Tampa: A public transportation tale of two cities: To learn lessons for Tampa, Janelle Irwin takes on New York

My mission was simple: use only public transportation and report back.

ByJanelle Irwin Taylor, on June 10, 2019

Some of our loyal Tampa Bay-area Florida Politics followers might have noticed our local coverage was a bit slower than usual the past few days. 

That’s because I was visiting the Big Apple. But rest assured, even when I’m on vacation, I’m always thinking about our region — what’s happening, what needs to happen and what, in this case, isn’t happening.

With that in mind I made my trip something of a mission: To experience public transportation at its finest in a city that has the nation’s largest transit network. 

The rules were simple. I would use only public transportation. No Uber or Lyft, no taxis. Not even the shuttle transportation offered by my hotel to get visitors to and from the airport. 

So for the uninitiated, here’s how that went down.

My experiment didn’t start until I got to New York City and it ended as soon as I left. I drove myself to Tampa International Airport. To have used local public transportation to make the 22-mile trip from my home to the airport would have taken nearly two hours and I would have had to have arrived at the airport hours before my scheduled departure. Buses connecting to Pinellas County from Tampa are even more limited. 

Public transportation connecting Pinellas and Hillsborough County is hard to come by. It requires a local bus connection to a station on Ulmerton Boulevard where riders can transfer to the 300X route to the airport. That service runs about every hour weekday mornings, with a lag in service during late morning hours and then again during rush hour. There is no service on weekends or holidays.

That is not the case in New York City where there are any number of ways to get to and from La Guardia or JFK airports using exclusively public transportation. 

I arrived at La Guardia at nearly 11pm at night — a time when transit is all but gone in the Tampa Bay region. From the airport, I was able to purchase a Metro Card from an automated kiosk. I purchased a one-week unlimited pass for $34. 

From there I used the Metro Card to get a bus pass to take a bus directly from my terminal to a train station where I boarded a subway that took me to Grand Central Station in Manhattan. The trip took about 45 minutes and delivered me only about five blocks from my hotel, which made for a quick walk.

Taken as a single-pay trip, the public transportation would have cost just $5. A traveling companion who used Uber to get from the same airport to the same hotel paid nearly $60 for the trip and only saved about 10-minutes on the commute. 

My initial experience using late night transit in the nation’s largest city was positive. Even as an outsider, the information directing visitors to the buses, trains and subways needed to get around are easy to follow. And contrary to stereotypes, there were about a dozen airport workers leaving shifts who were offering unsolicited advice on which buses to take. 

MTA, the transit agency that runs the New York region’s $16 billion a year transit network, offers an app that shows all transit routes and their connections. Further, Google Maps has a transit option in its directions function that gives step-by-step walking directions to stops, tells you which train to take and in which direction and offers real-time transit arrival information including alternative routes if there are delays. 

Transportation within Manhattan is even easier. Subway stops are available on almost every block of the busiest spots around Times Square, midtown, downtown, Central Park and the financial district. They’re more sparse in the more residential areas of the upper east and upper west sides, but where subway stations lack, the bus service more than compensates. 

While the main benefit of New York’s vast subway system is ease of travel, it offers an alternative benefit. For a tourist, the subway is an attraction in and of itself. There were musicians and various street artists performing at almost every subway station. They were there on weekdays and at all times, creating a party-like vibe as you bounced from one place to another. 

There were even impromptu performers on the trains themselves. It was also not uncommon to board a train with someone who used the trip to announce loudly some various hardship or another while asking for money. While that might make some uncomfortable, it certainly was a cultural experience highlighting the darker side of urban living. Despite the panhandlers, not once did I ever feel unsafe on the subway, even traveling alone with my teenage daughter. 

During the nearly four days I spent in the city, I never experienced a transit delay or had to reroute a trip because of a route closure. Though, a trip a few years ago did yield some of those hardships. 

It’s no wonder the Tampa Bay region lacks the kind of service New York offers its residents and visitors. The greater New York area is home to more than 8.6 million people. Another 60 million tourists visit the city annually. 

Even as a larger mid-sized city, Tampa lacks the density to support the kind of transit network New York offers. But experiencing that level of service offers hints into how Hillsborough and Pinellas counties could capitalize on quality transit. 

Four-fifths of New York City’s rush hour commuters use transit. Meanwhile, 85 percent of commuters nationwide use private passenger vehicles. New York City alone accounts for a third of the entire nation’s transit ridership, according to MTA.

So while it might not be feasible to provide across the board service like New York City, the Tampa Bay region could offer transit in its densest urban areas with less frequent connections to the suburbs.  

The most difficult part about using public transportation in New York City was not access, it was logistics. For those unfamiliar with the vast subway network, figuring out whether to hop on, for example, the six train uptown or downtown, is challenging at first. 

At least twice on my first day in the city I hopped on a train going in the wrong direction. But, even with the blunder, you hop off at the next station and then climb right back on the right train. The mistake cost about five minutes. And once you’ve got your directional bearings, it’s a lot easier to avoid the same mistake again.

Perhaps the most challenging transit commute came on my final day of travel when I was leaving the city to head for my departing flight at JFK International Airport. 

For that commute I took the 7 train out of Grand Central Station toward Queens. I had to transfer to a Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) train at Jamaica Station in Queens. That leg was about 15 minutes. Thanks to Google Maps transit planning feature, I was able to time my trip so that I got off the subway and was able to get on the new train in less than ten minutes. 

It’s important not to time the trip too close because riders have to purchase a separate LIRR ticket from a booth. In my case, one of the two kiosks was out of order and there was a long line. I got my ticket and boarded the train with literally not a second to spare. If I had even been 30 seconds later on my arrival to Jamaica Station I would have missed my connection.

The LIRR then connected to an AirTrain station where I boarded a train similar to Tampa International Airport’s new Sky Connect. Ordinarily that train takes riders directly to JFK. However, the final connection was closed for repairs so I had to add another transfer to a bus that took me directly to my gate. 

In all, the trip took about an hour and twenty minutes, including walking time to and from stations. 

Driving from my hotel to JFK would have taken about 40 minutes. Obviously if a hotel offers shuttle service to the airport, that’s the way to go. But if your hotel doesn’t, and most don’t, the ride is a costly Uber, Lyft or taxi. The total cost for my trip (assuming a single-pay ride and not using an unlimited Metro Card) is $17 using the LIRR or just $7.50 using the subway’s A train. Both routes take about the same amount of time, but the LIRR ride is much more comfortable and has more room for luggage. 

In all, my public transportation experience was one of the most positive highlights of my trip. It allowed me to see more of the city and save money on alternative transportation options. 

It also gave me an up close experience with the locals. I heard at least five languages spoken, met people who worked in industries ranging from hospitality and construction to finance and administrative work and witnessed both gut wrenching hostility and heart warming hospitality. For every nasty New Yorker who made mean comments, there were at least five who offered varying degrees of help to other commuters. 

Coming home was bittersweet. While public transportation is abundant, walking is a necessary way of life in New York. On my busiest day of sightseeing, I clocked more than 22,000 steps and climbed the equivalent of 25 stories getting on and off subways. My feet were glad to be home. But as I hopped into a car and battled traffic, I suddenly longed for the option to ditch the congestion and board a train. 

As I get back to normal life after my short vacation, I find myself rooting for Hillsborough County as it prepares to get a windfall of new funding for transit through the voter-approved All For Transportation sales tax. The region’s transit network will never be what New York City offers, but it’s long overdue for transit options that could appeal to the everyday commuter and not just the transportation disadvantaged who have no other option.

And even more importantly, it’s high time those who rely on public transportation in the Tampa Bay region get the service they deserve.

Duke Energy Florida announces 22 megawatts of battery storage

The utility announced three new battery projects Monday that, when complete, will be able to store 22 megawatts of power. These will be the first installments of its promised 50 megawatts of battery storage.

Duke Energy Florida is investing in battery storage at three of its facilities. Pictured is a battery at one of its North Carolina facilities. [Courtesy of Duke Energy Florida]
By Malena Carollo, Published Yesterday, Updated Yesterday

Duke Energy Florida is investing in new battery storage. 

The utility announced three new battery projects Monday that, when complete, will be able to store 22 megawatts of power. These will be the first installments of a promised 50 megawatts of battery storage by 2022. 

“These battery projects provide electric system benefits that will help improve local reliability for our customers and provide significant energy services to the power grid,” CEO Catherine Stempien said.

In addition to improving reliability, the lithium batteries will help power critical services, such as hospitals, as well as small portions of regular customers’ homes. They will be built near existing Duke Energy facilities.

Duke Energy’s investment stems from a 2017 settlement between the utility, consumer advocates and regulators in which Duke Energy agreed to build 700 megawatts of solar power and invest in 50 megawatts of battery storage. Customers will be charged for the batteries eventuallyThough the utility does not currently have a cost estimate for them, the settlement allows $2,300 per kilowatt.

The largest of the batteries, an 11-megawatt battery, will be near a facility in Gilchrist County, west of Gainesville. A 5.5-megawatt battery will be located in the Panhandle’s Cape San Blas, while another 5.5-megawatt battery will be at a Hamilton County facility.

Ana Gibbs, Duke Energy spokeswoman, said the utility expects them to be completed by 2020. More likely will be announced in the meantime to ensure Duke Energy makes its deadline in three years. 

“We’re just really excited to roll out this technology as a benefit to our customers,” she said.

Batteries are one component of Duke Energy’s strategy to both make the grid more reliable and invest in more clean energy sources. At a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times‘ editorial board in May, Stempien said that while batteries are important, their cost will impact how significantly Duke Energy relies on them.

“There needs to be a significant step change in the cost of batteries in order for them to be a real alternative for production of 9,000 megawatts of power on a really hot 96-degree day,” she said.

Contact Malena Carollo at mcarollo@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2249. Follow @malenacarollo.

“It’s the Future”: Driverless Vehicle Facility Allows for “Real World” Tests

By Julie Gargotta
PUBLISHED 10:07 AM EDT May. 27, 2019 UPDATED 5:15 PM ET May. 27, 2019

AUBURNDALE, Fla. — In the middle of Polk County, there’s a road for testing technology so new that it’s still being created.

  • Suntrax a public-private partnership
  • Just completed a track for testing connected cars
  • Goal is to build a simulated city

Suntrax put the finishing touches on a testing facility for automated vehicles. The track is located in a secure facility off I-4 in Auburndale.

“In less than two years, we built everything,” said Paul Satchfield. “When you’re used to seeing it was a pasture and now it’s a full-fledged test facility, it was a great feeling. It’s the culmination of the vision.”

The SunTrax program manager has been with the project since day one. He said that the idea morphed from a way to test tolls technology at highway speeds to a bona fide testing ground — five lanes free from traffic — for connected cars.

“If something goes wrong, they can run it off into the field. They pick the car up, put it back together and try it again,” he said. “It’s going to increase mobility for everybody. If driving is a chore or you can’t do it, you’ll be able to hit a button on a phone.”

NEW TECHNOLOGY REQUIRES NEW RESEARCH

For Satchfield and others, the idea of autonomous vehicles ruling the roadway is promising. 

The capacity of a roadway might triple, he said, if all vehicles are connected. Cars will adjust to objects in roadway, without tapping their brakes; they can drive closer together.

And while most accidents are the fault of the human operator, fully-connected vehicles would reduce accidents by about 90 percent, Satchfield said.

Now Suntrax is relying on partners, like nearby Florida Polytechnic University, to dive into the research side of what it will take to get such vehicles geared up.

Grad student Christopher Medrano-Berumen​ is working to solve the problem. His thesis centers around automated cars and the process of licensing or regulating them.

Each week, the 21-year-old spends 20-30 hours completely absorbed in research, fueled he said by “lots of Red Bull.”

“Similar to a driving test you’d take to get your license, we wanted to do the same thing for an autonomous vehicle,” he explained. “It’ll hopefully alleviate a lot of the problems we see in urban transport.”

Medrano-Berumen​ works on his thesis under the guiding eye of Florida Polytechnic professor Dr. Mustafa Ilhan Akbas, who teaches about computer networks, autonomous vehicles, software engineering and network security​.

“It’s the future,” Akbas said. “You’re trying to solve a problem which is very difficult. That’s always exciting for me.”

Akbas explained that the first step is crafting simulations of the connected driving. Then, researchers will “hook up the brain” of autonomous cars into computers, before later connecting the real engine as well. The final step is to test out the connected cars on roadways using various scenarios.

“There are 300 million vehicles in the United States. Think about all the scenarios they can come across,” he mused. “We are going to bring the interesting scenarios to Suntrax or real life and test them there.”

But, Akbas said that collaboration with other universities and government partners is critical to bringing such technology to life.

“Connected vehicles will be an invaluable part of smart cities. So, the problem, the challenge is so big. No one can solve it individually,” said the professor.

WORKING TOGETHER

In 2016, the Obama administration issued a RFP, or request for proposals, for any facilities that wanted to become U.S. Department of Transportation designated testing grounds for autonomous vehicles. 

Out of the more than 60 applicants, 10 spots in the U.S. were chosen a year later — one of which was Central Florida.

And on the heels of the 2016 designation, the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners (CFAVP) was formed between various universities and government entities: the Florida Turnpike; FDOT; LYNX; city of Orlando; Central Florida Expressway Authority; NASA’s Kennedy Space Center; and universities of FAMU, Florida Polytechnic and UCF.

Though the designation has since been disavowed by the Trump administration, the CFAVP continues to meet on a monthly basis and court grants to develop new technology.

“The proof of this is that subsets of the CFAVP, and other proving grounds, have been able to leverage the potential of the proving ground designations, and the strengths of the individual partners, to obtain large federal grants,” said the city of Orlando’s Charles Ramdatt.

Utilizing land owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Turnpike paid $42 million to construct a 2.25-mile oval track off Braddock Road in Auburndale. The track, with four toll gantries, took two years to complete and was finished last month.

In another two years, Satchfield said that the 200-acre infield will be transformed into a simulated city, with moveable shipping container buildings, a downtown environment and lots of asphalt. 

“You could have six-story buildings there with glass fronts, the next day a one-story building with wood fronts,” he said.

They’ll build hills to test out sensors’ limits, as well as breaking and vibration areas. Plus, various scenarios which could prove tricky for driverless cars, like airport pick-up or drop-off areas.

“That’s one of the big issues right now, where you have a wash of traffic,” said Satchfield, continuing, “Cars speeding up, slowing down. Pedestrians. You’re not going to shut down the airport to do this testing.”

Florida lawmakers just adopted HB 311, propelling automated vehicle technology and supporting research. The bill now awaits the Governor’s pen.

But for now, the infield remains grassy and vehicles have yet to hit the roadway as technology is still being harnessed. Researchers, like Akbas and Medrano-Berumen, pore over code, computer programs and simulator testing.

“I think it is going to bring up talent from all around the U.S., the world to Florida,” said Akbas. “We are getting there with our research and it’s building up.”

“There’s lots to figure out. It’s kind of a race to see who can get there first,” added the student. “It’s very gratifying, very fulfilling…especially something that can be so game changing as self-driving vehicles.”

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
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.

Development

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.

APRIL 16, 2019 TIM SYLVIA

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
 GETTY

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.

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