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Roundup 5-3-2019

May 2, 2019

Contents

Transportation – Going Around

— TBARTA Gets Some Money

— TBARTA Wastes Some Money

— FDOT Considers Spending Money

— Ferry Operator Ask for Money

— The Legislature . . .

West Tampa (aka West River) – No  Thanks

Economy/Downtown – Tourism and Hotels

South Tampa – Still the Same on Gandy

Downtown – Riverwalk Place

USF – The Money

Airport – Some Changes

Governance – A Reminder

Rays

__________________________________________


Transportation – Going Around


— TBARTA Gets Some Money

There was news about TBARTA and the “BRT” plan.  First, from Florida Politics:

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) will finally get the funding it needs to start planning regional transit projects.

Both the House and Senate included $2.5 million for the agency in their budget offers and closed out the appropriation in budget conference this week.

It’s the first time the agency has received substantial funding since the Florida Legislature voted to overhaul the agency from a transportation group that provided limited services included a vanpool into a regional planning entity tasked with working across county lines and lead on transit initiatives.

So what exactly is the money for?

Of the total funding, about $1.5 million will go toward staff, administration and operations. The remaining $1 million will allow TBARTA to begin working on its mission.

* * *

Those funds can be used for things like feasibility studies for alternative transit options. St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored the appropriations request for the agency, had in mind things like hyperloop.

* * *

While some Hyperloop corridors are already under constructed and in use in a handful of places, the Tampa to Orlando route is still just conceptual. However, people like Brandes hope to include newer forms of transit in future planning to enhance the traditional model of buses and trains.

Given how studies go in this area, that is not much money.  And, given the needs of the area, we are not sure a system like hyperloop  that really only makes sense (theoretically, because it is still really theoretical and it has some major downsides – see, for instance, here and here) between cities some distance apart is where TBARTA should be focusing. Maybe they should start with something proven and that deals with local needs first.

In any event

The $2.5 million approved are non-recurring funds. It’s possible, though not likely, the Legislature could still add recurring funds to TBARTA as lawmakers finalize the budget through next week.

Maybe.


— TBARTA Wastes Some Money

So now that TBARTA is reorganized and flush with $2.5 million in nonrecurring funds, one million of which is for studies,

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority approved a three-year contract to New York-based WSP USA Inc. in the amount of $5 million on Friday.

We’ll just set the math aside for now.  What is this about?

The proposed 41-mile, bus rapid transit option that would connect Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg is gaining traction. 

* * *

In February, the board released a request for qualifications soliciting bids for a firm to do a project development and environment study. WSP was the sole respondent; however, the company has 15 subcontractors to support it on the project and four of them are certified disadvantaged business enterprises.

The bus rapid transit system would connect Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg via Interstate 275. 

First, the “BRT” plan is not “gaining traction”; it simply has a life of its own among local officials (including TBARTA) who are determined to build this idea regardless of whether it makes sense or serves the needs of the area.  Second, having only one bid is interesting and having 15 subs sounds is not really a plus in our eyes.  It just means everyone is building in some profit into their bids and driving up costs.

The entire PD&E study is expected to define dedicated lanes investment, station locations and phasing strategies. It may take 18 to 24 months to complete the study, as previously reported by the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

Even better:

Stops in the Westshore area, downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida are planned, and the project may have a dedicated lane on I-275.

“May have a dedicated lane” is not really the description of a strong real BRT plan.  But, then again, the “BRT” plan was never meant to be a strong, real BRT plan.

We have said it over and over, but it seems we have to say it again.  This is simply an overpriced express bus plan that will never serve as the true core or catalyst for a real transit system in this area.  We have no problem with setting up a simple and much less expensive (and far quicker to implement) express bus plan from Wesley Chapel and St. Pete to Tampa.  Then we can focus on real transit that really serves the area, starting in Hillsborough, which is the center of the area and has (contingent on the courts) some actual funding.  But the “BRT” plan is not deserving of support or money, especially from the referendum funds.  It does not address the needs of Hillsborough residents at all.  It is simply an overpriced distraction taking up time and money (at least a New York company can make some money on it) that could be better spent on decent plans.

Finally, if you want to build a real BRT spine, it needs to focus on arterial roads (like the St. Pete Beach BRT idea) where there will be a real impact and a real possibility of transit oriented development.


— FDOT Considers Spending Money

There was interesting news from FDOT regarding Virgin Trains.

The Florida Department of Transportation wants to construct two new CSX railroad bridges over Interstate 4 that would include plans for high-speed rail.

The bridges would go between the Bella Vista Street overpass and the Kathleen Road interchange, which will replace the existing bridge, according to plans submitted to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Designs show the I-4 configuration that accommodates a multimodal envelope in the median for high-speed rail and provides the flexibility for two-lane ramps without bridge reconstruction, should the traffic need arise in the future. 

Although the document doesn’t specifically state Virgin Trains USA, formerly known as Brightline, being the high-speed rail operator, the company has plans for connecting from Orlando International Airport to Tampa.

We are not opposed to the idea.  It makes sense, though announcing the intentions for such a project before there is an official agreement between Virgin Trains and FDOT regarding running along I-4 is a little odd.  Whether this is a sign that one is imminent or not is unclear.


— Ferry Operator Ask for Money

The Cross Bay ferry is ended its seasonal service.

The second year of seasonal service saw a boom in ridership, which supporters attribute to a variety of factors including a lower ticket price and more prominence in the community.

More than 48,000 people have ridden the ferry since Nov. 1, according to data maintained by the HMS ferries. March alone saw more than 12,000 riders, or more than a third of total ridership for the 2016-17 pilot.

Great.  We are all for having fun cruises, especially if they are privately funded.

Earlier this month, lawyer and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik released a proposal to expand ferry service to include South Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base in 2022. Four boats would run between the four ports year round, providing commuter service for MacDill on week days and entertainment options for the other ports on nights and weekends.

Hillsborough County would be expected to pay about $37 million to cover the docks, boats, offices and other necessary capital fees. The two companies proposing the deal, HMS Ferries and South Swell Development Corp., say they would cover more than $100 million in operating costs over 20 years.

Turanchik credited the success of the Cross-Bay Ferry — especially it’s growth in the second year — for helping garner support for expanded ferry service in Tampa Bay.

Two weeks ago we discussed the new ferry proposal (see “Transportation – Surf and Turf— Ferry”). We noted that the Cross Bay ferry fun cruise has no relevance to the actual transit component of the proposal: South County to MacDill/South Tampa.  Regardless of the fun cruise hype, to get public money, the South County-MacDill/South Tampa service needs to stand on its own merits.

And we asked a few questions:

And we have some questions: What do the taxpayers get for the increased capital contribution?  How much of that cost is not related to the South County-MacDill element? What happens if the private partners do not make money off the deal or decide to walk or go out of business?  If it makes money, is there profit sharing, and, if so, what is it? (And, given how much the County would spend/risk up front, if not, why not?) And is there any South Tampa access other than actually on the base? Have they resolved all the issues that held up the South County-MacDill service for half a decade?  Is Williams Park . . . even viable for a 750 car parking lot? Who pays to replace or upgrade boats and facilities? That’s enough to start.

(We also wonder why is Hillsborough alone paying for boats that will service St. Pete for fun cruises?)  This week, the Times had an editorial that raised some more good points:

Supporters laud this as the beginning of an entirely new mass transit mode that could remove thousands of cars from the highway, speeding commute times for workers and reducing the emission of global-warming greenhouse gases. It’s really a closed-loop system for federal workers assigned to a restricted military base and for tourists or sightseers enjoying the downtowns after hours or on weekends.

There’s no reason local taxpayers should be paying for express service to MacDill. If the federal government wants to provide this service, fine. This is not a public-private partnership so much as a private business opportunity that would be publicly subsidized at both ends.

It is a fair argument.  Yes, getting people to MacDill would remove some traffic from going through Tampa but having a real connection to South Tampa near MacDill would be even be better for the service and traffic.  And if the local government is going to invest in the ferry, it seems to make more sense to have a broader connection.  Moreover,

The proposal notes that Hillsborough could search for other state and local funding partners – including St. Petersburg and Pinellas County – but that is no guarantee. In reality most of the money is expected to come from the $23 million Hillsborough received from BP after the 2010 Gulf oil spill. That seems like a waste and hardly in keeping with the obligation to wring a broad public benefit from that environmental disaster. Supporters are also eyeing the $300 million a year that will be generated countywide with Hillsborough’s new transportation tax. But night and weekend service for the general public hardly qualifies as a mass transit priority. If commissioners want to energize a repeal effort on the tax, this is it.

The fact is that money is money.  If it is spent on this, it is not spent on something else.  It is not enough to say that there is a pot of money.  There has to be a good reason why spending it on this is better than spending it on something else.  (For instance, given that a few million dollars has pumped up the streetcar ridership so much, is this the best use of the money and is deal the fairest in terms of return on investment?)  To us, it is an open question.  The editorial continues:

The BP money is not found money, and the transportation tax is not a slush fund. Commissioners should make clear that this proposal lacks balance, financial partners, a fair split between the public and private sectors and any clear idea of when and how genuine commuter ferry service might emerge. It is frustrating that after having financially supported this exploratory stage for so long, the county is no closer to a worthwhile proposal for continuous service.

Do we completely endorse that position?  Not yet, but until our questions are answered fully, we lean that way, especially since the price for the Hillsborough County keeps going up (which is curious given that the operators can make extra money on the fun cruise service).

We all know taking a boat on the bay is enjoyable.  We know that having a connection between South Tampa and South County is useful.  The question is whether this is the way to do it and whether the public should pay what is being asked.  After all these years, to us, that still is not clear.  And that is telling.


— The Legislature . . .

The Times had an interesting article on the legislature’s toll highway plan.

The massive toll road expansion that Senate President Bill Galvano has pushed through the Senate originally caught Florida Department of Transportation officials off guard. Galvano had not warned them about it, and they had no plans ready to go.

Turns out, they weren’t the only ones in the dark.

One major part of Senate Bill 7068 calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County all the way to Jefferson County at the Florida-Georgia state line.

One problem: Nobody told Georgia transportation officials.

A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation said that a phone call from a Tampa Bay Times reporter marked the first time anyone from Florida had mentioned it.

It would seem that it would have much less utility as an alternative to I-75 if it connects to nothing, but it certainly helps cement its status as a road to nowhere.

The news was just as much of a surprise in Thomas County (population 44,000), the Georgia county that’s right across from Florida’s Jefferson County (population 14,000). The county seat is Thomasville.

* * *

Two major highways already link Jefferson County and Thomas County: U.S. 19 and U.S. 221. Neither one is overwhelmed with traffic and in need of relief a toll road might provide, he said. The last time those highways were active, he said, was when the Jefferson County Kennel Club dog track was still open in Monticello. That closed nearly a decade ago.

Georgia transportation officials recently upgraded U.S. 19 through Thomas County, Bodiford said, and received plenty of criticism for how many new lanes and ramps they added. The reason: Nobody believed it would ever see enough traffic to justify the expense.

That is not really surprising. (You can read the whole article here for more.)

Back in Florida, the Ocala Star Banner had a very good editorial about the plan, here.

But, none of that matters because

Florida’s largest road project in half a century was given a green light Wednesday, after the House voted to send a bill creating three new toll roads to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.

Overcoming opposition from environmental groups and questions about whether the roads were needed, the House voted 76-36 to start the ball rolling on creating one new toll road and extending one new one.

The bill would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast, and build a new toll road from the Naples area toward Interstate 4 near Orlando. Construction would begin in 2022 and be finished by 2030.

 

From the Times – click on picture for article

That is basically what we expected out of the black box that is the legislature, especially when the Senate passed it with only one no vote.

As we have said many times, we are not opposed to all highways.  At some point in the future, some of these roads may make sense, but now is not it.  It kind of reminds us of the push to end time changes – which came out of nowhere and flew through the legislature for no apparent reason.  The major difference is that this will cost taxpayers a lot of money that should be spent elsewhere.


West Tampa (aka West River) – No Thanks

We have previously discussed the City RFPs for two large plots in West Tampa that are part of the “West River” plan.  We said that 1) the plans need to be very good – better than the West River master plan documents showed and 2) the whole RFP should have been put off until the new City government was in place.  To review:

In February, City Hall issued a request for proposals for two pieces of land that it owns west of the river, south of Columbus Drive and north of Spruce Street. One consists of the city’s old utility maintenance yard at 2609 N Rome Ave. The other includes ball fields at 2301 N Oregon Ave., that are being relocated as part of the larger West River development.

* * *

In response, the city got proposals from:

Well,

Thanks but no thanks, City Hall on Thursday told four development groups that had submitted proposals to develop 18 city-owned acres near the Hillsborough River.

“The West River property should attract a world-class development that both celebrates the history of West Tampa, meets the community’s needs, and is financially attractive,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said in an announcement of the decision.

* * *

“We believe it’s in the best interest of the community to wait until the Tampa Housing Authority and Related’s projects are further along before requesting parties for another round” of requests for proposals, said Buckhorn . . .

That is exactly the right response. Credit to the former Mayor where credit is due.   We just wish the City had adopted the same standards with the parking lot across from City Hall.


Economy/Downtown – Tourism and Hotels

Speaking of that lot where a dual branded hotel of less-than-inspiring design is now being built, let’s look at tourism for a second.  From the Business Journal:

The majority of hotels in Tampa Bay have seen an [increase] in occupancy rates and revenue.

Hillsborough County hotels overall had a high 82.4 percent occupancy rate and increase of revenue to $244,804,472.

The average daily rate and RevPar also increased, according to data that Visit Tampa Bay CEO and President Santiago Corrada presented during the second quarter meeting on April 25. 

That is, of course, a good thing.  The article has a breakdown by submarket.  This is downtown, which is the best performing in terms of growth in all categories:

Downtown hotel performance

And why is that interesting?  Because it shows demand.  Yes, Water Street includes a decent number of hotel rooms, but they are of a higher end.   That leaves demand for more middle end rooms that normally would be satisfied by a private developer working on private land.  It is also a reason the City could and should have demanded much better for the project on the City land.


South Tampa – Still the Same on Gandy

URBN Tampa Bay had an update on a proposal for 3011 West Gandy Blvd., though, to be honest, we do not see that much difference. You can read their very good write-up here.  We previously said this about the project:

For the location, the size is fine (and we like apparent the rooftop activity space), but the wall along the street is quite bad. And we are not sure why the pool is on the north side (behind the wall), even if it is on the west side of the building.  An activity area/lawn is also behind the wall. The wall does not hide units from Gandy, just people outside and parking. In fact, it seems there is very limited pedestrian exit from the building, even towards Bayshore.

It seems much more logical to flip the project around, put the pool in the sun and connect the building more to the surrounding area.

Nothing has really changed.

The project goes before the Tampa City Council on Thursday June 13th at 6pm.

Note that this project is also seeking waivers for parking, greenspace, and on-site trees.

As we said before:

As with many projects, we are not opposed to the idea of this kind of building on this lot (though it should be really mixed use), but it could be done better.  And it will be setting precedent.  The City has already allowed walls on Gandy (for smaller buildings), and they are not particularly attractive (nor is Gandy overall). The best time to change that trend is now.

That has not changed either.


Downtown – Riverwalk Place

There are a few new renderings of Riverwalk Place.  First this:

From Florida Future at SkyscraperCity – click on picture for post and bigger version

It is a nice picture (except for the Manor Riverwalk parking garage).

A second new rendering appears in a Business Journal article that indicated that there may be up to 288 condo units in the building, demolition of the Cap Trust building is underway, and construction may (or may not) start this month.

From the Business Journal – click on picture for article

Hopefully, they actually do get going soon.


USF – The Money

There was interesting news from the Legislature on college funding.

The Florida Senate added a $13 million budget item for the University of Florida and Florida  State University in its budget conference Wednesday for “national ranking operational enhancement.”

The funding is intended to ensure both universities continue to rise in the U.S. News and World Report higher education rankings. UF is currently ranked No. 8 and FSU No. 26 for public universities in the U.S. The goal is to bring UF into the top five and FSU into the top 25.

The Florida Legislature included funding for national ranking enhancement in last year’s budget, too. But while there’s no mistaking the value in having nationally ranked universities to attract talent and business to the state, the funding appears to come in spite of the University of South Florida’s recently acquired preeminent status.

The Legislature began prioritizing funding to improve rankings for its top two public universities just as USF was officially gaining its preeminence last year, a designation which had previously been exclusive to UF and FSU and historically came with significant funding.

So far this year, no money has been allocated for preeminence by the House or Senate, though conferences are ongoing.

Which, given college politics in the state, is interesting, but, frankly, not that surprising.  And this:

Meanwhile, another budget offer would allocate $13.4 million for “regional university operational support,” a budget item that would not include USF. It would, however, benefit schools like the University of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University.

Which is a little more surprising.  We get that many legislators, including a number of local ones, have ties to the other schools, but they also have ties to this area and should be pushing USF as well.


Airport – Some Changes

There was little bit of airport news this week.  First,

Tampa International Airport braced itself this year for its biggest spring break ever, and that’s exactly what it got.

The airport had 2.8 million passengers from March 5 through April 9, the period during which waves of spring breakers head to Florida for a week of revelry.

The passenger count was 7 percent more than spring break 2018.

It speaks for itself.

Next, to help deal with that growth, the master plan is moving along.

Tampa International Airport is expected to approve a contract with a construction group that will create a new taxiway and bridge.

The existing service road north of the terminal complex that connects the north employee lot, the airfield maintenance facility and the air cargo facility to the main terminal apron requires that vehicle traffic pass an active taxilane, according to the airport’s May 2 meeting documents, which states it is a safety concern.

The new 3,000-foot long, cross-field taxiway and bridge are part of the airport’s Phase 2 in its overall $2.6 billion master plan. 

This makes sense and is part of phase 2 of the master plan.  Phase 3 is a new airside D.

And in a move more about public relations that airport operations:

The airport introduced a new airside pass program this week called All-Access, which will allow up to 100 people every Saturday to visit an airside terminal where the post-security shops and restaurants are.

“Now families, foodies or even couples looking for a unique date experience can come try our chargrilled oysters at Ulele, sample locally brewed beer at Cigar City and shop for unique gifts and items at our duty free stores and fine retail without having to buy a ticket,” CEO Joe Lopano said in the airport’s news release on Tuesday.

The users choose a date and an airside at least one day in advance prior to the Saturday they plan to visit, with a limit of 25 guests per airside, and then collect gate passes when they arrive at the airport between 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on the selected date. The participants then board their airside shuttle go through TSA screening to have access to all of the shops at the airside terminal, according to the release.

The move to allow non-passengers to go through airsides may help generate more business for those retailers and restaurateurs, especially as the airport made a major investment in renovations and opening the 70 concepts.

More exposure and business is good. This has been happening at some other select airports around the country, and, once again, it is fine with us.


Governance – A Reminder

As most readers will know, Topgolf opened in Brandon in 2014.  It was part of the Bass Pro Shops development that was given a subsidy by the County, which we opposed.  The whole complex was sold as being a destination that was unique and that people for near and far would travel to.  Well,

Topgolf, the eater-tainment concept that combines a driving range with a bar and restaurant, is planning a location in St. Petersburg.

Plans filed with the Southwest Florida Water Management District show that Topgolf is targeting a 12.09-acre vacant site off of Carillon Parkway, between Catalina Marketing Corp.’s headquarters and Transamerica Financial Advisors Inc.

Transamerica owns the property where Topgolf wants to build a 67,521-square-foot facility (3,817 square feet of which would be dedicated to restaurant space).

* * *

There are 59 Topgolf locations in the U.S.; the Orlando area is home to two of them.

Let us be clear – we are not saying anything about Topgolf the establishment.  However, this announcement is further proof that the subsidy was a very bad idea (and the arguments for it were quite weak) and should not be repeated. While we do not think the new County Commission will repeat the mistake, it does not hurt to be reminded.


Rays

The Rays are off to a fine start this season.  And this.

One Comment leave one →
  1. B. Wills permalink
    May 3, 2019 10:16 AM

    Unfortunately, too many voters were hoodwinked into voting “yes” on the Hillsborough transportation tax–possibly out of desperation, and here we are: Plans are being laid to raid the proceeds to fund “distractions” such as pleasure ferries and imitation BRT, instead of a serious, comprehensive regional transit plan. We will look back on this as a huge opportunity lost (30 years of tax, and nothing substantial to show for it). The newly progressive county commission needs to step in and put a stop to this folly before we cement our place as a 3rd rate metro.

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