Saturday, February 1, 2014

It's Time for a Plan?

Thursday evening, January 30, at the Art Museum in downtown Tampa, Connect Tampa Bay unveiled their transportation plan.  The Eye was there, with about 30 or so other interested folks.

Brian Willis kicked the meeting off, and noted its been about a year since Connect Tampa Bay's founding, and they've been working hard across the community.

Brian Seel then discussed their participation in "hundreds of meetings", surveys they've sponsored, and "testifying" in Hillsborough transportation workshops.  Momentum is building, and they need to keep up the momentum, especially since another 600,000 new residents are expected in Hillsborough by 2025.  The Eye's research indicated it's more like 2040, but there is little doubt there will be continued growth in Hillsborough.

Brandi Miklus next talked briefly about the surveys they've done across over 3000 Connect Tampa Bay members, with hundreds of responses, about their transportation priorities.  The survey was a "great exercise" and highlighted how the respondents want change and options.

HART Bus.. Will Hillsbrough be getting other modes of transit?
Kevin Thurman then did the heavy lifting and described the plan.

He started with some positioning of Hillsborough with Greenlight Pinellas plan and Polk County's MyRide plan, both of which have sales tax increase referendums on the November 2014 ballot, yet Hillsborough does not.  Their goal is to get Hillsborough to catch up with the neighboring counties, and get going on a plan.  Hence the name of the plan "Go Hillsborough", which is focused solely on Hillsborough County.

Kevin stated there is "no silver bullet" to solve our transportation needs, needs vary across the county. We have decades of plans, with similar ideas and themes, and there is no need to have yet another study to create yet another plan.  So he's harvested concepts and ideas from many of those existing plans, plus added a 1 cent sales tax hike to pay for the plan. This should bring in about $204M per year at today's dollars, indexed for inflation at 2% per year, to help pay for the Go Hillsborough plan.

The plan is based on four principles:
  1. Economic opportunity - access to jobs, customers to business
  2. Freedom and choice - choose from multiple option, help attract talent
  3. Fiscal responsibility- maintain what we have (which we've not done well), leverage grants and private investment
  4. Public engagement - communicate the plan, seek public input
After leading with a "do nothing" and "go slow" options, Kevin elaborated the plan.

It's essentially funding all modes of transportation:
  • Roads
  • Walk/bike
  • Bus and Bus Rapid Transit, with bus toll lanes
  • Light rail
  • Ferry
Public Transit Commission reform is also a key initiative in the plan.

Here's some of the funding details as I noted (numbers may be off a little, as it was hard to read from the slides, which I've not yet received a copy):

Mode per year ($M) % sales tax
Roads $164 33%
Walk/bike $19 8%
Bus $77 23%
Rail $71 33%
Ferry $4 2%

Roads includes improved maintenance, growth, signal optimization, and would be funded from the sales tax increase, mobility fees and gas taxes.

Bus includes funding for HART's  Transit Development Plan (TDP), deploying more Metro-Rapid style routes than HART has currently planned, a "gold standard Bus Rapid Transit", and bus toll lanes. Tolled intersection bypass was also mentioned as a possibility.  Tolls would be used to fund connecting transit and transit operations.

Walk/bike is important leg of Connect Tampa Bay's plan, as they are seeking to address the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, and elevate Hillsborough to the best in the South bike and pedestrian friendly community.

Rail was based on a 27 mile or so route, smaller in scope than most other recent plans.  Their suggested route was USF to downtown Tampa to Westshore, airport, and up to Carrollwood.  Kevin stated they estimated 30,000 riders (per day?) at 20% less than HART's costs.

Ferry is based on concepts from, and would provide Ferry service from south Hillsborough to MacDill, downtown Tampa, and St. Petersburg.

Also mentioned was PTC reform, as that will factor in as new technologies and modes of transportation, particularly as autonomous vehicles come to market and affect the transportation for hire sector.

The overall timeline Kevin shared was:
  • 2014 - Public input, finalize the plan
  • 2015 - 2016 - Get a referendum on the ballot
  • 2018 - first new option deployed and running
The "call to action" from Brian Seel was to keep the discussing going, get more input, and keep the momentum going.

The Eye's take?

The plan has something for everyone.  That may play well for messaging at the ballot box but it's early and there's still many questions remain about the fiscal realities and viability.

It's also an end run around the Hillsborough County Transportation Policy Leadership Group that's lost their way with navel gazing and discussing converting HART into some economic planning authority or something that will never happen... rather than working on realistic plans.  We're tired of waiting too. The Go Hillsborough plan from Connect Tampa Bay is more concrete than anything we've yet seen from this committee of our community leaders who have been meeting for over 7 months.

It was interesting too that they did not make the case for subsidized development around transit oriented development (TOD), tax increment financing, and other questionable subsidies for economic development and financial engineering, and kept their plan focused on transportation. The only time TOD was mentioned was with the gold standard BRT, which is the taj mahal BRT version with dedicated lanes and may cost almost as much as fixed rail.

Of course, the devil is in the details.

The rail component is likely underestimated.  At $75M per year, they could optimistically build about 1 mile of track per year, since most light rail projects come in around $70M - $120M per mile. Rail has a tendency to suck up more and more dollars over time, so we're wary of these numbers.

It's also unclear how much duplication on the routes between modes of bus MetroRapid, BRT, and Light Rail, but that could be worked out.

They did not discuss much in the terms of transit ridership estimates or fare box revenue or fare coverage.  I'd like to see those estimates, especially how much fare coverage we can expect, and hope to drive fare coverage higher over time.

They also seem to gloss over the federal, state and private dollars that would be required for this to work.  As some municipalities are finding out, this is getting harder to get such as Orlando SunRail and Charlotte Lynx are experiencing, and can no longer be depended on.  The federal grant dollars are shrinking at the same time the older, legacy rail systems need major rehabilitation. 

The overall financial story will be different.  It will be more than just a 1 cent sales tax increase.  This type of plan will most likely be bonded out to get the cash up front to get this going sooner rather later. However, that's not without risk.  Hillsborough County was burned by bonding out the CIT tax, then the economy turned down, the CIT sales tax decreased dramatically (just now recovering to 2007 levels), and the road projects were died, hence one reasons we've seen no relief in Hillsborough.  Some realistic financial assumptions are needed and while Connect Tampa Bay's assumption of 2% increase is pretty conservative these days, we should assume there will be a recession or two along the way and adjust accordingly.

Hillsborough is expected to continue to grow.  However, we have needs now that need to be addressed.  We also have funding issues for transportation at the federal and local levels.  So we don't harbor an expectation that things will magically improve for free.  We have to be financially realistic in a still uncertain economy, understand the true likely ridership, understand the true value to the community, and the real risks that will emerge.

To go forward with a plan of "something for everyone" and go fast simply may not be realistic or fiscally prudent. 

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