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Roundup 9-13-2019

September 12, 2019



— Roads to Nowhere

— All Together Now

— “BRT” Plan


— Virgin Trains

Governance/Infrastructure – Water, Water, Everywhere

Housing – Necessary

Built Environment – This is Why

Rocky Point – About that Parking

Airport – Realized Potential

Downtown/Channel District/USF – Surprise

Port – Another

St. Pete – Tallest

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the World

And Finally



— Roads to Nowhere

In all honesty, writing more about the roads to nowhere (aka M-CORES) project is pretty low on our list of things we want to do.  However, at the end of last month, there was a meeting in Tampa to kick off the three evaluation committees that are supposed to do this:

The three task forces, one to oversee each corridor, will meet seven times beginning next Tuesday – Hurricane Dorian permitting – to chart the proposed road’s routes, construction design, environmental impacts and issue a report to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Oct. 1, 2020.

The reports are only advisory, and, given that various parts have been rejected by the State government before, the plan is political not practical, so do with that what you will. In any event, they met.  Much was said and much was written (including this interesting article about whether people in the counties affected even want the roads. We are sure some do, but is it most?)

Our objection to this plan has been and remains essentially this:  First, we have made clear many times that we are not against all highways construction.  However, this plan is unneeded at this time and will likely just promote and subsidize inefficient, sprawling development which will eventually compound rather than fix any transportation problem.  And, even more, there are other, bigger needs (transportation, water, sewer, public safety, etc.) where people live now and more likely than not will be moving to in the foreseeable future, and, aside from plans to just build variable rate toll lanes everywhere (which we do oppose), those needs are going unaddressed by the State. (A number are discussed in this week’s Roundup.) And when a local population decides to raise the money themselves, roadblocks are often thrown up.  And the failure to address those needs in the populated areas of this state will inhibit competitiveness, economic development, public safety, and the quality of life.

— All Together Now

A few weeks ago, we learned that the Florida House (essentially the Speaker of the Florida House) decided to oppose the AFT Referendum in the Supreme Court case.  Now, the Senate (essentially the Senate President, who is also the lead advocate for the roads to nowhere) has also joined the suit.

A lawyer for the Florida Senate told the state Supreme Court on Monday that the chamber wants to weigh in against Hillsborough County’s transportation tax, joining their colleagues in the House.

“The Senate agrees with and supports the House position, which respects and protects the voters,” the lawyer wrote.

Once again, we will not get into the substance of the suit.  However, it is worth noting this quote from the Senate President from an article regarding the roads to nowhere:

“Several years ago, when I began planning to make infrastructure the heart of my term as Senate president, I had a broader vision, one that went beyond what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Galvano told task force members.

That is fine, but we think it should focus on creating the desired and needed infrastructure in areas that already have large populations, especially where the citizens have clearly indicated that they want to pay for such things.  (Though, it should be noted that, as far as we can tell, there have been no lawsuits regarding the Broward referendum, so maybe it is just Hillsborough County that gets special treatment.)

— “BRT” Plan

Speaking of (un)desired infrastructure, TBARTA continues to promote on an idea that has no widespread public support: the “BRT” plan.  This week, it came out with a video for the “BRT” plan (rebranded “Regional Rapid Transit”) that is well produced if not informative.


We are not sure if this is what they used their funding increase on.  Regardless, the reason it is not informative may be explained by this from the TBARTA website:

Regional Rapid Transit, or RRT, is the Project Development and Environment (PD&E) study that will advance the bus rapid transit (BRT) project connecting Downtown St. Petersburg, the Gateway area, Westshore, Downtown Tampa, the USF area, and Wesley Chapel from concept towards implementation. While we know the project will use I-275, this two-year study will determine the amount of the route that is dedicated (uses a lane separate from cars), where the stations will be, and how the vehicles will get to the stations. This study will also determine approximately how much it will cost and how it will be paid for.

To get to these answers, the team will begin design and engineering, identify any impacts to the environment and community and how to address and potentially alleviate them, identify the best vehicle to use, and design how the service will operate.

First, using the interstate is still a problem for the various reasons that have been discussed before (like lack of ToD potential).  They still have not determined (or at least say they have not determined) how much will run in dedicated lanes (most likely the previous fudges will remain), which is necessary for real BRT, which the “BRT” plan has never been. They do not know where the stations will be or how vehicles will get to the stations (because they want to run on the inside shoulder of the interstate, however they do it will be clunky which is probably why the video does not show any stations).  And they do not know how much it will cost (recall that low cost was the main reason the idea was picked) or how it will be funded.

What do they know?  It will be a bus, and it will run on the interstate.

As we have noted many times, the “BRT” plan is already an outdated and poor idea that will not serve the real needs of Hillsborough County.  Referendum or not, Hillsborough should not fund it.

Last week we said this about transportation in this area:

While this area seems to have made some progress in understanding our issues, many of the ideas, and even attitudes, are still inadequate for where we need to be.

Aside from the overblown rhetoric about the Cross-Bay Ferry, nothing could be a clearer illustration than the “BRT” plan.  Just run an express bus for much less and move on to real BRT or rail – or both.

And note, TBARTA wants to hear from you about their plan.  Their contact/comment page is here.


For decades people have been proposing buying the local CSX tracks for use with rail transit, as was done in Orlando. Of course, in Orlando, the State bought the CSX tracks, while in Hillsborough, it would likely have to be local government buying them (that special treatment again).  In any event, HART is beginning to explore the idea:

Charles Banks, president of railroad consultant group R.L. Banks & Associates Inc., and Kevin Sheys, partner at law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP, presented to the HART board and addressed potential challenges of an acquisition process for CSX tracks.

This transaction will be different than any other deal HART has ever worked on, Banks said, who focuses on railroad negotiations and financing.

“Negotiations with CSX will take a very long time, be very frustrating and you will encounter numerous roadblocks,” Banks said.

CSX had set a target in 2018 to sell $800 million in rail lines and real estate by 2020. It has sold or solicited more than 1,500 miles of track, Tampa Bay Business Journal sister paper the Jacksonville Business Journal reported.

CSX has several advantages such as the company being familiar and comfortable with the process, Banks said. CSX has entered agreements numerous times and can take its time, whereas HART cannot — the Hillsborough transportation surtax has the potential to give HART large funds for a limited time.

Setting aside that this all assumes that the referendum is upheld and HART gets the money, it will be a complicated negotiation and it will take time. On the other hand, if CSX wants to actually sell, there are a limited number of buyers and the money will not be there forever.

Yes, it could take a while. And there is always the possibility that a deal would not get done (especially without State support, at least on liability). At least someone has started looking at it, which should have happened long ago.

— Virgin Trains

There was also news about the Virgin Trains/FDOT negotiations.

The state is allowing more time for Virgin Trains USA to enter an agreement for right of way to connect from its Orlando station to Tampa.

Miami-based Virgin Trains USA, formerly known as Brightline, had a September negotiation deadline with the Florida Department of Transportation to lease the right of way along Interstate 4. FDOT told the Tampa Bay Business Journal the negotiations with all parties are ongoing and the deadline was extended to Oct. 3. However, FDOT did not provide a reason why.

We have no idea why negotiations are taking so long, but hopefully they will get a deal done.  And, hopefully, the short extension is a signal that they are almost there.

If there is going to be an intercity rail network in the state, this area needs to be connected to it.

Governance/Infrastructure – Water, Water, Everywhere

Getting back to local infrastructure, Tampa is moving forward with plans to deal with storm water.

The City Council approved a massive $2.9 billion utility rate increase Thursday night that will pay for the most expensive and extensive infrastructure project in Tampa history.

Mayor Jane Castor’s proposal to fix the city’s aging water and sewer systems will see the average residential bill increase from the current $41.29 a month to about $80 by 2028.

Her chief of staff John Bennett told council members the city won’t regret spending billions to slow and eventually end the nearly constant water main breaks and sewer line cave-ins. There have been more than 3,500 such failures in the last two years alone.

* * *

Customers will see an increase in their bills starting in the November billing cycle. The average bill will increase from $41.29 to $46.50 a month, about half the regional average.


[City Council member] Dingfelder, however, successfully persuaded his colleagues to further expand a low-income assistance program that could cost $1.8 million next year if each of the 51,980 eligible families take advantage of it.

That is a good thing.

No one wants to pay more, but if you want something – in this case, a water and sewer system that does not constantly break – you need to pay for it. And the longer you put off fixing it, the more expensive it will get.


. . . at least for now, a $300 million proposal to convert wastewater to drinking water dubbed ‘toilet-to-tap’ by critics and Tampa Augmentation Project by the city is off the table.

Mayor Jane Castor officially announced the sewage reuse project wouldn’t be part of what is now a $2.9 billion plan to revamp the city’s aging sewage and water infrastructure.

In a memo to council members Thursday —hours before a public hearing and crucial vote on her Progressive Infrastructure Plan to Ensure Sustainability (PIPES) plan— Castor said it was important to move forward on the rest of the plan without toilet to tap.

But the mayor signaled her intent to keep searching for new sources of water.

We are all for looking for new sources of water.  Our standard remains the same: it is fine if the science works and the cost-benefit analysis makes sense.  The fact is that, as far as we can tell, so far no one has made that case for toilet to tap. Until they do, the idea should not go forward.  The decision to drop it at this point is a proper one.

And just one more thing.  We are told this regarding the roads to nowhere plan:

We also have the opportunity to invest in infrastructure that will revitalize the rural, legacy communities that have formed the backbone of our state for generations. Broadband, water, and sewer connectivity are key quality of life issues. All Floridians should have access to clean water. Meanwhile, investments in sewer systems can help mitigate current and prevent future damage to our environment. Through the the multi-use corridors program, we have a real opportunity to bring water and sewer lines within reach of rural communities across our state.

We agree that broadband, water, and sewer are important.  But that applies even more to the far larger number of people living in and around the cities we already have that need to update their infrastructure.  That includes the very high cost of this project in Tampa and the fact that St. Pete keep dumping wastewater into the bay.

Housing – Necessary

The issue of affordable housing is a large and growing one nationwide.  That includes this area, especially with our rising housing costs and low incomes.

The $1,133 average rent for a two-bedroom apartment here is well beyond the reach of minimum wage and other low-paid workers, a study released in June by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found.

A salary of $21.79 an hour — more than $13 above the state’s minimum wage — would be needed for that rent to be “affordable,” which is defined as spending no more than 30 percent of a person’s income on rent. Households that exceed that threshold risk spiraling into debt.

The crisis has been exacerbated by the Florida Legislature continually raiding the statewide Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust. Since 2001, lawmakers have siphoned more than $2 billion from the trust into general revenue, according to a Senate report.

Setting aside the issue of the Legislature redirecting money intended for affordable housing to the general fund, something has to be done.

. . . the county’s new Democrat-majority commission pledged to set aside $10 million every year for an affordable housing trust fund.

The fund will be used both as a subsidy and incentive for the construction and preservation of affordable housing. Construction will be done through partnerships with non-profit groups and affordable housing developers. The money can also be used to purchase land suitable for affordable housing.

At least half the money must be spent on housing for low-income families. That includes 30 percent for households categorized as “very-low income.” Based on federal calculations used for housing vouchers, a household of four people would need a combined gross income of less than $33,500 to meet that criteria.

“Investing in ways to increase access to affordable housing is critically important to our communities,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman. “When we don’t, we end up with homelessness.”

That last point is definitely true.  And the housing issue is not just about panhandlers or the obviously homeless.  And it is not about old mental boundaries:

The money for Hillsborough’s new trust will come from the county’s general fund. Commissioner Sandy Murman said she is concerned a majority of the money will end up being spent inside the city of Tampa at the expense of unincorporated Hillsborough.

“We’re doing a huge favor to the city of Tampa by doing this,” Murman said. “The Mayor should be sending us a grand thank you note.”

But other commissioners said it makes sense to build affordable housing close to work centers and proposed transit routes expected to be funded by the transportation sales tax.

The creation of a housing trust fund is a significant u-turn for the county. In recent years, it made money available for low-cost housing — as much as $5.1 million in 2018 — but commissioners had been reluctant to make the long-term commitment required for a trust.

Last time we checked, Tampa was in Hillsborough County (in fact, the Commissioner’s District – District 1 – includes a big chunk of Tampa.  See here).  It definitely makes sense to address the issue where it is and to create solution that are more effective.  If that means investing inside the city limits, so be it.

The fact is that the plan is a good start, but, and we’re sure the Commissioners promoting it will agree, only a start.  It will definitely help people, though the waiting list of Tampa Housing Authority units is thousands of people.  And, although it is just a start, we commend the County Commission for acting and at least starting to mitigate the problem somewhat.  Housing is and will be a problem.  It cannot be ignored and should not be shortchanged.

Built Environment – This is Why

We are often told by developers that the market in Tampa will not support this or that feature found in their projects. Of course, the City often just goes along with this line of thinking and settles.  This week we had another example of why it shouldn’t.

In the last few years, Crescent Communities developed the Novel in downtown Tampa near the Straz.

Crescent Communities paid $8.1 million for a 5-acre site at 109 W. Fortune St. in a deal that closed Friday, according to a Hillsborough County deed filed Tuesday.

Crescent also closed on a $51.2 million loan from JPMorgan Chase on Friday, according to public records.

We assume there were some more costs in the construction, but you get an idea from that late 2016 article of the cost.  Well, this week:

A mid-rise apartment building in downtown Tampa, near the David A. Straz Jr. Performing Arts Center and Tampa Riverwalk, has been sold for $123 million.

Novel Riverwalk, which has been rebranded Anchor Riverwalk after the acquisition, was purchased by Ohio-based Connor Group in a deal that closed Sept. 6, the company said Monday.

The purchase price breaks down to $312,182 per apartment; the building, developed by Crescent Communities, has 394 units. It wrapped up construction in 2018.

That is a pretty good return on investment, especially for a stick construction, single use project that makes poor use of the large lot it is on.  It is also a sign that the City does not need to settle.  Developers can make money without shortchanging the City (or County) by building lesser projects with poor designs.

Rocky Point – About that Parking

We (and others) have long said that parking requirements are too high and we just don’t need that much.  This week we have an example of the market saying the same:

Nashville-based Castlerock Asset Management, which paid $57.6 million for the Westin on Rocky Point, has filed plans with the city that would add hotel rooms to a portion of the unoccupied garage floors — the fourth, fifth and sixth floors. When plans for the 16-story Westin were proposed in 2007, it was approved for 300 rooms, though only were 255 were built.

Castlerock’s proposal would bring the hotel to 304 total rooms and reduce parking by 56 spaces, from 440 to 384 spaces. Castlerock also wants to significantly reduce its on-site dining room and staff — from 7,487 square feet and 460 employees to 4,320 square feet and 190 employees. That reduction further justifies the reduction in parking spaces, Castlerock says in city filings.

It is interesting that the proposal is not for eliminating a few parking spaces in one floor. It is 56 spaces on three floors. That is a lot of excess parking.

We have no problem with the idea.  If they can make it work, there is no reason not to do it.

Airport – Realized Potential

We have often covered the past debate over international service to Tampa.  Last week, there was more evidence that those who pushed for an aggressive approach rather than the past complacency were right.

72 percent

That’s Tampa International Airport’s growth in passengers flying non-stop to and from Europe in July, compared with the same month last year. This is an increase from 30,000 European passengers in July 2018 to more than 50,000 this year. That outpaces growth in international travelers more generally (up nearly 25 percent year-over-year to about 110,000) and all passengers for the month (up nearly 5 percent to 1.9 million).

A hiccup at British Airways (a strike) this week notwithstanding, the growth is the result of a strategy for growth that has worked, even with the occasional (and inevitable) setback like the loss of Icelandair (which may or may not come back when the 737MAX issues gets worked out).

More generally,

Between January and June of this year, which is the most recent data available, 13.6 million passengers passed through Tampa’s main air hub, which is up 5.64 percent from the same time period in 2018. Domestic flights also grew 4.93 percent to 12.8 million and international flights grew 19.97 percent to 734,616. 

None of which is surprising to us.

Regarding the international growth,

“There was once a perception that we could not grow international here in this airport,” Tampa International CEO Joe Lopano said. Not true, he said. “There’s pent-up demand in this market.”

There is, and there has been for a while.  We have always believed that this area had the requisite demand.  It just needed the supply.  We are thankful that there was leadership that decided to end the old complacency and stop selling this area short. It is a lesson for other issues where, while decreasing, selling us short still happens too often.

Downtown/Channel District/USF – Surprise

It appears that the USF Med School in the Water Street area is going to be a bit more expensive than anticipated.

The project first gained approvals in 2015 with a budget estimated at $152 million. Since then, the university decided to add two floors, bringing the building to 13 stories with a total cost of $173 million. Now, it has increased to $189 million.

The rise in the price is due to “unanticipated costs” over the past two years, according to university documents. Causes for the change revolve around a number of factors including higher costs for research equipment and furniture; construction inflation; and costs of technology. USF said it would be utilizing Microsoft and the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation.

(We are not sure about the relevance of the last sentence.)  But there is more.

Williams said the change was due to modifications for the first floor dedicated to retail, making changes to the building after seeing destruction of buildings from Hurricane Irma, which included flood protection additions and having to move equipment if a surge were to occur. He also said there weren’t any estimations done on research equipment, which is now estimated at nearly $10 million, and inflation costs.

We can understand the equipment may cost a bit more.  We understand that construction costs could increase.  What we cannot understand is not planning for flood protections in a building built a block from the waterfront in Florida.  Did they really need Irma to tell them expensive equipment really should not be on the ground floor during a storm?  (And do not forget the cost of a new USF sign to replace the failed logo.)

Setting that aside, we are not at all surprised that the price has gone up. This has always been that kind of project. But we are a bit surprised that, even at the new cost figure:

Williams responded saying all the resources for a total cost estimate were not available at the time of construction.

In an $189 million budget, Williams told the board eight floors will be completed:

“I have no confidence [that the final amount is $189 million],” trustee Michael Carrere said.

Given what the Board was told, it is pretty clear the final cost will not be $189 million.  And USF has no idea how much the finished building will cost. However, considering this:

The project is currently 90 percent complete with occupancy and classes scheduled for January 2020.

This is also true:

The board members said they felt obligated to approve the new budget in order to not halt the project and have it built on time.

One could argue that, in the long run and spread out over decades of use, the cost increase will not be a big deal.  And it will be even less of a deal if the money is donated.  On the other hand, the price creep is troubling, especially since there is no estimate of the final cost. It is a public university, after all. But, like we said, we are not surprised given the history and nature of this project.

Port – Another

There will be another cruise option at the Port:

MSC Cruises, a Switzerland-based cruise line, announced Thursday that it will add Tampa as a new homeport starting in November 2020.

The cruise line will offer both a winter season of four- to five-night trips and a summer season of weeklong cruises that will sail to the Caribbean, Mexico and the Bahamas.

Good deal.

St. Pete – Tallest

The Red Apple project that, if built, will likely be the tallest building in St. Pete is back in the news.

Red Apple Group, controlled by grocery titan John Catsimatidis, on Thursday unveiled new plans for the 2.3-acre site in the 400 block of Central Avenue. Red Apple said in a news release that it has filed a site plan reflecting the new vision with the city.

Catsimatidis’ plans now including the following:

Pending city approvals of the plans, Red Apple said it intends to begin construction in 2020. The developer plans to retain ownership of the hotel, retail and office space. The group paid $16.5 million for the property in 2017.


From the Business Journal – click on picture for article

Going from the rendering, we like this project.  From what we have seen (which is admittedly limited), we do not have any real issues with it.  As for it getting built:

The application filed Thursday sets in motion a city staff review of the project. Red Apple is not asking for any variances so it probably will not need to go before the city’s Development Review Commission or City Council.


“Don’t forget: We have the cash,” Catsimatidis said. “We don’t need other people’s funding. We’re capable of writing a check.”

We look forward to it. It would be a really nice addition to St. Pete.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the Country

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about migration between cities and remote working:

Ms. Swift joined a group of workers fueling a renaissance in American cities that lie outside the major job hubs. People who do their jobs from home, freelance or constantly travel for work are migrating away from expensive urban centers such as Los Angeles and San Francisco toward cheaper, smaller cities including Boise; Denver; Austin, Texas; and Portland, Ore.; according to economists and local residents.

That has brought a boom to these midsize cities, and while the ultimate effects aren’t yet clear, the development comes with a few downsides. Many places are dealing with growing pains like fast-rising home prices and traffic congestion, but aren’t accruing all the economic benefits, such as the deep investments companies often make in the areas where they are based.

Also mentioned is Orlando.  The Tampa Bay area is not (though we still have rising housing prices and traffic congestion).

While it is not necessarily an unmitigated positive for the cities getting the new residents, right now it is a benefit. You can read the whole thing here.

Meanwhile, In the Rest of the World

We often write about local obsession with roads at the expense of history. We recently ran across an even more surprising example in the UK.  From the Guardian:

At stake is much that Tories are supposed to hold dear: the ancient fabric of the country; fiscal responsibility; Britain’s good name. Yet ministers seem content to sit on their hands. As a result, with the clock ticking down towards an October deadline, a grotesque act of vandalism threatens. We are facing a desecration: the desecration that is the Stonehenge road tunnel.

* * *

Shockingly, based on Highways England’s own figure, it will save just 4.8 seconds per mile on an average 100-mile journey. Adding to the sense of a white elephant on the rampage is evidence heard only last week from a hydrologist, warning that tunnelling through the rock risks seriously affecting the water table. The damage this would inflict on both the archaeology of the Stonehenge landscape and the broader ecology of south Wiltshire’s riverways will be fully known only when it is too late.

You can read the whole piece here.

And Finally

The Washington Post had a nice animation about autonomous vehicles, how they work, and some of the practical issues they have getting around.  If you are interested, you can see it here.

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