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Experts debate Wal-Mart's impact

How many people visit a supercenter at its peak evening hour? The number is hotly contested.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published July 24, 2005


If you build a regular Wal-Mart, the traffic experts say the store will draw 850 car trips during the busiest evening hour.

If you build a Wal-Mart Supercenter - which includes the regular store plus a full-service grocery store, hair salon, vision center and tire and lube express - those same experts say the store will draw only 750 car trips that hour.

If you think those numbers don't add up, you're not the only one.

County-hired engineers have been sparring for months with Wal-Mart engineers over the best way to estimate how many shoppers will visit the proposed supercenters in Holiday, Bayonet Point and Land O'Lakes.

It's a critical debate: The estimates will determine whether Wal-Mart has to add turn lanes, install traffic signals or widen roads to handle the extra traffic. Such improvements could add hundreds of thousands of dollars to Wal-Mart's construction costs.

And if the numbers are wrong and the necessary improvements aren't made, "It would mean more congestion, not only for Beacon Woods, but for the traffic on U.S. 19," said Ray Watson, vice president of the Beacon Woods Civic Association. Same goes for the neighborhoods and major streets near the other two proposed supercenters, he said.

Wal-Mart's engineers want to stick with the industry standard - the Institute of Transportation Engineers' Trip Generation Handbook - which estimates a lower traffic count for superstores than regular discount stores. The averages are based on traffic studies of other Wal-Marts, most of them paid for by the retail giant.

But the county's consultant, Tindale-Oliver and Associates, argues those numbers are "not logical."

After all, the supercenter is about a third larger than a regular store, "with a broader range of goods that would appeal to a larger sector of the shopping public," Tindale-Oliver wrote in a March 31 memo about the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter in Holiday.

So why wouldn't a supercenter draw more shoppers?

Wal-Mart's consultant, Kimley-Horn and Associates, argues that supercenters draw fewer shoppers per hour because they are open around the clock. They also say the supercenter data, which is more recent, is more reliable than the regular discount store data.

The county's consultant wasn't convinced.

* * *

So how do you count the cars for a supercenter that hasn't yet been built?

It's not as hard as it sounds. Engineers count the traffic at similar existing stores. Then they determine that the average store draws a certain number of trips for every 1,000 square feet of retail space.

The question becomes, whose average to use?

The industry standard comes from studies of 10 superstores - nine of them conducted by another Wal-Mart consultant, Peters and Associates.

Based on those studies, a 196,000-square-foot supercenter draws 750 peak-hour trips.

But an independent study found the actual number of peak-hour trips to five Wal-Mart Supercenters was 50 percent higher than that.

A 2003 study by VRPA Technologies showed the average supercenter draws 1,137 peak-hour trips. That study, performed for the California grocery chain Save Mart, included traffic counts from five Wal-Mart Supercenters in Texas and Oklahoma.

But Wal-Mart engineers argued the figure isn't valid in Pasco, where the population is smaller and the proposed supercenters are closer together.

So the county's consultant, Tindale-Oliver, suggested a compromise: Use a weighted average of the two rates. For a supercenter, that would come out to 903 peak-hour trips.

The retail giant refused, calling the figure "unjustifiable."

An arbitrator called it something else.

* * *

Developers are required to submit traffic counts with their plans. If they can't agree with county engineers on the estimates, the dispute goes to an independent engineer.

That's the route Wal-Mart has taken in three separate appeals, one each for the proposed supercenters in Holiday, Bayonet Point and Land O'Lakes. The process has delayed the applications for all three stores before the county's Development Review Committee.

Pasco County won the first round last month: After some tweaking, independent engineer C. Andrew Roark suggested a rate that comes out to 868 peak-hour trips for a 196,000-square-foot supercenter. That's the weighted average the county's consultant suggested, minus one store where Wal-Mart complained the traffic was unusually high because of a gas station.

Roark issued a similar ruling July 14 for the proposed supercenter in Bayonet Point.

A decision on the proposed Land O'Lakes store should come within the next few weeks, said Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein.

And when it does, it's unlikely to be the last word on the topic.

A week after Roark issued his first ruling on the Holiday store, Wal-Mart attorneys filed a 12-page appeal. Among other things, the retailer objected to using any data from the VRPA study.

"The practices and procedures followed by the County and (Tindale-Oliver and Associates) in this matter violate Wal-Mart's rights and violate traditional notions of fair play and justice owed by a government to its citizens," the appeal stated.

Wal-Mart's attorney, Glenn Smith, did not return a call for comment.

And so the matter will go to the county's Development Review Committee, a panel of top county officials. From there, the loser could appeal to the County Commission, then to circuit court.

It's unclear how far the issue will go. But one thing is obvious:

"Wal-Mart," Goldstein said, "is not happy."

Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhall@sptimes.com