JaxPoliticsOnline.com

Observations and musings on Jacksonville Politics

BRT Failing in Miami

JTA take note.

The Dadeland-to-Florida City bus rapid transit (BRT) roadway was built to encourage motorists to take buses that travel more quickly because they benefit from green-light priority at intersections.  But the strategy didn’t work out well because Miami-Dade Transit was never able to operate many buses on the roadway. Currently, between 10 to 27 buses per hour during rush periods serving some 20,000 passengers per day use the Busway. At times the north-south roadway is practically empty. 

Miami-Dade County commissioners and other local elected officials are currenty considering a proposed plan to convert the Busway into — among other alternatives — a four-lane highway with express toll lanes where private vehicles would share the road with buses. The revenue would then be used to fund the cash-strapped county transit agency.

Read more about it here.

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Filed under: Florida, Jacksonville, ,

The Yellow Brick Road

With the recent opening of the Riverside Arts Market, the Jazz Festival on Laura Street, the Sail Jacksonville Tall Ships this weekend, and the Mayor’s announcement that he would focus his last two years in office on the river and downtown, it seems like downtown is becoming the place to be.  While these are great developments that are badly needed in Jacksonville, it may be wise to take a step back and lay a foundation to ensure the continued success of the urban core area.  In addition, the City also needs to lay the groundwork for a great mass transit system.  (Of course, that’s a little hard to do when the JTA folks don’t show up to their own public meetings.)  Otherwise, we’re potentially building our efforts on shifting sand – with one shot events that never have enough substance to result in a permanent or vibrant downtown.

In order to see where we want to go as a city, exercises like the recent Reality Check are certainly helpful to picture exactly how we would like Jacksonville to look.  However, in order for that vision to be successful we have to build the “regulatory” structure to ensure that we are encouraging the right development in the right place.  And that means we should examine the existing structure – the comprehensive plan, zoning code, subdivision regulations – and investigate new options such as urban growth boundaries and other measures that will discourage greenfield development and revitalize neighborhoods, protect open space, keep housing affordable, and provide more transportation choices.

Jacksonville is unique in its consolidated government, but that uniqueness has also caused us to have growth problems.  Other municipalities have boundaries within incorporated areas; our municipal boundary is the county line, giving lots more opportunities for sprawl than normally found in other cities.  While Jacksonville is more similar to Miami-Dade County, even Miami-Dade has numerous cities within the county boundaries. It also has an established urban growth boundary.

For many years, I-295 was Jacksonville’s defacto urban growth boundary.   Many developments sprang up, with the common joke being that the City rarely met a development it didn’t like.  Comprehensive plan amendments were passed out like candy treats.  Rezonings occurred in some cases with zoning signage laying down on the ground of the property to be rezoned, effectively eliminating input from potentially affected parties.   In  addition, transpostation concurrency funds paid by developers and intended to mitigate impacts to existing roads went missing from city accounts.  In some cases, roads or other improvements were not built ahead of the new or additional development, but rather waited until development was finished, if the improvements were built at all.  (See Council Auditor Report # 621.) Then in 2007, the Legislature passed HB 7203.  This legislation began a pilot project for several commuities, including Jacksonville, that allowed them to avoid state review for numerous development projects.  And so we find ourselves in the current situation – crowded streets, long commutes, and car-dependent.

This year, the Legislature passed what was supposed to be a glitch bill (SB 360) to fix some of the unintended consequences of previous growth management legislation.  However, the bill that passed will be of no help to Jacksonville’s growth management and mass transit advocates.

According to the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), although SB 360 was intended to direct growth into urban areas, its implementation will present significant isssues and challenges.  For example, the legislation eliminates transportation concurrency and the DRI process (the primary regulatory tools for mitigating local and regional transportation impacts of development) without providing for any alternative methods of addressing these impacts.  Eliminating these tools without putting anything in their place will weaken the state’s growth management process according to the DCA.

In addition, if SB 360 becomes law, Jacksonville, along with 200+ cities, will automatically become a transportation concurrency exception area shortly ater July 1, 2009.  The legislation does not provide any transition period for Jacksonville and the other cities to adopt local replacements to transportation concurrency.  According to DCA”s analysis, the abrupt termination of transportation concurrency is likely to cause confusion and controversy and generate litigation over the power of local governments to adopt replacements for transportation concurrency.  DCA states that already there have been suggestions that local governments may need to adopt moratoria to give time to adopt new regulations.   The lack of regulatory certainty and predictability may impede, rather than encourage, economic development.

The Act contemplates future adoption of a mobility fee to replace transportation concurrency, but there is no guarantee that the Legislature will adopt a mobility fee system.  DCA and the FL Department of Transportation are required to put together recommendations for a mobility fee system to be provided to the Legislature by December 2009. However, even if the Legislature should adopt a mobility fee system in 2010, implementation may take a year or two.

According to DCA, the Act also creates substantial new workloads for local governments and DCA without providing any new resources to accomplish the tasks.  As a transportation concurrency exemption area, Jacksonville is now required to adopt land use and transportation strategies within 2 years to support and fund mobility, including alternative modes of transportation, such as mass transit.  Additionally, other local governments are authorized to adopt urban service boundary amendments that would also trigger these same requirements.  This could be a very expensive and onerous task – yet no financial support or new revenue sources have been provided to undertake this planning.

Further, until December 2011, local government commitments to provide potable water, wastewater, drainage, parks, solid waste, and public schools will not be subject to a demonstration that improvements adequate to achieve and maintain level of service standards will be supported by committed funding in the first 3 years of the capital improvement schedule.  This is critical for water supply, where the Legislature has mandated that the water management districts and local governments adopt 20 year and 10 year, respectively, water supply work plans, the first 5 years of which must be in the capital improvement schedule.

Finally, the legislation may create a stampede of plan amendments to take advantage of relaxed planning requirements.  DCA reports that it has already experienced an increase in the volume and geographic scale of future land use map amendments over the past two years.  DCA speculates that some of these increases may have been due to increased concerns over the Hometown Democracy constitutional amendment which may be on the ballot in 2010.

Numerous local governments, growth management advocates, newspaper editorial boards, and now CFO Alex Sink, have called for Governor Crist to veto the bill.  In addition, in a recent Jacksonville Business Journal poll, voters were 2 to 1 against relaxing growth management laws.   Governor Crist has yet to show which way he’s leaning, but with the deadline for gubernatorial action fast approaching (June 2nd), rumors have abounded that Crist may allow the legislation to become law without his signature.  If SB 360 does become law, Jacksonville potentially could be without a meaningful growth management regulatory structure for up to three years.

As Adam Smith, a reporter for the St Pete Times, recently tweeted: If Crist signs a growth management bill panned by all enviros and editorial boards – groups he cares about – should we assume his motivation is strictly donors?

Filed under: Florida, Florida Legislature, Florida Politics, Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , ,

JTA Stepping into Sign Ordinance/1st Amendment Buzzsaw

I wonder if Mike Miller, JTA spokesperson, has a death wish or is just into masochism. He, and JTA, are back – attempting to get City Council to pass exemptions from the sign ordinance for ads in transit shelters – a continuation of an ongoing JTA campaign covering at least 4 years and now 2 separate legislative efforts. 

Let’s go back in time to 2005 and the beginning of JTA’s first campaign push for bus shelter ads – a controversial proposal from the very beginning of its introduction by Councilman Art Shad.  JTA’s pitch went something like this: Establish public-private partnerships wherein private companies would build bus shelters and maintain them and their company ad would be placed on or in the bus shelter in return – just as long as it didn’t advertise certain subject matters. 

Proponents of the legislation argued that allowing bus shelter ads and these public-private partnerships would result in more bus shelters being built and more people riding the bus.  Interestingly, the Times Union happily jumped in and ran numerous editorials supporting Shad’s proposed legislation.  As it turned out, the Times Union’s parent company, Morris Communications, also happened to own (and still does to this day) Fairway Outdoor Advertising – an outdoor advertising/billboard company – jading the public’s view of the newspaper’s objectivity in  its calls for passage of the legislation. 

Opponents of the legislation argued that bus shelter ads where nothing more than billboards disguised as a bus shelter.    Former councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins argued that allowing ads on bus shelters would undermine sign regulations aimed at at fighting “visual pollution” and halting the spread of signs across Jacksonville.  (The sign ordinance had been promoted and passed as a citizen initiative in 1987 in response to a 1985 Jacksonville Community Council, Inc. study on visual pollution recommending the elimination of bus bench advertising throughout the City.) 

In addition, opponents of the proposed legislation clearly pointed out to City Council that the City couldn’t restrict the subject of any bus shelter ads due to constitutional free speech concerns.  Joining in along the way to support former Councilwoman Jenkins were some of the architects of the City’s sign ordinance and its strongest supporters: names still recognizable as major players today – Bill Brinton and Bill Scheu – along with two current City Council members – John Crescimbeni and Denise Lee. 

True to expectations, Shad’s proposal hit several snags.  Just as it was to be voted on in February 2006, Shad pulled the bill from the City Council agenda after a meeting with opponents.  Although things appeared to be smoothed over with opponents after that, the bill’s troubles were definitely not over.  In August 2007, the Planning Commission also opposed the proposal and recommended denial of the legislation.  City Council once again asked for additional time to consider the proposal.

Fast forward to 2009, now.  On April 29th, the 2005 bus shelter ad legislation was administratively withdrawn from City Council, and just two short weeks later, 2 new proposals were introduced.  On May 12th, Councilpersons Jones, Joost, and Johnson introduced legislation that provides an exemption from the sign ordinance for ads in transit shelters and restricts the subject matter of the ads (closely tracking the original 2005 legislative proposal). On that same date, Councilman Crescimbeni also introduced a bill; but Crescimbeni’s bill proposes to prohibit ads in transit shelters.

Enter one Mike Miller, JTA spokesperson and apparent masochist, on the scene once again. In a recent Jax Daily Record article, Miller pointed to a 9th circuit court of appeals decision saying that the situation for bus shelter ads had changed because of that decision.  According to Miller, the court decision stated that ads in bus shelters were permissible, especially if those shelters were for a public purpose.  I’m not sure what definition of “permissible” Miller is using, but my dictionary defines permissible as “capable of being allowed” – not required  to be allowed, so I’m not really sure exactly what the court decision changes.   Of course, I’m no lawyer, but then neither is Miller, so I guess that means our opinions stand on equal footing –  on this issue at least. 

Miller was further quoted in the Jax Daily Record article as saying that some potential ad subjects would be taboo if the exemption to the sign ordinance were passed.  Specifically, “alcohol, tobacco, firearms, gambling, political ads, anti-abortion, pro-choice and religion are among the topics banned.”   Even though I am no lawyer,  I recognize that under the First Amendment we all have the right of free speech and that right hasn’t changed since 2005 when it was originally pointed out that the City couldn’t restrict the subject matter of any bus shelter ads.  Of course that right to free speech does come with some restrictions.  For example, you don’t have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no fire.  But  certainly ads for alcohol, tobacco, firearms, etc.  on bus shelters could not be restricted – at least not without a potential court fight. 

So, if in renewing their efforts to get public-private partnerships with bus shelter ads in place, Miller and JTA are looking for another fight over the City’s sign ordinance and advertisers’ First Amendment rights, I believe they may have just found themselves one.  A public hearing on Jones, Joost, and Johnson’s proposal is scheduled for the next LUZ committee meeting on June 2nd and an additional City Council hearing has been scheduled for June 9th.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, , , , ,

JTA is watching you

Remember the old Michael Jackson lyrics? Well, for the five people that ride the Skyway each week, they are about to become reality. Government Technology reports that JTA is installing wireless camera systems on the Skyway.

According to Kenneth Williams, manager of Skyway operations, the previous surveillance system in the trains had one camera in each car, but passengers could sit behind it and avoid being recorded. The system was also recorded by VCR technology, and the tapes usually had lines blurring the recordings that made it difficult to identify people.

Now two cameras are being deployed in each train car — one on each end — so all passengers are viewable. Each station is equipped with four to eight cameras to provide full coverage of the area. The recordings are saved to a digital video recorder (DVR); each train and station has its own DVR.

So far the system is up and running in the train stations, and will be fully deployed in the trains by the end of the month, Williams said.

Don’t worry, bus riders. You’ll be next. JTA is currently piloting the cameras in one of their buses.

Filed under: Jacksonville, , , , ,

More “local companies first”

Councilman Daniel Davis’ “local companies first” preference legislation is riding a rocky road, with the Chamber of Commerce objecting to it and requesting that a task force be appointed.  Interestingly enough, Councilman Art Graham thinks it’s such a great idea that he is sponsoring a resolution to encourage Jacksonville’s independent agencies to also adopt a “local companies first” policy. Councilman Graham’s bill, 2009-39, will be introduced at City Council this Tuesday night.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , , , , ,

City finances “challenged”

Although a recent Council Auditor report reveals an $11 million dollar surplus,  the Council Auditor’s closer look at City finances reveals the surplus is because many city departments are actually losing money by $11.7 million.  Most notably, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium has been operating at a $1 million deficit; the city’s building inspection program lost about $1.3 million overall; and, the city’s IT department is losing about $6.3 million.  (Rhetorical question to Kevin Holzendorf:  How do you lose $6.3 million in the computer department?)

Peyton’s response?

The mayor’s office said it is watching closely but actually believe the city is doing well considering the economic climate.

Mayor John Petyon told Channel 4 that city leaders know rough times are ahead. He did not talk about layoff, but the possibility looms. Also, there will be scheduled increases in new fee that could help the situation.

 “I think 2009 is going to be a challenging year, economically. I am not so sure we have hit the bottom yet. Certainly businesses are challenged, families are challenged, government is challenged and this government is challenged quite frankly. All of us are going to have to make decisions on priorities,” Peyton said.

Let’s take a closer look at what was revealed in the Council Auditor’s report about the City and its independent agencies.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , ,

Peyton and JTA going head-to-head

Looks like Peyton has found himself going head-to-head with JTA and its director, Mike Blaylock.  It seems  JTA is concerned that major projects to untangle traffic snarls at major highway interchanges, provide rapid bus transit, and provide public transportation could go by the wayside or be seriously underfunded under the Mayor’s most recent proposal.  Of course, Jaxport is supportive of Peyton’s proposed plan, as it would provide funding for badly needed road infrastructure now that the port has signed on Mitsui and Hanjin.   

Two City Council members have already expressed concerns.  Councilman Stephen Joost said he’s concerned with how Better Jacksonville projects will jive with other city debts.  Councilman Michael Corrigan said he’s concerned with holding up the plan voters asked for eight years ago.

Already they are fighting over how to spend the extra money, while Peyton’s plan to extend the local option gas tax and dip into a capital projects fund still  has to go through City Council for approval.   I guess that’s only a minor detail to them.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , , , ,

Jax Chamber to City Council: Don’t Watch Taxpayer Dollars Too Closely!

According to the Daily Record, the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce is opposed to efforts to rein in the City’s independent agencies, which are run by un-elected Boards of Directors. The Chamber is calling on the Council—the City’s elected body charged by the taxpayers with administering tax revenue—to stay out of the agencies operations.

The Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce opposes two bills that would allow City Council to partially regulate what the city’s independent agencies can and can’t do. In a letter to Council President Ronnie Fussell, Chamber Chair Ron Autrey says the consolidated nature of Jacksonville’s government was established to assure the independence of those agencies. “The Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce urges you to vote no” on the two bills, wrote Autrey.

Surprise!

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, , , , , , , , ,

Horror of horrors: Peyton uses the “T” word

Mayor Peyton has unveiled a $100 million road building proposal according to today’s issue of the Jacksonville Business Journal.  Under Peyton’s proposal, $50 million would go towards infrastructure investment in and around Jaxport, with the remainder going to Better Jacksonville Plan road construction projects.  

Although Peyton is calling the proposal a stimulus package, he used the “T” word (“taxes” !) in his announcement.  In order to finance the projects, Peyton is proposing that City Council extend the the six-cent local option gas tax past its 2016 expiration date.  In addition, Peyton is also asking the City Council and the JTA to change how much sales tax revenues the city gives the authority. Under his proposal, the annual rate increase would be changed from 6.5 percent annually to a rate that is reflective of the performance of the sales tax revenue.

Here is a related article in the TU.

Filed under: Jacksonville, Jacksonville City Council, Mayor of Jacksonville, , , , , , ,

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