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Roundup 7-19-2019 – ish

July 17, 2019

Due to circumstances beyond our control we are posting early this week, too.  But, hey, it’s still summer.

Contents

Governance/Transportation – About that Tax

Downtown – Interesting

Downtown – Mid

Downtown/Channel District – A Publix That’s Not a Publix

South Tampa – Another

Channel District – Park and Planning

Planning/Transportation – Bottlenecks

Governance – Garbage

Transportation – Future World

And, Once Again, the Trees

Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

________________________________________________________


Governance/Transportation – About that Tax

Now that the Court has ruled on the AFT referendum (though there is still the possibility of some more legal activity), the County Commission is addressing where the money from the referendum goes.  On Wednesday,

The Hillsborough County Commission approved a measure today to draft an ordinance for public hearing to implement All For Transportation’s language. The vote was 4-3.

While the intent of the majority of Commissioners may be clear, that means there will be more debate about it.  That means it is worthwhile discussing the argument for keeping the formulas, specifically in the context of a budget issue raised by the County Administrator for Wednesday’s hearing.

Following the [formula] vote, County Administrator Mike Merrill will present the Fiscal Year 2020 County Administrator’s Recommended Budget. The proposed budget mentions the 1 percent transportation surtax, as the administrator is recommending that the adopted budget include an appropriation of transportation surtax dollars to fund $31 million in transportation projects that otherwise would be funded with ad valorem revenue.

Why?

The move, Merrill said, would help balance the budget and tackle a growing deficit. “I have been telling the board this for two years now that we were reaching a point in the unincorporated general fund where it wouldn’t be sustainable,” he said.

First, we are all for a balanced budget (and we also get balancing the budget is a tough job when, like previous County Commission, your bosses do not pay for what they want and keep kicking things down the road.)  Additionally, it should be noted that the past two years had a different County Commission that maintained a policy of cutting taxes (see here), subsidizing sprawl, not collecting proper impact fees, and generally ignoring problems while promising things that were not adequately funded.  The $31 million budget hole was left by said actions by the previous Commission.  (It is not the Administrator’s fault.)

If the board agrees to reinstate the percentages, there could be issues with Merrill’s plans to use the sales tax money to help pay for the $812 million of road projects.

The plan would work in the short term. The 2020 budget proposes that only $31 million of the sales tax be spent on that existing project list, which includes resurfacing, safety and intersection projects.

But if commissioners continued to use sales tax dollars to pay for those projects down the line, as Merrill suggests, the county would run into an issue with predetermined spending allocations. Those percentages only allow for up to 15 percent to be spent on road widenings, Merrill said, which would leave about $500 million of road projects unfunded.

“We would have a lot of underfunded transportation projects,” Merrill said. “The board would either have to find a new funding source, raise millage or cut services.”

And that is fine for this year, if, as it seems, the items fit in the formula. However, there is the bigger issue of spending over time.

A little history is instructive:

Long before the sales tax campaign was launched, commissioners in 2017 approved a 10-year, $812 million transportation plan that would be paid for with property taxes and existing county revenue. It was a compromise agreed to after the commission rejected a 30-year, half-penny sales tax surcharge the year before.

But Merrill said the policy always allowed for those projects to be paid for with other sources, not just existing county dollars. “At the time of discussion,” he said, “the board anticipated if a transportation sales tax were passed, that would be an eligible funding source.” 

But recall, from 2017:

A majority of Hillsborough County commissioners agree the day is coming when the county will have to make a sizeable investment in buses and other forms of mass transit.

But Wednesday was not that day.

Instead, commissioners voted 6-1 for a 10-year, $812 million transportation plan that is heavily focused on road work. First-year Commissioner Pat Kemp, whose top issue during the 2016 campaign was transit, was the lone dissenter.

The outcome was largely expected. The decision last year to set aside hundreds of millions from existing county revenue was billed as a stopgap measure meant to fill potholes and pour concrete. It was a compromise agreed to after the commission rejected a 30-year, half-penny sales tax surcharge.

“What we have here for today is by design a roads plan,” commission Chairman Stacy White said.

With the vote, the county will over the next decade spend $276 million on road and bridge maintenance, $127 million for safety projects and $346 million for congestion relief, such as building and widening new roads and improving traffic signal systems.

That sounds like they had the money designated and were not relying on some future transportation tax.  But, apparently, they did not have the money, and the whole plan was another can the Commission kicked down the road:

The county used property tax money primarily. That drained money from the police, fire, and public safety areas that Merrill referenced.

“It was supposed to be a stopgap,” he said.

So how exactly were those Commissioners going to pay for the $800 million if there was never a referendum or the referendum failed?  At the Wednesday Commission meeting, while discussing the budget, numerous people said the $800 million road plan was based on assumptions about the growth in property tax revenue – one Commissioner said “enormous growth assumptions.”  They did not have a firm funding source. Unfortunately, the revenue growth does not seem to have matched projections and the deferred investment in other things is coming due.  Needless to say, that is a very poor way to plan a 10 year program, especially when you are also failing to fund needed services.  Even worse, it was done when we recently had one of the worst recessions in our history.  (What was funded was apparently funded by robbing Peter (public safety) to pay Paul (roads))

(An aside: It is completely disingenuous to claim that using the referendum money consistent with the formula is holding up projects on the $800 million plan list.  If there was money to pay for those items before the referendum, it should still be there.  And if there wasn’t any money, then those items were not going to happen and are not being held up.)

Then there is the referendum itself.  Let’s look at the language:

Section 11.05. Distribution of Surtax Proceeds. The Surtax Proceeds shall be deposited in a dedicated trust fund (the “Trust Fund”) maintained by the Clerk and distributed in accordance with the following formula:

* * *

Section 11.07. Uses of General Purpose Portion. For any Agency that the Clerk reasonably estimates will receive five percent (5%) or more of the Surtax Proceeds in a given calendar year, such Agency’s share of the General Purpose Portion shall be expended by the Agencies for the planning, development, construction, operation, and maintenance of roads, bridges, sidewalks, intersections, and public transportation (which, for purposes of this Section, may include any technological innovations such as autonomous vehicles and related infrastructure), to the extent permitted by F.S. § 212.055(1), and include expenditures in the following categories:

(1) Maintenance and Vulnerability Reduction. At least twenty percent (20%) of the General Purpose Portion shall be expended on projects that: (i) improve, repair and maintain existing streets, roads, and bridges, including fixing potholes, or (ii) reduce congestion and transportation vulnerabilities.

(2) Congestion Reduction. At least twenty-six (26%) of the General Purpose Portion shall be expended to relieve rush hour bottlenecks and improve the flow of traffic on existing roads and streets and through intersections. Expenditures in the category described in this Section 11.07(2) may include projects that improve intersection capacity through the use of technology, the construction of new intersections, the redevelopment of existing intersections, and may include related infrastructure such as roundabouts and turn lanes. Projects described in the foregoing sentence do not constitute New Automobile Lane Capacity, as defined in Section 11.07(8) below.

(3) Transportation Safety Improvements. At least twenty-seven (27%) of the General Purpose Portion shall be expended to promote transportation safety improvements on existing streets, roads and bridges.

* * *

(5) Remaining Funds. Any remaining portions of the General Purpose Portion shall be expended on any project to improve transportation in the applicable Agency’s jurisdiction to the extent permitted by F.S § 212.055(1) and this Article.

* * *

(8) Limits on New Automobile Lane Capacity. Agencies are prohibited from expending any funds from the categories mandated by Section 11.07(1), (2) and (3) above on New Automobile Lane Capacity. For purposes of this Section 11.07(8), “New Automobile Lane Capacity” means projects that consist of (i) adding additional lanes for automobile traffic to existing roads or streets that are not related to intersection capacity improvement, or (ii) constructing new roads or streets.

It is not true that the referendum does not have a large amount of road money already. Under the formula, about 39.4% of the revenue (54% General Purpose x 73% from subsections 2, 3, and 5) from the surtax is specifically for roads, though not necessarily all the kinds of road projects included in the $800 million plan.

And it is also not true that sticking to the formula will stop road expansion in the County.  The formula restrictions only mean the money raised by the referendum will not be used for general road expansion. While poor planning and poor policies have left many needs, the referendum as written covers some.  There are still all the other County revenue sources that are now used for roads to cover other road needs.

If a road project fits is in the referendum formula’s road money, fine.  Spend it.  Otherwise, no.  Just stick to the formula.  Then find money elsewhere for the items in the $800 million that cannot be funded under the formula.

That leaves other needs, but those needs were going to be there anyway.  Funding them will require creativity and discipline.  It may also require deferring some things, including some road projects we want until later.  No one said fixing all the problems that have built up over years (if not decades) of poor policies would be quick or easy.

Finally, regarding the will of the voters, the referendum was passed based on a formula.  Whatever plans may have existed in the past, that is the only referendum that was passed.  Some may not like it, but that is a fact.  The County Commission should make that formula stick as much as possible, and the money should go for what was intended (including road projects, if they fit into the formula).  We know that is just the first step to fixing the mess the previous Commission(s) left us in.  But it is the proper first step.


Downtown – Interesting

Fresh after getting people excited because of the CapTrust demolition, there was some odd news from Riverwalk Place:

The developers of Riverwalk Place have stopped taking reservations for condos in the 50-plus story tower planned for the downtown riverfront.

A statement Friday attributed only to “Riverwalk Place” indicated the halt was temporary and did not stem from any major problems with the project.

“Now that the tower will be all residential, the designers are updating floorplans,” the statement said. “Once complete, buyers can reserve those updated plans. We continue to market the project, and potential buyers have always been welcome to visit the sales center to learn all they wish.”

Meanwhile,

“A developer’s job is to fill demand,” Feldman said at the time, “and the demand tells us people want condos.” He said prospective buyers already had reserved nearly $70 million worth of units with required deposits of $25,000.

Frankly, we do not know if that is the full story or there is something else going on. While not unprecedented, it is a bit odd.  On the one hand, if they are coming up with better product that will make them more money, it would be a wise thing to do. On the other hand, it could be cover for pulling back on the project (though it would be unusual to do the demolition while pulling back on the project.)

As we often say with this project: we shall see.


Downtown – Mid

The long proposed (and partially redesigned) Modera project got a key approval.  Per URBN Tampa Bay:

Modera Tampa, an 8-story, 375-unit apartment project proposed for 1000 North Ashley Drive (the Times Building parking lot), received a tree removal variance last week in order to move forward.

The project was first proposed 2.5 years ago. The project has been delayed multiple times but was never killed off. With this variance acquired the project should be ready to move forward and break ground sooner rather then later.

We are a bit disappointed with the development in this part of downtown generally, though this proposal is better than some others that have been built.  As we said back in February:

We did not like the first iteration.  While not excellent, this one is better.  It has more units and more retail (laid out in a rational way along Tyler). It still has a relatively dead wall on the north end (the picture where the garage doors are), but every project with a garage is going to have some dead street space.  The key is to minimize it.

In short, the revisions are ok.

Nothing has really changed.  This is better than much of what got built before, but is not quite where we would like things to be.


Downtown/Channel District – A Publix That’s Not a Publix

While we really do not get that excited about following every retail announcement, we know some do, so:

Publix, which owns the GreenWise Market brand, has signed a lease for 26,000 square feet of space on the ground-floor of 815 Water Street, a twin-tower residential project now under construction.

We knew they were getting a grocery store.  now we know what it is. If you are interested in more information, you can read more here and here.

In further Water Street news:

Three weeks ahead of schedule, Coastal Construction paused Wednesday to mark the topping off of the 26-story JW Marriott hotel in Water Street Tampa and serve the 400 construction workers on the job a lunch of barbecued pork and chicken.

The structure topped out at 291 feet above sea level, according to Strategic Property Partners, the Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment development company for Water Street Tampa. It’s been about 15 months since developers broke ground on the $200 million-plus hotel, which is scheduled to be done next summer and to be ready to host NFL executives for Super Bowl LV in February 2021.

From the Times – click on picture for article


South Tampa – Another

Another condo proposal was announced for South Tampa.

A Naples-based developer today unveiled plans for Altura Bayshore, a 22-story tower at Bayshore and Bay to Bay boulevards. That brings to four the number of condo towers announced in the past few years for one of the city’s prime waterfront areas.

* * *

Solomon said his company’s project will be “a little different” from other new towers in size and price. Units will average around 2,500 square feet and range from the “low millions” to $2.9 million. That compares to larger units and top prices of around $5 million at Virage Bayshore, which is nearing completion, and the Sanctuary at Alexandra Place, where construction recently began.

* * *

“It’s almost like what people find in a gated community in the ‘burbs but we’ll offer that downtown with a view,” Solomon said. All 73 units will have front-to-back floor plans so residents can watch sunrises over Hillsborough Bay and sunsets over South Tampa.

 

From the Times – click on picture for article

We are fine with more development in this area. This lot has had proposals before, and there is a condo tower under development nearby. This is nothing out of the ordinary.

However, we really hope that rendering is a placeholder.  While we can’t say anything about the amenities or interior (which very well may be great), the building in the rendering is about as generic a condo building as we could imagine.  We hope they do something to make it better.


Channel District – Park and Planning

Work has started on a new City park in the Channel District. From URBN Tampa Bay:

The city of Tampa is beginning construction on a new city park along Madison Street, directly next to The Channel Club.

While the park will be a good addition, it was a huge missed opportunity to not put retail space in The Channel Club facing the park (left side of the photo). It would have made for some nice outdoor restaurant/cafe space directly on the park. Instead, it’s parking garage dead space.

You can see their point from a picture they included:

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

It could not be more obvious.  The park will be bounded by a cement wall and parking garage.

When we say do not settle now because buildings will be with us for decades, this is exactly what we mean.  We are all for more parks, but a little foresight and you can make it a truly special.


Planning/Transportation – Bottlenecks

The Times had an interesting article on bottlenecks in Hillsborough County.

Recently, a story circulated of Tampa’s 50 most congested roadways. That data was from 2010. So we asked the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization for more updated information.

This ranking was calculated by comparing actual traffic counts on the roads over the last three years with the amount of cars a given road can withstand for average travel times. Roads that scored above a 1.5 make for “unreliable travel times,” said Beth Alden, the Hillsborough MPO’s executive director.

The list highlights shorter sections of road so officials can “flag bottlenecks,” Alden said, or sections of road that may be poorly designed to accommodate the amount of traffic they generally have.

This is the list:

  1. County Line Road from Dale Mabry Highway to U.S. 41
  2. Boyette Road from Balm Riverview Road to Bell Shoals Road
  3. I-275 from Armenia Avenue to Ashley Drive
  4. Westshore Boulevard from Gandy Boulevard to Swann Avenue
  5. Interstate 275 from Dale Mabry Highway to Armenia Avenue
  6. Van Dyke Road from Dale Mabry Highway to Simmons Road
  7. Gunn Highway from Van Dyke Road and S Mobley Road
  8. Hutchinson Road from Ehrlich Road to N Mobley Road
  9. Lithia Pinecrest Road from Bloomingdale Avenue to Boyette Road
  10. Courtney Campbell Causeway from Eisenhower Boulevard to Memorial Highway

The article includes maps here.  Four of the items (including #10) are highways or exits.  They are no surprise. One, Westshore, is in the City of Tampa and sort of on a grid, but not fully.

The other five are in the County and are built using the arterial road in a swirling mess of subdivisions model.  Not surprisingly, they are congested.  This is just another example of arterial roads and lack of grid failing to provide proper circulation.  If you shove all the cars on a few roads with just as few connections to alternative routes, you get congestion.  It is not rocket science, but it is a failure of planning and governance. (And it is part of the reason we have the problems listed in the first section above.)

It is just another past practice the County government needs to change.


Governance – Garbage

Speaking of failures at the County:

Hillsborough County will soon sign a new contract with its garbage collection vendors and there could be some changes coming in how often residents’ garbage will get picked up:

It could go from twice a week down to once a week.

There’s a good financial reason to make that change, county officials said. But that deal doesn’t smell good to some residents.

* * *

Why make a change? Going to once-a-week collection could lighten the burden on waste disposal companies and cut costs anywhere from 20 to 30 percent, said Hillsborough County solid waste director Kim Byer.

“It’s the same trash, the same volume,” she said. “It’s just condensed into one day.”

On the other hand, garbage would accumulate over a week instead of two or three days.

If anyone has been the unfortunate recipient of the missed pick-ups (see here), they know once a week pick-up is a bad idea.

Garbage collection is a pretty basic service.  Doing it twice a week is really not that big a burden.  You can read the full Times article here for the whole discussion, but it seems to us that the change is not worth the savings, especially when you consider garbage sitting for a week in Florida heat and humidity.


Transportation – Future World

As you may remember, the Legislature gave TBARTA some money to do some research, like this:

Planes, high speed trains and autonomous automobiles are just the beginning for Florida transportation.

But a slow and steady effort has been building for over three years in the Tampa Bay area to bring a new kind of transit tech to the scene: hyperloop.

There may be some government officials sitting around thinking it might be cool – unless of course it springs a leak and everyone in the tube dies or other assorted catastrophes (see here and here), but we know of no building effort or groundswell of interest.

If hyperloop may not be the future, maybe we are better off planning for all those automated cars.  Well, you should probably check out an article featured by URBN Tampa Bay here from Fast Company (article here). The basic gist is this:

Just before Uber’s IPO in May, court documents were unsealed relating to a lawsuit filed against the ride-sharing company in 2017 by Waymo, Google’s self-driving car unit. In these documents and in testimony during the case, which was settled in 2018, a rare candid view into what auto and tech industry insiders actually believe about autonomous vehicle (AV) development emerged.

Simply put, Uber—and, as it turns out, many other automobile manufacturers—have been wildly overpromising.

Starting around May 2016, Uber projected in public and private presentations that it would manufacture 13,000 autonomous vehicles by 2019, only to change that forecast four months later to over 75,000 units. The company also said that human safety drivers, who take over the wheel when an AV needs help, would not be required on its cars by 2020. And in 2022, the company declared, tens of thousands of fully self-driving Uber taxis would be in 13 of the largest cities.

As it turns out, even Uber didn’t have any faith in these claims. According to the released court files, nobody at Uber vetted its AV deployment figures, which Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, described as nothing but “hypothetical scenarios.” He added, “They are assumptions and estimates. I don’t think anything in this document would be described as accurate. It’s a set of knobs you turn to try to understand parameters that you need to try to meet.” Perhaps more damning, the Uber employee responsible for the forecasts said that while she was designing them, executives had asked her “to think about a way” to show accelerated Uber AV development.

Regular readers know we had little faith in any similar claims.  We are sure that, at some point, automated vehicles will have a role in transportation (some day), but there is no reason to think that the need for real transit is going to be replaced.  By all means, do research, but don’t believe the hype.


And, Once Again, the Trees

Recently we discussed trees in the context of climate change and a new state law.  URBN Tampa Bay then posted a nice graphic about the usefulness of urban trees.   We liked it so much, we figured we would post it, too.  And note, this is about shade trees, not palm trees no matter how pretty they may be.

From URBN Tampa Bay – click on picture for Facebook page

A lot of it is obvious, but, for whatever reason, people seem to forget it.


Meanwhile, In the Rest of Florida

The New York Times had a very interesting, though not at all surprising, article about the impediments to solar energy in Florida.

Florida calls itself the Sunshine State. But when it comes to the use of solar power, it trails 19 states, including not-so-sunny Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Maryland.

Solar experts and environmentalists blame the state’s utilities.

The utilities have hindered potential rivals seeking to offer residential solar power. They have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying, ad campaigns and political contributions. And when homeowners purchase solar equipment, the utilities have delayed connecting the systems for months.

You can read it here.

The Times riffed of the New York Times article with an editorial (here) which noted:

Consumer advocates are pushing a constitutional amendment proposed for the 2020 ballot that would allow Floridians to pick their electricity providers from a competitive market or give them more options to produce solar energy themselves. As of Wednesday, the proposal had almost 340,000 signatures of the 766,200 it needs to make the ballot. The ballot language still must be approved by the Florida Supreme Court, with oral arguments scheduled for Aug. 28.

Policy choices are best left to the political arena. But the constitutional amendment effort shows hundreds of thousands of Floridians want more energy choices. Solar is a natural, promising resource for Florida that should shape the state’s energy future.

Indeed, it should be a law, not a constitutional amendment.  This issue is crying out for a law giving people choice and freeing the market while helping Florida create a more sustainable, innovative, and economical electrical system. It would be very odd if risking explosive decompression in a hyperloop tube is fine, but widespread homeowner-driven solar energy is just too much.

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