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 cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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 t.michaelhines48@gmail.com.

Governor Ron DeSantis Selects Kevin J. Thibault as Secretary of The Florida Department of Transportation

On January 18, 2019, in News Releases, by Staff

Tallahassee, Fla. – Today, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Kevin J. Thibault, P.E., former Southeast Regional Senior Vice President of TranSystems Corporation, will serve as Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) for the DeSantis-Nuñez Administration. Thibault has extensive experience in the private and public sectors, and has previously served for many years at FDOT.

“Kevin is a proven leader in state government and the private sector,” said Governor Ron DeSantis. “One of the most pressing issues facing our state is the need to relieve congestion and continue modernizing our transportation system. As he returns to FDOT, I know Secretary Thibault will work hard to achieve the mission of providing a safe transportation system that ensures the mobility of people and goods, enhances economic prosperity and preserves the quality of Florida’s beautiful environment.”

“It is an absolute honor to be appointed as Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation,” said Secretary Thibault. “I appreciate the responsibility the position holds and I look forward to meeting Governor DeSantis’ mission for the Department.”

Kevin J. Thibault, Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation

Kevin J. Thibault most recently served as Southeast Regional Senior Vice President of TranSystems Corporation. He was responsible for the management of $40 million in revenue and close to 200 employees. In that role, he deployed a streamlined team focused on delivering quality solutions to the transportation agencies across the Southeast.

Thibault previously served as Senior Vice President of Parsons Corporation where he developed a national toll practice and engineered the management of the $2.5 billion Gordie Howe International Bridge in Windsor, Ontario.

Thibault also has extensive experience in state government having previously served in senior leadership positions with the Florida Department of Transportation for more than 16 years.

In 1985, Thibault received his Bachelor of Science Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He has also been an Advisory Board Member of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth since 2013.

Opinion: Personal tragedy leads to traffic safety advocacy

The beginning of every year should be a time of hope, with the possibility of changing behavior for the better. Tragically, a traffic crash only three days into this new year ended in death for five children, ages 9 to 14, on Interstate 75 in Gainesville.

My nightmare began on Feb. 23, 1996. My 14-year-old twin daughters were the victims of a crash caused by reckless and distracted driving. Five children were killed, including my daughter Dori. Her twin survived with serious injuries. This event consumed my mind and my heart. I dedicated my life to road safety.

In 2000, I was elected representative for the Florida House, and subsequently re-elected five times.

In 2004, I started the Dori Slosberg Foundation to improve road safety by working with law enforcement, legislators, and the public. In 2009, the Dori Slosberg and Katie Marchetti Safety Belt Law passed, allowing police officers to stop cars for occupants not wearing seat belts. In 2011, the Dori Slosberg Driver Education Safety Act was approved, adding $5 to traffic tickets. This has contributed more than $85 million directly for driver education programs in public and private schools across Florida.

My two decades of traffic safety advocacy have taught me that learning the cause of crashes is imperative to reducing fatalities. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates many highway crashes, but it is unclear when or if it will investigate the Gainesville tragedy, as staff are on furlough due to the federal shutdown.

I call on the president and Congress to reopen the government so the NTSB can work together with Florida law enforcement and transportation officials to investigate the crash. The parents and family of those lost deserve to know what happened.



Make America Safe Again


Preserve more of Florida’s wilderness. It’s good for business.

The state Legislature has done too little to conserve and protect environmentally sensitive areas.

Florida needs to start conserving more of its most vital lands.

Florida needs to start conserving more of its most vital lands.

By Graham BrinkPublished Updated 

Florida is in a relentless competition to attract and retain high-end businesses and the talent that supports them.

Our quiver includes some common fiscal arrows — low taxes, less regulation and, in some cases, loads of taxpayer-funded incentives.

Of course, luring and nourishing businesses is not all about finances. Quality of life matters. That can mean good schools, easy weather, robust transit or a vibrant arts and entertainment community. 

It also means outdoor places to play. Places to canoe or spot an alligator. Places that keep our water clean. Places to bag a deer or catch a trout. Places that you may never visit but are glad won’t be covered in concrete. 

In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to use a slice of existing real estate taxes to preserve environmentally sensitive land and water resources. Few likely voted for it as a way to keep us globally competitive. Even so, it could help do just that.

A decade from now, another 5 million people could be living here, according to some forecasts. That’s more than the entire state of Alabama. By 2030, the population could exceed 26 million, more than everyone who currently lives in Australia.

Some of your new neighbors will happily live in the condo towers going up in our downtowns. But many will want a single family home on their own quarter acre of paradise.

Just look at Hillsborough County, east of Sun City Center. Twenty years ago, it was mostly small towns, farms and wilderness. Now development creeps up State Road 674 and Balm Road. Further north, home builders have broken ground east of the upscale FishHawk Ranch community, which basically didn’t exist 20 years ago. How soon before it’s all at the doorstep of Alafia River State Park? 

Developers will happily oblige our dreams, buying more farmland or pushing further into Florida’s limited wilderness. Who can blame them. It’s what they do. Beside, they can only do it because our elected officials let them.

That’s why 75 percent — 75 percent! — of voters wanted the state to use $300 million a year to buy up land. Unlike so many of our legislators, they understood that we need government to lead on this. The private sector is better at a lot of things, but the voters don’t trust it to protect the land that needs protecting. 

So far, however, the state Legislature has thwarted the voters’ will. In four years, it has used the pot of money to buy nearly no new parcels. In fact, it has used tax dollars to pay for lawyers to fight off lawsuits from groups that want the state to preserve more land. Is your head spinning yet?

It’s a showcase in short-sightedness. In 30 years, it won’t be easy for the future governor or members of the Legislature to lure or cultivate the next Apple or Microsoft if the state’s wilderness is covered in six-lane roads, parking lots and tract housing. 

Many of the high-skilled jobs of the future — the ones that every state covets — will just as easily be done from Denver as Tampa, Salt Lake City as St. Petersburg. If we can’t offer an appealing lifestyle, including easy access to outdoor pursuits, we’ll lose the race for businesses and workers more often than we win. 

And there aren’t many do-overs on the environment. Preserve it now or spend a lot more money recapturing it later. 

This is not an argument to buy up every plot of land in sight. There has to be a balance. We have to have room for more homes and more development. But it’s myopic to think that curtailing building in some vital areas will adversely affect the economy. In the long run, it will have the opposite effect. It will make us more desirable to the companies and people who we want to attract and the ones we want to keep. 

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

Opportunity zones could help Panhandle recover from Hurricane Michael | Guestview

Dominic M. Calabro, Guest columnist  Published 10:49 a.m. CT Dec. 14, 2018

On Oct. 10, Hurricane Michael slammed ashore on Mexico Beach with devastating impact. The impact was not limited to the coast, as inland counties also felt the high-end Category 4 storm’s wrath.

Before leaving Florida for Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia, the hurricane killed at least 35 Floridians, knocked out power to 380,000 homes and businesses, and caused insured damages of $2.6 billion (and climbing). Florida’s agriculture industry, including cotton, peanut, and corn farms, suffered more than $150 million in damages and timber losses are estimated at $1.3 billion.

It will take years for many of the areas affected by the storm to fully recover. And many of the impacted places haven’t benefited from the economic recovery enjoyed by many parts of the state. Luckily, a new federal program could help with this recovery, as well as promoting economic development in communities for years to come.

The federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, signed into law last December, created a community development program called Opportunity Zones, which provides a vehicle to connect private capital to deserving communities across the nation. The program could help to spur economic growth in areas impacted by Hurricane Michael. The program provides an incentive to invest in these zones by providing a tax deferral on the sale of assets if those proceeds are invested in a Qualified Opportunity Fund (QOF). Taxes on these capital gains are deferred until December 2026. If held for five years, the deferred capital gains tax is reduced by 10 percent and after seven years it is reduced an additional 5 percent. If held for 10 years, any appreciation of the QOF is exempt from federal income taxes.

All investments in Opportunity Zones must be made through QOFs, which must be approved by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. They can be private or publicly-managed funds and are required to hold at least 90 percent of their assets in qualified opportunity zone businesses or business property.

Governors from all 50 states and 5 territories, as well as the Mayor of the District of Columbia, were invited to nominate up to 25 percent of the qualified low-income census tracts in their states as Opportunity Zones. Governor Rick Scott submitted a list of 427 potential Opportunity Zones, featuring at least one in every Florida county. Last June, the U.S. Department of the Treasury certified the list, designating all nominated tracts as Qualified Opportunity Zones.

The designated zones include three tracts in Bay County, two in Jackson County, eight in Leon County, and one each in Gulf, Gadsden, Calhoun, Franklin, Holmes, Liberty, Taylor, Wakulla and Washington Counties.

But there are many more areas in the Panhandle that could benefit from an Opportunity Zone designation. Florida’s Opportunity Zone nominations have already been made and approved, but the federal law could be amended to expand it to other areas impacted by Hurricane Michael (or allow Florida to amend its list.)

There is a provision to allow 5% of tract nominations to be tracts that did not meet the current designation but were contiguous to other tracts that did meet the criteria. Florida justifiably chose not to nominate contiguous tracts in order to target the areas with the most need; however, the hurricane may have rendered some of these contiguous tracts very much in need of help.

The Opportunity Zone regulations have not yet been finalized. The Treasury Department and the IRS issued proposed regulations back in October. The deadline for public comments is December 28, 2018 and a public hearing will be held on Jan. 10, 2019. Hopefully the final regulations will be adopted soon thereafter.

If you or your company recently sold or are planning to sell appreciated assets, we urge you to explore investing in a Qualified Opportunity Fund, especially in areas impacted by Hurricane Michael. It could be beneficial to both you and your state.

We also recommend that both our current and incoming Governor, along with state lawmakers, to work with Florida’s Congressional delegation to include more areas impacted by the storm as Opportunity Zones. This could be an important tool in spurring the revitalization of these communities.

Dominic M. Calabro is president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch.

Florida’s transportation agency now listens to neighbors it once dismissed

For years, the Florida Department of Transportation was known for its distant relationship with the public. Now the agency is trying to be a better neighbor.


Updated December 3


TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation has an image problem, and new hires within the agency are trying to fix it.

For years, the department was known for its antagonistic relationship with the public, which peaked with the Tampa Bay Express highway expansion. That project was quashed after a public outcry, and multiple leaders were replaced. Now, the agency is trying to move forward and rebuild trust in the community.

A new district secretary who is viewed as more open helps. So do events like a listening tour the state organized in West Tampa on Friday. Department heads and engineers boarded a bus with community members in hopes of developing relationships and learning more about the neighborhood.

The tenor of the current department is a far cry from the 2015 and 2016 Tampa Bay Express days, which were marked by a “take it or leave it” attitude.

“This was an agency that came to us with a prepackaged solution and no real room for discussion,” said Rick Fernandez, president of the Tampa Heights Civic Association. “We were little more than an afterthought in a grander scheme.”

That’s changed in the past two years, Fernandez said. The state announced a “reset” of Tampa Bay Express and in 2017 rebranded its efforts in the area as “Tampa Bay Next.” The new name came with more than half-dozen staff changes, including the arrival of district secretary David Gwynn, who took over in July 2017.

“They do seem genuinely interested in trying to listen,” said Tampa Bay Express opponent Kimberly Overman, who was recently elected to the Hillsborough County Commission. “Which is light-years away from the FDOT we used to know.”

• • •

The bus on Friday was filled mostly with department employees and consultants. A handful of community members, several of whom grew up in West Tampa, sat near the front with Gwynn. They pointed out problems they’d like fixed and history they’d like preserved.

As the bus rolled down N Willow Avenue near the interstate, they spied the retention pond that often fills with trash.

“That’s our retention pond, there?” Gwynn asked. He knew the department was having an issue with its maintenance crews, and made a note to check on the status of the property.

It was one of the few sentences the secretary said in the nearly 90-minute tour. This was a listening tour, and that’s what he was going to do.

Next, the group came across one of the overpasses where the interstate cut through the neighborhood.

“We’ll show you why we need better lighting, Secretary Gwynn,” lifelong resident and engineer Joe Robinson said. “The lights are all up there on the road. There’s nothing down here in the so-called walking community.”

Many of the projects people highlighted didn’t fall under state jurisdiction, but it was still helpful to hear about them, Gwynn said. The department often partners with the city and county, and having an understanding of the community’s overall vision and desires helps the state on a macro level, he said.

Robinson and others praised the neighborhood’s history and cultural fabric. They pointed out the cigar factories and the brick roads, along with century-old buildings and some of the best Jamaican food in the area. Robinson wanted officials to see the good in the neighborhood, not just the road plans and diagrams.

“A lot of the times we’re looking at aerials, but then you get down here and see and hear the history of it,” Gwynn said. “As we get closer with some of these concepts, it might be good for us to come out again and talk a little more.”

Robinson thanked Gwynn and other staff for taking the time in the community. It was good to put faces to the names, he said.

“You know I’m one of FDOT’s biggest critics,” Robinson told the group earlier. “But I love the fact that we’re finally getting some communication and dialogue.”

• • •

State officials weren’t always so willing to engage.

The agency’s $6 billion highway expansion was met with almost instant pushback when unveiled in May 2015. People felt the project came out of nowhere, with no public input. State officials cited origins from the 1990s. Two years of contention followed.

It wasn’t uncommon during that time to attend a transportation meeting and see the seat designated for the district secretary or overseer of Tampa Bay Next empty. Calls to the office’s public information number would go straight to voicemail. At one public meeting, a staff member sat in the back and snickered at comments from crowd.

In 2016, members of the county’s transportation planning group requested the state do more to engage the public. But those meetings, too, had a tone of dismissal. When people made suggestions that didn’t fit the state’s already crafted plan, they were told those ideas would go in “the parking lot.”

“It was basically putting your idea in time-out,” Fernandez said. “It was the closet they could come to saying, ‘We won’t hear anything that doesn’t involve the plan we proposed.’ You weren’t allowed to speak about anything else.”

A forced reset from Tallahassee and new hires worked to change that mentality.

Richard Moss stepped in as director of transportation development in April, a role that directly oversees Tampa Bay Next. Moss was aware he was moving into an “antagonistic relationship between FDOT and the public” and knew work needed to be done.

That’s why the district continues to plan events like Friday’s listening tour, Moss said. The department did a similar tour in East Tampa, along with walking with community members through the neighborhoods of MacFarlane Park, Armory Gardens and West Shore Palms. Officials went door-to-door in Tampa Heights, VM Ybor and Historic Ybor seeking input.

“It’s important for us to be there with locals,” Moss said. “We need to listen as they show us what’s important to them.”

• • •

Not everyone on the bus tour was impressed.

Hillsborough County NAACP president Yvette Lewis watched as they turned through the neighborhood streets. While others on the bus praised progress and economic development, she saw a history of demolished properties and exclusion.

“Give something back of what you keep taking around us,” Lewis said. “You’re constantly taking, taking, taking.”

Her comments extend to everybody — the state, the city, the wealthy homeowners who move in and outprice others who can no longer afford the rising rent.

Elaine Illes, a historic preservation consultant, shared a seat with Lewis and listened to her concerns. Illes noted some of them were at odds with what Robinson and others on the bus called for. She encouraged Lewis to continue to speak up, saying every new administration change is an opportunity to start fresh.

“Hopefully they listen to you, then, because they’re not listening to us,” Lewis said.

The state agency has made strides since the Tampa Bay Express backlash, but some are worried it could turn at any point.

Fernandez said each morning he wakes up, he’s still afraid a Google Alert will notify him of some change in the department that hurts the community.

“As of late, it seems as though we’ve kind of gone back to, ‘Here are the white boards of what we’re going to do. Take your choice,'” Overman said. “It’s not as much of a conversation.”

Some in the community will always be skeptical of the state’s intentions and willingness to work with the public, Overman said. Still, she believes officials have made a greater effort at transparency. She said she sees less aggression in how the state interacts with the public.”There was a level of arrogance in the past that I think has either gone away or at least subsided,” she said. “There’s now at least a desire for greater collaboration with the communities. …

“Let’s hope that lasts.”

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

Passenger traffic way up at SRQ, but with growth comes growing pains

November 23, 2018 09:19 AM

Updated November 23, 2018 09:19 AM