Tampa Bay’s hot business stories for 2019 include flood insurance and bridge overhauls

Tampa Bay faces some important business decisions in the new year.
What to do about the troubled flood insurance program will be a hot story in 2019.
What to do about the troubled flood insurance program will be a hot story in 2019.
Published December 26 2018

The end of the year is a natural time to take stock and look forward. What will 2019 bring? I'm no soothsayer, but here are seven things I am keeping my eye on:

1. Rate hikes.

Will anything affect the overall economy more in 2019 than how much the Federal Reserve raises interest rates? The consensus seems to be that the country’s financial picture will remain robust enough to bump the rate twice, raising it to 3 percent. But that could change.

Any increase will make it more expensive for borrowers to buy cars and homes and to pay off credit card and other short-term debt. On the flip side, it helps savers earn more on their cash or CDs.

Lowering rates is one of the levers the Fed can pull when the economy turns sour. For years after the Great Recession, for instance, it left the rate at zero or close to it. Among other things, the move encouraged borrowing, which helped the beleaguered housing market climb out of a big hole. But rates need to rise during good times for the Fed to be able to lower them during the bad.

We’re in the period when the brainiacs at the Federal Reserve try to find that happy middle ground. They don’t always get it right. Stay tuned.

2. Bus rapid transit.

This will likely be the year we figure out whether Tampa Bay’s 41-mile bus rapid transit proposal garners enough support to move forward. The line would run along Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg with what’s sounding like eight to 10 stations.

Many of the details are still getting hammered out, including whether the system would have dedicated lanes to ensure the buses have reliable schedules and don’t get bogged down in traffic. The price tag is pegged at $455 million, but that will change as the plan takes shape.

The project has its naysayers, who think the route is too long or that buses are the wrong approach. But it also has some powerful allies. This one promises to be contentious.

3. Flood insurance.

Rates are rising, but the national flood insurance program continues to bleed red ink. We need to come to grips with this issue. Our real estate market relies on homeowners having access to flood insurance. The next hurricane season isn't going to wait for us to figure it out, nor is climate change. Is 2019 the year we see real political leadership on this issue?

4. Decisions, decisions.

In 2017, Hillsborough County officials agreed to spend $812 million on roads over the next decade. Last month, somewhat unexpectedly, residents there voted to raise their sales tax to pay for transportation projects.

So the question became: Will county leaders still spend the entire $812 million on roads, as many voters hope? Or will they spend some of it elsewhere now that about $302 million will flow in each year from the sales tax increase?

So far, county leaders have said they plan to keep their $812 million promise without stealing from the new sales tax dollars. But several have left enough wiggle room that it would hardly be shocking if it comes up again, especially if the local economy takes a dive or the county gets pressed for cash.

5. The hub.

In the Tampa area, there is talk of a new high-speed rail line from Orlando, the aforementioned bus rapid transit system, and smaller in-city BRT lines. Add to that the existing transit options like bus lines and the streetcar, plus the potential for future commuter or even light rail.

The agglomeration raises an important question for Tampa’s transportation future: Where should the downtown hub get built? Ultimately, the transit options should link up in one location, an easily accessible hub that makes it convenient to hop from one mode of transportation to another. High-speed rail riders shouldn't have to walk several blocks to get on a rapid bus or ride the streetcar. Ideally, they would simply walk to another part of the same station. The system should be coherent and seamless to maximize the sum of its parts.

6. Labor pains.

Wage growth for Florida’s middle class has finally started to tick up. Good news for workers, after years of little or no gains when factoring for inflation. Will that momentum continue through 2019? Probably, if the experts are right about continued, though slowed, economic growth.

The better question: Will it be enough to get workers on strong footing before the next recession? There might not be enough time left before the next downturn for wages to rise high enough to recapture those lost years after the Great Recession. Once the economy turns and unemployment rises, wage gains could dry up again.

7. The big makeover.

The $814 million upgrade to the Howard Frankland Bridge could be set to break ground by the end of the year. Will it have dedicated lanes for the proposed bus rapid transit project? Will the $35 million bike lane get built? Will the variable tolls for the express lanes be allowed to rise high enough at peak times to keep them clear of congestion? We should find out in 2019.

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