Transit's long road ahead

All we know for sure is that how we get from here to there will be far different in 20 years.

Published February 25, 2007


Commuters of tomorrow, consider:

(a) A passenger rail system linking the downtowns of Tampa and St. Petersburg and Clearwater to Tampa International Airport.

(b) Microchips in cars that track mileage, so that motorists are taxed on the number of miles they drive, not the amount of gas they consume.

(c) More toll roads, including stretches of highways like Interstate 4 and Interstate 275 that are now "free."

(d) Anything but the road system we have now.

It'll be 20 years before we know which of these will or won't come to pass, but what state lawmakers do in the coming months will set options in motion.

When it comes to transportation, this year's legislative session has a hangover feel to it after last year's 50th anniversary of the interstate highway system.

Those were heady days in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act that spawned nearly 50,000 miles of highway construction across the land.

But that asphalt binge has done little to ease congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute estimates that the average American loses 47 hours a year in traffic jams.

Rising costs aren't helping Florida's road building ways, either. In two years, the cost of dirt rose from $4.38 per cubic yard to $15.40. Asphalt surged from $61.63 per ton to $88.75. The price of concrete more than doubled.

The DOT's project budget bulged, climbing by $5-billion. Projects were slashed or delayed. The widening of Interstate 275 in Tampa from the Howard Frankland Bridge to the Hillsborough River stalled. Money for an overpass on U.S. 19 at Enterprise Road in Pinellas County was shifted elsewhere.

Backyard projects

With projects backed up, businesses are getting cranky. To pile on those worries, Gov. Charlie Crist's budget, released earlier this month, showed an additional cut of about $750-million in road projects.

"There's getting to be such a disconnect between the available funding and the transportation needs that we're seeing businesses organize and push for projects in their own area," said Randy Fox, the planning manager for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise. "It's happening more and more often."

In Central Florida, a consortium of landowners is pushing for a $7-billion toll road. In southwest Florida, a business group has been lobbying for the widening of Interstate 75. In Manatee County, businesses have been pushing for a toll road across the state. The Tampa Bay Partnership, an economic development group, has helped write legislation for a Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority that could finally deliver rail to an area solely dependent on roads.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, are sponsoring bills for the new authority representing seven counties: Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota.

It would finance transportation projects ranging from light rail to heavy rail, bus service to toll roads. The authority would draft a master plan for transportation projects that could be built or financed by other agencies.

"The atmosphere in the business community is that they have to do it themselves or it won't get done," Galvano said. "The Tampa Bay Partnership made this their issue. "

A similar push for an authority fizzled last year. But Galvano made adjustments. A big one is giving greater say to the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg, two urban areas with vastly different transit needs than rural counties like Citrus.

The new version has won over Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who was no fan last year.

"I know there are some aspects of this authority that aren't known," Iorio said. "But if we are ever going to have a regional rail system of any kind, we will need a regional authority. We can't have every county try to figure it out on their own."

Hillsborough and Pinellas are the most urban areas in Florida that don't have rail. Tri-Rail is an 82-mile commuter rail line connecting Miami to West Palm Beach. Orlando is slated to open a similar heavy rail line in late 2009.

The new Tampa Bay authority could adopt other projects. Remember last year, when the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority proposed a beltway across Manatee, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties?

Well, a lot has happened to the Expressway Authority since then. Its executive director resigned and the agency weathered two state investigations that criticized how it spent money.

A new authority?

Its new interim executive director, Stephen Reich, said the beltway is no longer a project, and that it would be "inappropriate" for a one-county agency to propose a regional project like the beltway.

But Galvano said the beltway would be a good fit with the new authority.

"A lot of jurisdictions saw (the beltway) within their boundaries and thought they didn't have a say," he said. "A project like this would require an entity like the regional authority that could fly 40,000 feet over city and county political lines."

The beltway is similar to a plan by the DOT, called Future Corridors, that would lace the rural parts of the state with hundreds of miles of new expressways. With most of the DOT's $39-billion budget devoted to existing roads, these new routes are considered viable only as toll roads.

So lawmakers will aim this year to make building toll roads easier. They will consider raising the bonding cap at the Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, so it can build more toll roads. And it will try to encourage more private companies to enter into contracts with agencies to build roads, a controversial privatization push already under way in Indiana, Illinois, Texas and New Jersey.

Paying by the mile

Meanwhile, gas taxes, which financed the interstate highway system, are considered less attractive for the future. State and federal gas taxes haven't been raised since the 1990s. Even though they are minuscule compared to gas taxes paid in Europe, increasing them is not on the table.

"I wouldn't consider it," said Fasano, who chairs the Senate's transportation budget committee. "People can barely afford the cost of gas."

Lowell Clary, a DOT assistant secretary, said better fuel efficiency is reducing the amount of revenue the gas tax brings in. In five years, he said the state may need to rely on a new method to pay for roads.

He cited toll roads and privatization as alternative methods, but also mentioned a statewide sales tax and a mileage program now being tested in Oregon that taxes motorists on the distance they travel.

"This session we're just educating lawmakers so we can do solid research on pilots," Clary said. "But we are moving away from the gas tax."

One thing is certain: Commuting as we know it is already changing.

"We live in a state where we believe growth pays for itself and our politicians pledge not to raise taxes," said Scott Paine, an associate political science professor at the University of Tampa. "But when it comes to a viable option for new facilities, this is no longer practical. We'll need a radical solution. What it is, we don't know yet."

Staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402.