Gainesville chooses Siemens Mobility for new Connected Vehicle Deployment

Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems has announced that it will provide Connected Vehicle (CV) solutions in the form of Roadside Units (RSU), On-Board Units (OBU), CV applications and RSU central management software.
Siemens Mobility, Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS), MAY, 2019

Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems has  announced that it will provide Connected Vehicle (CV) solutions in the form of Roadside Units (RSU), On-Board Units (OBU), CV applications and RSU central management software for Gainesville’s Trapezium Signal Phase and Timing (SPaT) project, which will be one of the largest state-funded SPaT CV deployments in the U.S.

The project will take place along the 4-road area surrounding the University of Florida, descriptively called “the Trapezium” – covering 27 intersections.  The university environment surrounded by this area provides a rich spectrum of automobile, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian activity and is an ideal location to further examine and quantify the significant benefits of CV technologies. 

“Siemens Mobility is excited to be leading the momentum for CV deployment in cities around the country,” said Marcus Welz, president of Siemens Mobility’s Intelligent Traffic Systems business in North America. “The inevitable safety and mobility benefits provided by utilizing CV technology is becoming more mainstream, thanks to the efforts of agencies like FDOT, who have really stepped up to push Florida into the spotlight of this disruptive new force.” 

“The Florida Department of Transportation is committed to incorporating the latest technology and transportation solutions to strengthen safety on our roadways,” said Raj Ponnaluri, FDOT Connected Vehicles, and Arterial Management Engineer. “We’re proud to develop this exciting CV technology project that has the potential to make a major impact on driving behavior in the Gainesville area.”

The project is expected to be completed by 2021, and is planning to include the following CV capabilities: 

  • SPaT MAP Display Signal Timing, signaling remaining time to a Green signal
  • Red Light Violation Warning
  • Wrong Way Entry (WWE)
  • Exit Ramp Deceleration Warning (ERDW)
  • Curve Speed Warning (CSW)
  • Emergency Electronic Brake Lights
  • Forward Collision Warning
  • Intersection Movement Assist
  • Work Zone Warning
  • Do Not Pass Warning
  • Speed Limit Warning

These are applications that have already been successfully tested in other cities.  This technology has been previously installed in the state of Florida and has been proven to be interoperable and compatible with third party devices. 

Siemens’ history with DSRC communications and CV applications in the U.S. extends back to 2007 with its involvement with the USDOT Connected Vehicle Test Bed in Oakland County, MI. This was a testing environment intended to advance the state of ITS practice by providing a cutting-edge model operating environment for CV and DSRC. Siemens was one of the first controller manufacturers to output SPaT data at the testbed.

Siemens Mobility has been supplying traffic-related products and services to FDOT, as well as local municipalities in Florida for over 40 years.  Most recently, Siemens Mobility has been the primary CV technology partner in the high-profile Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) USDOT Connected Vehicle Pilot Project, supplying over 40 RSUs and driving the development of 13 V2I and V2V applications.

SunRail Rolling Out $200,000 Mobile App

SunRail is rolling out a $200,000 application for smart phones. (Spectrum News 13 file)
By Spectrum News Staff 
PUBLISHED 3:40 PM EDT May. 13, 2019 UPDATED 5:15 PM ET May. 13, 2019

ORLANDO, Fla. — On the heels of its fifth anniversary, SunRail is marking another milestone this week: Central Florida’s commuter-rail system is rolling out its first app for mobile devices.

  • SunRail’s new smart phone app cost $200,000 to produce
  • App aims to allow management of accounts on the go, plan trips
  • Rollout detailed in recent meeting of rail commission committee

“Folks will be able to plan their trips a little better,” Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Olson said. The app aims to make it easier for riders to manage their online accounts while they are on the go.

The process of moving money from a bank account to replenish a SunRail card, for instance, will be easier through the mobile app than it is now, Olson said.

Currently, people using SunRail on their mobile devices get the desktop version of the agency’s website. That version is hard to navigate on a mobile phone.

The rollout of the app was detailed at a meeting Thursday of public officials from across the region who advises SunRail’s governing board.

SunRail’s new smartphone app cost $200,000.

The technical experts, the governing board and citizen advisers, along with anyone who has signed up for SunRail text alerts, will get a link to the app.

“We are then going to wait 48 hours,” Mark Calvert, a SunRail subcontractor called Winter Park-based Evolve Management Group, told the technical committee. “We want to do our due diligence, work with our backend partner, understand the kind of traffic patterns and kind of customer feedback and everything like that before we roll it out to the general public on Thursday.”

The performance of the app will be measured, and feedback from the public will be examined Friday and over the weekend, Calvert said. Staffers will regroup Monday and examine feedback trends to fine-tune the app and discuss an outreach plan for the public.

SunRail launched launch service on May 1, 2014, opening a 32-mile system with 12 stations in three counties: Volusia, Seminole, and Orange. The system made 34 trips daily. Last summer, a southern expansion into Osceola County added four new stations: Poinciana, Kissimmee/Amtrak, Tupperware, and Meadow Woods.

Now, the system stretches 49 miles and has 16 stations. It’s up to 40 trips daily.

Florida Lawmakers Send $91.1 Billion Budget To DeSantis To End Legislative Session

By Meryl KornfieldGabriella PaulCat GloriaMax Chesnes and Katherine Campione, May 4, 2019,Fresh Take Florida,

In a rare weekend convening, Florida lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 session Saturday by enacting a $91.1 billion budget for the coming year — a budget that Gov. Ron DeSantis hinted he may trim with his veto pen.

Though partisan rancor flared during the session over issues including arming teachers and restoring voting rights to released felons, the final day was mostly a round of back-pats and nods to bipartisanship. House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, reached across the aisle telling Democrats, “The truth is, the political process requires that tension of ideas, that back-and-forth pressure.”

Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, declared it “very, very successful” and told the chamber’s members, “You made every last day count.”

The session will be remembered for what passed. That included a much-disputed bill allowing classroom teachers in public schools to carry firearms, and another expanding police authority to pull over motorists for texting. Just as important is what didn’t pass including bills that would have legalized recreational marijuana smoking and banned the practice of extracting natural gas through “fracking.”

Although nearly 3,500 bills were filed this legislative session, the House and Senate managed to send just 197 to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.

At least 66 lawmakers were new to the Capitol after the November election. So were the governor and his cabinet. Despite partisan challenges and empty House seats in crucial districts, including the one hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, here is what was accomplished this session:

The legislature passed a $91.1 billion budget. 

Florida will be spending more on education and the environment this fiscal year.

The Legislature passed the state’s $91.1 billion budget, which is $2.4 billion more than last year and would take effect July 1. Cleanup funds for polluted waterways and per-student spending in K-12 schools received big increases. The state will spend less on land acquisition and on Visit Florida, a tourism promotion organization.

The Legislature also cut general operating spending for state universities. After the University of Central Florida came under fire for misspent funds, furious lawmakers considered holding back on appropriations, and even threatened to shut UCF down. House budget chair Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, brought up the controversy over UCF’s unauthorized reallocation of state money during Saturday’s budget discussion, saying that lawmakers “easily could have” targeted UCF for reprisal in the budget “but I can tell you, they weren’t targeted.”

DeSantis can still line item veto any part of the budget, including any projects allocated for lawmakers’ districts.

The budget deal was finalized late Tuesday night, less than 72 hours from the scheduled end of session. Because Florida law requires a 72-hour “cooling-off period” prior to a final vote on the budget, the session was delayed until Saturday.

The Senate’s $90.3 billion budget plan and the House’s $89.9 billion were less than the $91.3 billion budget DeSantis originally proposed. All are more than the budget for 2018-2019, which is $88.7 billion. Differences between the proposals were hashed out in a joint committee of House and Senate delegates.

The state stripped local governments of several powers including the ability to ban plastic and not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

The latest plastic bans in some cities and counties were the last straw for some state lawmakers, who voted to prohibit local governments from enforcing those regulations.

If DeSantis signs the bill, HB 771, local governments will not be able to implement plastic straws bans until July 2024. DeSantis will also decide on a bill, SB 168, that would ban “sanctuary cities,” or municipalities that have policies in place intended to limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. If he signs that, it would take effect July 1.

Majority leader Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, said the bill against plastic bans is the right step to creating unified policies statewide.

“While we, the state of Florida, try to stay out of the cities’ and counties’ business as much as possible, and allow them that freedom, when they step out of range, and they begin to impede on the freedoms and liberties of the citizens, it is the state’s duty to step in,” Eagle said.

Lawmakers also considered preempting local laws on short-term vacation rentals such as AirBnb, but the bill died.

More funding will go toward cleaning up Florida’s waters.

Before the legislative session started, DeSantis called for reform, pushing for resignations from South Florida Water Management District board members and promising $625 million of his proposed budget for water projects including Everglades restoration. After a clean sweep of all water board members and new appointments of environmentally focused leadership, DeSantis and his legislators went to work on environmental policy.

Lawmakers easily approved a new Blue-Green Algae Task Force, fulfilling one of DeSantis’ major campaign promises. But they did not warm up to another water-quality proposal, SB 7064, by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, which would have outlawed the controversial practice of extracting fossil fuels from subterranean stone through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Albritton’s bill died in committee.

The state legalized smokable medical marijuana and an industrial hemp program.

The future for Florida is green. Lawmakers passed legislation that legalized entire sectors of the cannabis industry, spanning its medicinal, industrial and agricultural spheres.

But still far off on Florida’s horizon is recreational use. A bill sponsored by Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, never even got a hearing.

However, in March, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a measure that legalized smokable forms of medical marijuana.

And, in the biggest win for the state’s cannabis industry, the legislature approved an industrial state hemp program. Hemp is an answered prayer for Panhandle farmers devastated by Hurricane Michael in October who are in need of an alternative crop. The industry is expected to draw billions of dollars to the state.

Florida’s newly elected Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried strongly backed the legalization bills, and their implementation will be overseen by Fried’s recently appointed cannabis director, Holly Bell, the first to hold that office.

Republicans achieved their goal of creating a new private school voucher program.

A Republican-led bill would create vouchers, called “Family Empowerment Scholarships,” for low income families to spend on private schooling. Former Gov. Jeb Bush, a leading school-choice advocate who was on the floor when the Senate passed SB 7070, tweeted the encompassing education bill was “historic legislation that will usher in greater educational freedom for Florida families.” The bill also restructures how teachers receive bonuses: Instead of measuring them by their students’ tests scores, the new system would allow school districts to rank teachers by tiers.

Higher education

Lawmakers sent the governor a bill by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, that expands criminal liability for hazing to include those who plan or encourage abusive initiation rituals, and creates a limited “safe harbor” from prosecution for those who participate in hazing but summon emergency medical help for a hazing victim in distress. The bill, SB 1080, is known as “Andrew’s Law” in memory of a 20-year-old Florida State University student who died in 2017 after being coerced to drink a bottle of liquor as part of a fraternity induction.

Arming teachers

Lawmakers added classroom teachers to the list of personnel who can be armed on public school grounds. Both the House and Senate passed the bill to expand the school guardian program, which was created at the tail end of the 2018 legislative session as a part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act after the shooting in Broward County that killed 17 people. The act, SB 7030, requires all districts to install school resource officers on every campus or train some of their personnel to be armed.

The budget also allocated $500,000 to training guardians.

Amendment 4

One of the most divisive bills this legislative session, SB 7066, threw a complication into the process by which ex-felons can regain the right to vote.

In a November 2018 ballot initiative, a majority of Floridians voted ‘yes’ to Amendment 4, which redeemed ex-felons’ right to vote after serving time. But in a Republican-backed twist, ex-felons will first be required to pay all the court-ordered fines and restitution fees related to their sentence before regaining eligibility. Democrats in the legislature denounced the measure as a modern day “poll tax” on the voting booths, an institutional financial obstacle to the right to vote. DeSantis, a known proponent, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Criminal justice reform

A traditionally “tough-on-crime” legislature passed a limited reform bill that is meant to promote rehabilitation and reduce prison crowding, including increasing the threshold to be prosecuted for felony theft to $750, reducing or removing the penalty of lost driving privileges for certain offenses, and establishing an inmate reentry guide. The bill, HB 7125, also makes it easier to obtain expungement of an arrest record if the arrest did not result in a conviction.

But the bill failed to address two major issues advocates have fought for: more gain time and riddance of required sentences for certain charges called mandatory minimums.

The Senate’s version of the bill included an amendment that would have allowed thousands of nonviolent offenders to be released earlier than under the current law. With pressure from the House and DeSantis, the provision was dropped in the final days of session in an effort to get something passed.

The legislature also eliminated a proposal to adjust mandatory minimums for certain drug charges, and instead just abolished a mandatory minimum for selling horse meat.

Property insurance reform

After a six-year debate, the legislature passed a bill that proponents say is intended to stem property insurance claim abuse that has resulted in higher rates.

The “assignment of benefits” measure, HB 7065, would revise Florida’s one-way attorney fee statute, which says an insurer must foot the bill for attorney fees if, during a lawsuit, the insurer is found to have underpaid the claim by any amount.

Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jim Patronis touted the bill as a legislative accomplishment in a press release, saying he “constantly urged lawmakers to bring everyone to the table and address out of control abuse of Florida’s Assignment of Benefits (AOB) process to protect consumers from bad actors who look to game the system.”

The bill would take effect July 1, in time for the inevitable property claims after major summer hurricanes. Despite an empty House seat for the district hit hardest by Hurricane Michael, lawmakers prioritized Panhandle recovery in the budget. The $220 million allocated to hurricane relief included $14 million for school districts that were hit by the storm and $25 million for grants to cities and school districts.

Visit Florida

Threatened with elimination, the tourism marketing organization VISIT FLORIDA received a one-year reprieve with enough money to continue operating until June 2020. The extension gives lawmakers a chance to decide in next year’s session whether to abolish the quasi-public corporation, which has been criticized for heavy spending on celebrity sponsorship deals.

The agency was scheduled to end in 2019 if not renewed by lawmakers. A bill, SB 178, to renew the date to 2027 was passed by the Senate but died in the House.

Canadian pills

A bill to allow the importation of Canadian prescription drugs to Florida, HB 19, passed the legislature and is bound for the governor’s desk. The bill’s intent: Florida’s patients will have access to cheaper drugs — eventually.

The measure establishes a Canadian Prescription Drug Importation Program. But eligible drugs would still have to meet rigid U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines. And before the program can move forward, it needs the official “yes” from the federal government, which could take months.

Other miscellaneous bills found passage through the House and Senate chambers during the year’s session as well:

The Aging Programs bill, SB 184 or HB 7019, is an attempt to resolve operational challenges regulating Florida’s hospices, assisted elderly living facilities and more. The bill would take rulemaking responsibilities from the Department of Elder Affairs to give to the agency that is tasked with enforcing the rules, the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The vaping bill, SB 7012 or HB 7027, enforces the ban on vaping in indoor workplaces, as suggested by Amendment 9.

The Corrections bill, SB 7046 or HB 7057, adds prisons as a place people can’t fly drones and lets the state hire 18-year-olds as corrections officers.

The Texting While Driving bill, CS/HB 107, makes texting while driving a primary offense, rather than a secondary one, meaning that police may stop a motorist who is seen using a handheld cellphone even if there is no other basis for the stop. It takes effect July 1.

Lawmakers approve allowing more Florida students to use taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools

Posted By Jim Saunders, News Service of Florida on Tue, Apr 30, 2019 at 4:33 pm
Photo by tpsdave via Pixabay

Two decades after then-Gov. Jeb Bush started a broad push for school choice, the Florida House on Tuesday approved a closely watched expansion that will provide vouchers to thousands of children to attend private schools. 

As a sign of the significance of the bill (SB 7070), Bush made a rare appearance in the Capitol and was seated on the House floor for the vote. He was flanked by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, another longtime voucher supporter, and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. 

Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill, which features the creation of the “Family Empowerment Scholarship Program.” Under that voucher program, state money will be used next year to pay for as many as 18,000 students to attend private schools, with the number of students slowly increasing in future years. 

Supporters argued the bill, which passed the Senate last week, would give parents the ability to choose the best schools for their children. 

“Frankly, the time for political posturing is coming to an end, and now it’s time to do what is right for our middle-income and low-income families in the state of Florida,” House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said. 

But many Democrats blasted the bill, saying it would strip money from public schools while requiring little accountability for private schools. 

“If there are problems with our schools, let’s fix them,” Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said. “But we can’t abandon public schools and all of the children and families that rely on our public schools.” 

Vouchers have long been one of the most-controversial issues in Florida’s education system —- a controversy that accelerated after Bush was elected in 1998 with a platform that focused heavily on revamping the system. Since that time, tens of thousands of students have used voucher-type programs to attend private schools. 

As an example, 108,098 students received what are known as tax-credit scholarships during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a Senate staff analysis. In that program, businesses receive tax credits for contributions they make to non-profit organizations. The organizations then use the contributions to provide voucher-like scholarships for largely low-income students to go to private schools. 

The new Family Empowerment Scholarship Program, however, has crucial differences that have drawn heavy debate. In part, it would be funded directly by the state rather than through the more-indirect route of tax credits. Also, the new voucher would be available to families with incomes up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level —- which equates to $77,250 for a family of four. 

Democratic opponents of the bill argued that the new program is unconstitutional, pointing to a 2006 Florida Supreme Court ruling that struck down a similar voucher plan spearheaded by Bush. But Republicans disputed arguments about the constitutionality of the new program. 

A wildcard could be three justices appointed to the Supreme Court this year by DeSantis. The appointments of justices Robert Luck, Barbara Lagoa and Carlos Muniz are widely viewed as creating a conservative court majority that might be more amenable to issues such as school vouchers. 

The bill passed Tuesday included a wide range of education issues, including changes that affect other school-choice programs. Also, it calls for revamping the long-controversial Best and Brightest teacher-bonus program. 

But the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program was the focus of almost all of the debate before the House voted 76-39 to pass the measure. All Republicans voted for the bill and were joined by five Democrats: Rep. James Bush of Miami; Rep. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville; Rep. Wengay Newton of St. Petersburg; Rep. Susan Valdes of Tampa; and Rep. Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes. 

After celebrating on the House floor after the vote, Bush left without speaking to reporters. But Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an education organization founded by Bush, issued a statement praising the vote. 

“The Family Empowerment Scholarship program builds upon two decades of nationally recognized progress in expanding quality educational options for Florida students,” she said. 

But critics warned of taking money out of the public-school system and sending it to private schools. 

“As a taxpayer, I think this is a waste of money,” Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee, said. “We should be fixing our public schools with solutions, instead of making more problems.” 

—- News Service Assignment Manager Tom Urban contributed to this report. 

Sunday Editorial: JTA is making impressive progress

By Times-Union Editorial Board, Posted Apr 21, 2019 at 12:01 AM, Updated Apr 22, 2019 at 6:11 PM

“JTA on the move” sounds like a slogan or a cliche but in this case it’s accurate.

The Jacksonville Transportation Authority recently provided a report to City Council on its activities, and it revealed progress on multiple fronts.

First, the finances. Boring only when it’s working. JTA is producing more revenue than expected and fewer expenses than expected. Now that’s a healthy bottom line.

Then on to $100 million in 13 road construction projects that JTA is handling for the city. A number of projects are being funded with gas tax funding, projects that were planned but never completed under the Better Jacksonville Plan.

Included are key road expansions that are long overdue, such as widening Kernan Boulevard and Girvin Road.

Then there is the St. Johns River Ferry at Mayport, a key connector for State Road A1A. There had been nothing but trouble with that ferry in recent years. But once JTA took over, ridership in the 2018 fiscal year passed 400,000 trips.

JTA has completed work on improvements at the docks and fender systems and has received a federal grant to further improve slipwalls and safety.

As for bus ridership, a transformation of bus routes resulted in far more efficient service and a “no drama” changes, thanks to communication with riders. Though bus ridership is down across the nation, JTA is doing better than most.

On-time performance is about 80 percent and climbing while on-time performance of the First Coast Flyer is over 90 percent.

Avenue of the future

The Regional Transportation Center under construction is expected to be a boon to that neighborhood.

An innovation corridor along Bay Street, called “The Bay,” will include driverless cars that use the Skyway and then ease down to street level for 3 miles. JTA is currently testing its third such vehicle, becoming a magnet for companies interested in this technology.

The corridor will include “smart city” technologies such as connected signals, smart lighting, pedestrian sensors, smart parking, flood warning and data exchange.

While other cities are focused on fixed rail systems, JTA’s driverless cars offer a far more affordable and flexible technology, and that has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

JTA’s driverless vehicles could be used in the numerous mid-sized cities that don’t have much fixed rail, said CEO Nat Ford.

It’s essential that the system be able to adjust to change, which means being able to handle all sorts of driverless vehicles as technology advances.

Alternative services are constantly evaluated for efficiency. For instance, JTA offers cab service with Coastal Cab in Arlington, Mandarin and Southside for a $2 fare for the first passenger and $1 for each additional passenger.

Beachside buggies provide free, on-demand transit with eight-seat electric carts and 14-passenger vans. It’s less expensive than a previous trolley service.

Connexion vans provide door-to-door service to people with disabilities who can’t use regular buses.

JTA, as a regional state entity, also is looking at serving adjacent counties.


While the JTA is not a developer, it would be foolhardy to ignore all of the transit-oriented opportunities. For instance, once the Regional Transportation Center is running, the Rosa Parks Center at State and Union streets will be a valuable location.

JTA also is planning to dispose of surplus property and exploring partnership opportunities.

Florida closing in on Southeast solar supremacy

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s second annual Solar in the Southeast report shows that while North Carolina is still top dog in the region, a strong 2018 pushed Florida past Georgia and poised the state to take the top spot.


It’s well known that North Carolina has driven solar development in the southeast. North Carolina’s implementation of PURPA kick-started a utility-scale solar market that helped the state rise to second in the nation in terms of total installed capacity, a crown it should be proud to wear, but hold onto tightly, as the throne it sits on is not a safe one.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy has released its second annual Solar in the Southeast report, highlighting the region’s development and state standings over the last year. What stood out this year was that growth was not limited to the usual suspects, showing that the region is more dynamic as a whole than it has ever been.

Part of the shrinking disparity in development has come from two of Florida’s utilities; Tampa Electric and Florida Power and Light (FPL). Specifically, FPL’s 30 x 30 plan to add almost 10 GW by 2030 is driving the momentum that is expected to allow Florida to overtake North Carolina for the region’s top spot by 2022.

That massive spike in blue in Florida from 2019 to 2020 represents the first step of the ’30 x 30′ plan, which will add roughly 1 GW in utility-scale projects per year. While utility-scale development between the two states is similar in that time period, it’s the growth of distributed solar, which Duke has successfully limited in its service area, that is poised to set Florida over the edge.

FPL isn’t the only company driving development, as three Florida utilities are expected to rank above the regional average for watts per customer by that 2022 mark. Tampa Electric is set to lead the way with 934 watts/customer, followed by FPL at 734 and Duke Energy Florida at 676.

Speaking of utilities, the graphic below shows how each one stands in installed capacity as of the end of 2018:

The region’s utilities hit a collective 8,035 MW in capacity last year, with that number expected to reach 10,000 by the end of this year, 17,000 by 2021 and nearly 20,000 by the end of 2022. So for an area that has, outside of a few, historically underperformed, the future is looking bright.

TVA comes in behind IOUs

However when talking about the Southeast, it’s hard to ignore the areas that have historically lagged in solar development. To the surprise of many, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced over the course of the last year a total of 677 MW of new solar projects, 377 MW of which are to be located in Alabama, with the other 300 MW going to Tennessee. This unprecedented growth is driven by utility-driven development, but rather procurement by tech giants Google and Facebook.

This is reflected by the prediction that TVA will add only 167 watts/customer by 2022, a mark that is bested by even Alabama Power, which is poised to add reach 335 watts/customer, up from 67 in 2018. TVA is predicted to add so little solar by 2022, that it joins the Seminole Electric CO-OP, NC Electric Cooperatives and Santee Cooper as the infamous list of companies whose 2022 watts/customer averages are set to be below the region’s 2018 average.

But, while those utilities may be slow to embrace solar, they are luckily not the only ones that spur development. The emerging interest of big tech companies to invest in the area is an encouraging prospect, especially if it continues in the service areas of these underperforming utilities. And, as weak as the bottom may be, we’re set to witness a national heavyweight bout for both regional and national solar prestige among the region’s two top players, with South Carolina and Georgia set to make strides as well.

Sir Richard Branson Debuts Virgin MiamiCentral Station And Virgin Trains USA

Lea Lane,Contributor

Virgin MiamiCentral in Downtown Miami
Virgin MiamiCentral in Downtown Miami

Living in Miami, I’ve constantly lamented about the need for a rail service hub, like in most world cities. And it is finally here.

Richard Branson and Virgin Trains USA President Patrick Goddard unveiled Virgin MiamiCentral April 4, and revealed the first visuals for Virgin Trains USA.  Branson and Goddard, along with City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade County Commissioner and Chair of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Esteban Bovo, Jr. gave remarks at the ceremony.

The celebration marked the first significant moment in Brightline’s transition to Virgin Trains USA. Topics included transportation, mobility, the future of train travel and Virgin Trains USA, economic impacts and more.

Virgin MiamiCentral is the hub for transportation, business, dining and entertainment in downtown Miami. Connecting Metrorail, Metromover, Brightline and soon, Tri-Rail, the destination offers transportation options for the millions of commuters, visitors and travelers who will be accessing the station. 

Virgin MiamiCentral also features Central Fare, Downtown Miami’s food hub that will soon debut, a Citi Bike share and designated drop-off-and-pick-up zone for Lyft, Brightline’s official rideshare partner. 

The transformational, transit-oriented development spans six Downtown Miami city blocks. Besides the retail and dining venues, an expansive promenade surrounds two residential towers with over 800 apartments collectively known as Park-Line MiamiCentral.

The huge development, by Florida East Coast Industries, has completed its office component delivering both 3 MiamiCentral and 2 MiamiCentral, reimagining Miami’s Central Business District.

“Virgin MiamiCentral is the central hub for all things transportation and mobility. With the addition of the Virgin brand we solidify ourselves as the premier live, work and play environment in downtown Miami.” said Patrick Goddard.  

“Virgin MiamiCentral is the only destination that connects Miami-Dade County through its various transit systems, and with the combination of Brightline and Tri-Rail, connects the entire southeast region. Mobility continues to be key as our region and population grow – and we are meeting the demand.”

In November 2018, Brightline announced a strategic partnership and trademark licensing agreement with the Virgin Group, one of the world’s most recognizable brands in travel and hospitality. Executing a phased approach to the rebrand to Virgin Trains USA in 2019, Virgin MiamiCentral is the first element to feature the new Virgin branding.

“Virgin has a long history of changing industries for the better and inspiring enduring loyalty through outstanding customer experience,” said Sir Richard Branson. “Today marks the first step in that journey with Virgin Trains USA as we unveiled the beautiful Virgin MiamiCentral station. I’m very excited to see the transformation of our service and the plans for the next phase of the project to Orlando.”

Launched in 2018, Virgin Trains USA is the only privately owned and operated intercity passenger rail service in the United States. Providing fast, efficient, hospitality driven transportation featuring the latest in customer-friendly amenities, Virgin Trains USA currently operates in Florida between Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, with plans to expand into Orlando and Tampa. 

The Company recently announced that it intends to begin construction in 2019 on a new express service connecting Las Vegas to Southern California.

Tweet me @lealane, follow me on Instagram, where I’m Travelea; and check out Amazon for my latest book in paperback and on Kindle, Travel Tales I Couldn’t Put in the Guidebooks

When a Medicaid ride to the doctor’s office fails to show, others foot the bill

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes is sponsoring legislation that would allow Uber and Lyft to help get patients to medical appointments.

By Caitlin Johnston

Published March 31, Updated March 31

Elisabeth Olden, 53, waited earlier this month for the Medicaid-provided van to take her to a doctor’s appointment. 

The minutes ticked by, and Olden eyed the clock nervously. The wheelchair-accessible van was supposed to arrive no later than 12:15 p.m. for her 1 p.m. follow-up appointment. At 12:45 p.m., she called.

“They told me they canceled the ride because they couldn’t find a contractor to take me,” Olden said. “Nobody called me. They didn’t tell me. They just cancelled.”

The Pinellas Park resident is one of potentially thousands of Medicaid recipients who have been stranded, delayed or forgotten by transportation providers who are supposed to take them to their appointments. And many, like Olden, are choosing to take county paratransit options instead, which costs riders and taxpayers more money.

About 80 percent of the nearly 4 million people enrolled in Florida Medicaid have their non-emergency medical transportation provided as part of their coverage. Officials haven’t counted the number of Floridians who have missed appointments or been left waiting for hours, but the problem is so pervasive it has caught the attention of hospitals and transit agencies who are stuck paying the bill.

Officials for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority estimate that the agency spent $1 million in 2018 providing paratransit rides to people who chose the county bus agency instead of relying on a Medicaid-provided trip.

Tampa General Hospital is routinely unable to discharge patients because it takes extra days or even weeks to secure a Medicaid ride, said Peter Chang, vice president of care transitions. That means the hospital is racking up costs and unable to admit others while the patient waiting for the ride is stuck in a care facility they no longer need.

“I’m going into their rooms to say hi to them, and they’re saying, ‘When can I go? When can I go?” Chang said. “I have to explain to them that I’m trying to arrange transportation services and it’s taking time.”

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring a bill during the current legislative session after hearing from a number of health care professionals with stories about patients being stranded for hours waiting for a ride.

“We can put a man in the moon in Florida, but we can’t pick someone up from a doctor’s appointment on time?” Brandes quipped.

Brandes, who has long supported rideshare providers, wants to allow transportation companies like Uber and Lyft to compete with taxi companies and wheelchair-accessible vans to provide Medicaid-sponsored rides. The hope is that providing more options will decrease wait times.

The on-demand service can also be tracked on a smart phone, allowing customers and hospitals to check on the status of a ride.

“We’ll have more contact and visibility from the doctor’s office,” Brandes said. “Today, there’s really no ability to track a ride.” But if the bill is approved, he said, “we can now call a medical provider and see in real time where people are.”

Right now, the paratransit rides provided when Medicaid service falls through are highly-subsidized and are driving up costs for transit agencies already struggling to balance their budgets.

Pinellas County’s transit authority provides door-to-door van service for people who can’t take a bus because of a disability or other reason. Known as Demand Response Transportation, costs of the program have spiked in recent years. Ridership growth of about 18 percent between 2016 and 2018 has increased expenses almost $2 million, CEO Brad Miller said.

The paratransit service, which often carries a single individual per trip, costs more than $26 per ride. Users pay $4.50 of that, leaving the transit authority — and taxpayers — to cover the remaining $22.

According to Miller, the contractor who provides paratransit rides for the county said a number of people were telling drivers that they were Medicaid recipients, but they either couldn’t schedule a trip or it was too frustrating and challenging, so they called the transit agency instead.

“It’s one of the main reasons we are seeing shortfalls in our budget,” Miller said. “They’re trips that should have been paid for by Medicaid, but instead we’re paying for it.”

Chang has seen a similar situation at Tampa General. Rather than risk waiting for a Medicaid ride, he said the hospital will sometimes cover the cost of a trip for a patient.

“We’re not shaving off an hour or two,” he said. “We’re talking about taking 10, 15, 20 days off a length of stay.”

Olden, the Pinellas Park resident, has avoided calling a Medicaid provider again after missing her appointment earlier this month. Fortunately for her, the doctor did not charge her a fee and she was able to rebook for two days later. But that’s not always the case.

“What if they couldn’t reschedule me and I had to wait six months?” Olden said. “That was just so bad of them to drop me and forget about me.”

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

Distracted driving bill advances—but without hands-free provision

Bereaved parents in particular long for stricter rules. 

ByJacob Ogles, on March 25, 2019

A bill aimed at stopping distracted driving advanced in the Senate on Monday, but advocates who want drivers limited to hands-free devices expressed frustration and said the bill has been watered down.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, sponsor for the bill (SB 76), stressed that the legislation has gone through substantial changes with two major amendments. But more shifts will come so long as the bill moves forward.

“For the parents hoping more for hands-free than texting and driving, this is a process,” the Trilby Republican said. “Remember, this is a work in progress.”

But Demetrius Branca, president of the Anthony Phoenix Branca Foundation, said the current legislation leaves Florida desperately behind.

His son, Anthony, died in a Tallahassee crash in 2014 when a van struck his motorcycle. The driver was distracted at the time.

“Maybe you do not understand the urgency,” Branca told senators. “Maybe you have not lived my nightmares.”

Sixteen other states and the District of Columbia have hands-free laws, Branca and other parents stressed. That includes neighboring Georgia.

But Judiciary Committee Chairman David Simmons offered an amendment putting the legislation more in line with a House bill (HB 107).

The Longwood Republican said the amendments to the bill narrow enforcement help prevent profiling of individuals. Changes include applying the law only with a vehicle in motion and zeroing in on actions like texting or writing emails on a smartphone.

The prior language for the bill, Simmons said, was too broad and allowed for officers to single people out for minor infractions.

“If you are on the phone or eating a hamburger or drinking a cola or listening to your significant other yell at you or you are singing with too much gesticulation,” he said, “the fact of the matter is, each of those circumstances of distracted driving could permit a law enforcement officer to go ahead and stop you.”

The legislation now also only allows communications records for a driver to be obtained by law enforcement in the event of a crash that causes fatal or serious bodily harm.

The legislation allows a transition period when officers can only pull people over for warnings. In 2020, it will allow officers to stop people as a primary offense and issue a citation.

Katie Petros, a Key Biscayne Council Member, attended the hearing and said the bill was necessary in a populous state rich with tourists.

“This is a habit we need to try to break,” she said of smartphone use while driving. “The longer we take to break it, the harder it will be.”

The bill now heads to the Rules Committee.

Florida Legislature must act on passenger rail service to ensure prosperity | Opinion

T. Michael Hines, Your TurnPublished 9:11 p.m. ET March 14, 2019

I was speaking the other day with a nationally recognized academic from Florida State University and a former Speaker of the House of Representatives regarding how to help the Northern Gulf Coast counties recover from the recent devastation to their communities inflicted by Hurricane Michael.

I concluded that an appeal to the new leadership in Tallahassee was required if we are to achieve a prosperous tomorrow.

Mobility is central to economic productivity. Increased mobility will be essential for maintaining our economic competitiveness in the 21st century.

I would like to offer a suggestion to reinvent multimodal transportation so we can take a more innovative approach to economic recovery and continued prosperity.

Over the next few weeks, the Florida Legislature will be addressing Florida’s newest problems with the best of its old ideas. While we might all agree that something new is required, I would like to suggest what are those new recommendations might be:

1. Purchase CSX railroad right-of-way between Jacksonville and Pensacola.

2. Acquire from Bay Line Railroads, LLC, the use of the railroad tracks between Panama City and Cottondale for passenger train services, and make similar inquiries with other short line railroad companies.

3. Negotiate with Amtrak, CSX, Florida East Coast Railway, Brightline/Virgin Trains USA, and others to determine:

  • Who might be the best operator of passenger train services between Jacksonville and Pensacola.
  • How we might best establish and improve passenger train services between New Orleans, Mobile, Tallahassee, Panama City, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and elsewhere.

4. Assemble a task force of academics, who are inventive experts in transportation solutions, at least one member being selected by each of the seven FDOT district secretaries and by the Florida’s turnpike enterprise director, to guide the FDOT and its community partners as they pursue every federal discretionary grant that might come into play to:

  • Reinvent multimodal transportation by providing for: first and last mile slow transit services to rapid transit and passenger rail services within the context of pedestrian-oriented urbanized communities and fast specialized transport between major regional destinations.
  • Rebuild communities devastated by Hurricane Michael.
  • Develop resilient, sustainable and prosperous communities throughout the state.

5. Identify how to build over time a safe, efficient, demand responsive, zero emission, and electric transportation system which is: fully (or at least to some degree) autonomous; powered by renewable energy; and arranged such that some elements go fast, and some elements go slow. Collectively these transportation system characteristics will allow Floridians to:

  • Optimize pedestrian movements and the use of bicycles, personal travel devices, passenger trains and transit services.
  • Enhance transportation safety.
  • Eliminate the need for operating subsidies.
  • Secure adequate transportation revenues from pedestrian-oriented land development, fuel and other transportation related taxes and fees, and vehicle miles traveled fare calculations and collection.
  • Pursue all federal discretionary grants that might come into play to reinvent multimodal transportation

The properly structured restoration of passenger rail services is the key to economic recovery and continued prosperity across North Florida. Time is of the essence. History will judge us if we do nothing.

T. Michael Hines is a Tallahassee businessman and investor. Reach him at