’s not the kind of project that is going to increase transit ridership and reduce congestion.

That project could be BRT with industry-adopted standards that would run on arterial roadways, Kemp said. That could mean routes along major corridors like Dale Mabry Highway or Kennedy Boulevard. Kemp’s suggestion echoes what some other BRT plan critics are saying: true BRT runs in dedicated lanes along arterial roadways. They provide relief from other road congestion with travel time guarantees and they can promote transit-oriented development.

As regular readers would know, we think that is a fairly good critique of the plan and running along arterial roads is fair suggestion, though far harder and likely more expensive to build.  Moreover,

Suarez and Kemp, along with Hillsborough County Commissioners Stacy White and Les Miller, voted at Monday’s meeting to prohibit HART staff from getting involved in public outreach on the project. Instead, they said, this should be left to the consultant hired to conduct the study, Jacobs Engineering.

But it is unclear what that means:

Kemp later characterized the HART vote as a non-endorsement of the BRT plan. But Miller and White said it wasn’t their intention to weigh in for or against the project at this time.

However, one thing it isn’t is a ringing endorsement of the idea.  (At least one Commissioner is not opposed to it for not being good enough.)

In favor was the Airport CEO:

Other MPO board members, such as Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, support the BRT proposal, are eager to see some sort of transit project move forward in a region that has spent decades failing to build anything but roads.

“From the airport standpoint, we’ve got to do something, fast,” Lopano said. “This is one piece of the puzzle. There’s no silver bullet. … No single thing is ever the answer.”

And we get why he wants connections to the airport. We do, too, and sooner rather than later.  However, we’d like it to be a good system that makes overall sense. (admittedly, assuming the people mover is extended, the airport connection is the best feature of the Regional Transit Study plan.)  Just doing something for the sake of doing something is not the answer or good public policy.

And the Times had another good editorial (you can read the whole thing here):

The reluctance by Hillsborough County’s mass transit agency this week to embrace a proposed rapid bus system should be a warning sign. As much as some political and business leaders want to get moving on a plan, any plan, for mass transit, this version is not yet the robust vision Tampa Bay desperately needs to be more competitive. It’s wise to voice these reservations now to encourage transportation planners to be bolder and not assume this region lacks the will to more aggressively tackle congestion that is choking its progress.

* * *

As the discussion reinforced, the BRT proposal would be unlikely to transform commuting across Tampa Bay or generate the broad public support needed for any regional transit system, regardless of whether that system relies on buses, light rail or some other mode. This plan calls for buses to mix with cars along most of the route, both along Interstate 275 and on city streets under the interstate where most of the bus stations would be located. While advocates say the proposal would at least get the region moving on transit and that light rail could be added later, it’s difficult to see how this approach would make Tampa Bay competitive with Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Denver or other urban areas that are decades ahead on mass transit.

* * *

There is time to significantly improve this initial BRT proposal. Unlike previous transit projects voters rejected, this one smartly spans the bay and focuses on creating a mass transit spine that can be added to in the future. It recognizes the critical need for mass transit, and it has caught the attention of political and business leaders across Tampa Bay. But HART’s useful discussion this week reinforces that this plan needs to be bolder, regardless of whether the initial technology involves sleek buses or light rail.

All familiar to regular readers and all fair points while trying to stay positive.  But the fact remains that the plan has some major issues about which we have heard basically nothing from proponents.

As we have long said, express buses have a place in a transit system.  However, express buses should not (really, cannot) be the core of transit system.  This plan is not even really BRT, let alone “gold standard” BRT. And it does not even get to many activity centers, like USF. Running in the interstate really isn’t in the right place, even if it is cheaper to build there.  We get the desperation to build something, anything.  But, even setting aside rail, this is not even BRT done right.

The more we contemplate it, the more we really are wondering is what exactly is the goal (and is it a worthy goal) and will this accomplish it? (And we are not asking rhetorically, we are trying to figure out what exactly it is supposed to accomplish. Is it just to build something or is it to develop useful, effective transit?  It will help some people in Wesley Chapel, but who else?  And is there any sign that those who favor it understand the wholesale changes and cost of revamping the local bus systems to give it any chance of maximizing its potential and are willing to invest in that as well? (And to those who say this is just the beginning not the whole plan, we get the argument, but there is scant evidence of that.)  And that does not even get into the distinct possibility that overselling the plan will lead to increased expectations that cannot be met, leading to less, not more, support for transit.

We get that the plan is cheap and might (or might not) get Federal money, but to warrant consideration there has to be more to recommend it than that.  Just because it’s cheaper than alternatives does not mean it is good or worthy. The case for what that is has not been made, yet, especially given all the previously discussed issues.

So, to help the discussion, we’ll bring up this thought experiment again: do you think that building out this plan will truly change the answer to this question:

If someone can go anywhere, and with other places that already provide amenities that they want, why should they come here?

And, if so, what will that change be and why?

USF – Mystery Solved

Last week we discussed the move to unify USF’s campuses.  It was unclear where the initiative came from.  Now, it is a little clearer.

ST. PETERSBURG — President Judy Genshaft said she first got wind of the contentious idea to consolidate the University of South Florida System last fall.

She was in the state Capitol in late October, she said, the day Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, was officially designated the Senate’s next president.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, invited Genshaft and USF St. Petersburg lobbyist Helen Levine to his office afterward, she said. There, he floated the concept of phasing out the independent accreditation at both USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee, uniting those schools as one university under Tampa control.

“He said to me, ‘What do you think about this?’” Genshaft recalled Thursday after a campus board meeting at USF St. Petersburg. “It was a new concept that I had not heard before, so my reaction was, ‘I will follow the law, whatever is approved.’”

She added: “I was surprised, I was surprised.”

Brandes said Thursday that their broad conversation circled around several ideas for the future of the USF System. Consolidation was just one path discussed, by no means a final plan.

Coming from a State Senator from St. Pete, along with one from Bradenton (the location-ish of the two satellite campuses), is an interesting twist for two reasons.  Obviously, the first is the reaction to the idea from many St. Pete officials.  The second is that either the Legislators did not anticipate the reaction, or they did and chose to try to evade it.  Either way, the idea does not appear to have originated in Tampa. And don’t forget Palm Harbor:

She reiterated what other university leaders have stressed: that USF did not orchestrate the proposal, and that she was surprised to learn about its addition to a higher education bill last month, considering that her talk with Brandes lacked specifics.

“We walked through multiple options in that conversation,” Brandes explained. “It was really in the context of looking at, what’s the best way moving forward for the system and for the campus to operate? And once USF’s main campus gets preeminent status, how would that affect the satellite campuses?”

He said they discussed a few paths: leaving the system intact, making USF St. Petersburg fully independent, or uniting all three.

The latter was an idea he’d heard from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a Pinellas County ally and friend.

Sprowls said it was last summer, when USF’s push for preeminence was in the news, that he began to think about the potential benefits. As it stands, USF Tampa competes alone for the title and would keep the millions in prize money to itself.

That wasn’t going to help the regional campuses, Sprowls realized.

“So if we’re going to have a strong, regional institution in Tampa Bay, what’s the best way to do that?” he said. His answer: Unite USF, making every campus preeminent.

Though he shared his research with Brandes, Sprowls said, he did not approach Genshaft.

As we said before, we understand the argument being made by those proposing the change.  We also see the argument for the other side.  What we are wondering, and, while they complain about inter-city rivalry, what those objecting to it have not actually addressed, is which structure is better for the students, which is really the point of a university.

And some more interesting reaction:

Kriseman, along with county and chamber leaders, have urged the Legislature to “hit the pause button” and listen.

“Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen,” he said. “I get the sense that it’s a done deal, that they don’t really care what our community thinks and what Sarasota thinks.”

Though, interestingly,

Meanwhile, at the Sarasota-Manatee campus board meeting Thursday, members made a vote of confidence in support of the consolidation measure.

And there is this:

“Transparency, to me, seems to begin at the beginning of the process and not at the end,” said Darryl Paulson, an emeritus professor of government at USF St. Petersburg. “Suddenly it’s presented … and we have very little time to respond to what they’ve been working on for months. You can’t fight something if you don’t have the information.”

Of course, if you have the real information, you may also choose to fight it, but you may also choose not to fight it.  But, yes, transparency would have been nice – and wise.

Though, we think the whole issue boils down to this:

Supporters of the single umbrella model being pushed in Tallahassee argue it’s a good move for the St. Pete and Sarasota schools because they could access millions of dollars in extra funding the Tampa campus is receiving after earning preeminence, a status state colleges can achieve by reaching a number of academic and administrative benchmarks.

“More money would be a good thing if we had a level of confidence that we would see any of that money,” Kriseman said. 

Right, if everyone behaves honorably, the change should not be a problem.  How likely that is to happen, well, we don’t actually know.

“As much as this is a discussion about bringing the campuses together, the undertone here is the distrust of the leaders in Pinellas County versus the leadership of Hillsborough,” Brandes said. “This is a trust conversation.”

True, and not just in this, but also in transportation and a number of other issues regarding local government and the legislature.  And, once again, what we really want to hear is not about downtown development, though that is nice, but what is best for the students.  Let’s have that discussion – openly, fully, and civilly.

— One More Thing

This comment came from the Mayor of St. Pete:

“This is really not the way, as the old saying goes, the sausage is supposed to be made,” St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said Thursday. “You do something this significant in secret and then roll it out and steamroll it through — that’s not the way it should be.”

No, that is not how things are supposed to be done, but it is how most things are done in this area.

Airports – More News

There was some more news about the local airports.  First, St.Pete-Clearwater:

The runways at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport are busier than ever, and a new study says those flights translate into thousands of local jobs and more than $1 billion a year in economic impact.

Volaire Aviation Consulting did the study late last year for the airport, which is a division of Pinellas County government.

The last time this kind of study was done for the airport was 2014 by the Florida Department of Transportation. That study calculated an economic impact of $752 million a year, but the airport has seen five consecutive years of double-digit growth, with the number of cities served nearly doubling.

“There has been a significant amount of growth that we have seen in the last five years,” Airport Director Thomas Jewsbury said Friday. “We knew that the impact to the region had increased since the last time the impacts were studied.”

The report focused on economic activity that depends on runway operations, including both airline operations and general aviation. Not considered was the airport’s involvement in the Airport Business Park and other real estate development or leasing ventures.

We are not particularly swayed with economic impact studies, and we are unsure why a new one was needed on a few years after the last.  What we do know is that passenger traffic at St.Pete-Clearwater is growing, as it has in Tampa, and that helps the economy.  Whether it is $1 billion, $2 billion or some other number, it is not exactly clear.  Of course, the biggest issue at St. Pete- Clearwater is the overreliance on one airline for its traffic.

Over in Tampa, the Aviation Authority short-listed three possible developers for the office/hotel complex near the new rental car facility.   Just for the record, they are:

The airport received five proposals but the following three companies were ranked to go on to the next stage and compete to win the Gateway project:

Those three companies will advance to step two of the selection process, which will require them to submit detailed proposals for the design and construction of the 97,000-square-foot, nine-story office building and the parking garage.

While that is news, there really is not much to say about it because we have not seen proposals or potential plans.  We just hope they do not build very suburban style buildings.  We get the location will not completely connect to other areas, but they could still be nicer than your average office park, and they will have transit connections.

Nevertheless, in that vein, the airport released a conceptual video of its phase two plan here.   (It can found at this article)

Also of note is the opening of the rental car facility and SkyConnect next week.

Walkability/Bikeability – Closing Bayshore

There was an interesting proposal for Bayshore:

A group of supporters of the “Open Streets” concept think so. They told City Council members Thursday that closing down the waterfront street would allow families, bicyclists, the elderly, the disabled and children to enjoy a communal space free of the often busy traffic whizzing past.

“Many other cities have this program. Tampa cannot be left behind,” said Danielle Joyce, a private-sector traffic engineer and a member of Walk Bike Tampa, a non-profit that seeks to widen opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The group has submitted plans to city staff and asked for the city to name a liaison and determine regularly scheduled days where the street would be closed to cars and trucks.

A six-mile stretch of Bayshore would be ideal as it would connect to the Riverwalk, said Christine Acosta, the group’s executive director.

Closing roads for a day is an interesting idea that we like in theory, and we get why they picked Bayshore, which is very pretty.  However, Bayshore lacks a few things, like any amenities or businesses on the street and parking for people who are not in the immediate vicinity to come enjoy the scene (or a way to get there other than by car).

But council members weren’t thrilled with closing down Bayshore, even on Sundays.

“If you close Bayshore you’re going to hear from our South Tampa people, Have some common sense,” said Council chairwoman Yvonne “Yolie” Capin.

Capin suggested West Cypress Street in West Tampa, which she said would be a more “diverse’ stretch for the idea.

Supporters said Bayshore’s high-profile location is ideal for the closure to draw attention to the Open Streets concept.  The boulevard’s current traffic volume makes it hard for the elderly and children to enjoy the wide sidewalk along the water. A key concept of the Open Streets movement is that streets should be accessible and enjoyed by anyone between ages 8 and 80.

Cypress would be interesting, but long stretch do not have that much to do either, though it is more accessible to more people.

In sum, like this Times editorial, we favor the general concept.

However, maybe it would be fine every now and then on Bayshore, but Bayshore already has walking and biking facilities.  We think the focus should be on other parts of the city, where the majority of people live – like East Tampa/Seminole Heights (say Nebraska or Florida or a cross street) or West Tampa.  Maybe there should be a rotating program. The rest of the City (and County) needs as much, if not more, focus on walkability and bikeability (as well as unifying events) as South Tampa.

Channel District – No

URBN Tampa Bay had news of a new proposal for the Channel District.

A developer in the Channel District is asking to rezone the property at 111 North Meridian Avenue to build a 6 story storage facility. The block is directly south of Slade, on the Meridian half of the block.

This is one of the worst proposals we have ever seen in our time following urban development in Tampa, and it must be stopped. The use of storage facility is incompatible with the ongoing revitalization of the neighborhood. The site design attached shows open surface parking encroaching on the lot. The project will have no mix of uses and we can’t imagine a storage facility will look nice either.

The rezoning hearing is set for June 14th.

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

Truly awful.  And seriously doubtful that the proposal fits the plan and requirements for the Channel District.  We get people need storage, but not here and not like this.

Transportation – Ferry Stuff

There was news about the Cross Bay Ferry, sort of.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman is confident the Cross Bay Ferry will return for round two later this year.

Kriseman wasn’t able to arrange a return this season due to lack of financial support, but expects to be able to raise the money necessary ahead of the cold season later this year, when a ferry is available to use from northern states.

* * *

The Florida Department of Transportation has already pledged $438,000 to fund the service for another season. Four local governments, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and St. Pete and Tampa, kicked in $1.4 million in 2016 to launch a six-month pilot project from November through April.

Of course, the issue has been other governments paying for it.

Kriseman’s spokesman, Ben Kirby, couldn’t say how much cities and counties would have to come up with to restart the service, but assuming the FDOT contribution and the refunds to contributing governments, the remaining price tag could be somewhere around $760,000, or less than $200,000 if all four governments agreed to contribute again.

It is not clear if that funding will be forthcoming. Not to mention,

While the funding appears doable, there are still some challenges. St. Pete officials would have to find a new place for the boat to dock. The space used during the pilot project was near the St. Petersburg Museum of History and that space will be under construction in November when service would begin.

But Kriseman said he has “better than 50/50” confidence in bringing the ferry back.

All of that is doable, but the money is an issue.  He will have to convince the other entities that they really get something out of it other than nice boat tours (including, given politics, most likely, some credit).  But more interesting to us is this:

Kriseman wants to bring the ferry back to service downtown St. Pete and downtown Tampa until another ferry proposed for south Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base launches. Then, he said, that ferry could run between the two downtowns on nights and weekends when the MacDill service isn’t running.

The Hillsborough County Commission set aside $22 million it hopes to use the money for future ferry service and signed off on $750,000 for a professional design and engineering study for the MacDill route, but the process is slow going, with a route not expected anytime soon.

We don’t know if the South County-MacDill service will ever get going, but, if it does, the idea of using the ferries for leisure rides between the downtowns on weekends actually makes sense.  It is not at all clear that there is really demand for the work week or that the Cross bay ferry is really an effective transit element, at least at the price and frequency and without better connecting transit on land.  But the weekend use has some potential if it is limited in cost, and the ferry operator could add that weekend service in the business plan.

Parks – Down By the River

We have had our issues with the plan for Julian Lane Riverfront Park.  Not that we are opposed to making it nicer, but we disagreed with what making it nicer meant.  Regardless, the revamped park is going to open soon.

The $35 million project to completely redesign 23 underutilized acres is winding its way to completion, with a weekend of opening festivities set for Mother’s Day in May.

This week, the Mayor was talking about his legacy project.

“This is going to be a live, work and play environment for everybody, but this park will be the heart and soul of it,” Buckhorn said while walking along the west side of the Tampa Riverwalk. “That’s why we started with this and that’s why the city made the investment in it, because there will be tens of millions of dollars in private capital deployed around this park just because they want to be a part of it.” 

And with understatement:

And it won’t have an equal in the country, he said. The Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas? That borders “a ditch,” Buckhorn said, adding that the city looked at waterfront development in Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga.; and Philadelphia, but developed its own vision.

And though New York’s Central Park is 840 acres, or about 40 times larger than Julian B. Lane, Buckhorn didn’t hesitate to make that comparison.

“It will be the park that 50 years from now, people who look back on it and say, thank you to whoever did it because they won’t remember who, but I think this will be the equivalent of Tampa’s Central Park,” he said.

They may.  Hopefully, they will.  But, setting aside the Central Park thing, to really reach its potential, especially when it is surrounded on one side by a school and another by an elevated highway (which is slated to be widened with the Mayor’s support), it will take a lot of changes to planning and concerted effort to really maximize it.   The fact is, Central Park, and all great urban parks, are celebrated specifically because they are surrounded by density and a vibrant city.  Simply having a few multi-story or mid-rise residential buildings across the street will not do it.  It requires density and real urban, mixed-use development.  It will require a wholesale rethink of what should go around it (which should have been done already, especially given the size of the investment), which was not (entirely) necessary for Cutis Hixon Park because it was downtown.

It remains to be seen if  that will happen.

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