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City sprawl reaches far into wallets

A recent study shows Tampa Bay residents spend more on transportation than on any other expense.

By EDIE GROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000


Marcy Breese quit looking at the odometer on her Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer more than a year ago. It was too depressing.

Each day, the Largo resident drives 39 miles to her office in New Port Richey and another 39 miles home again.

"I try not to even look at the mileage anymore because it disgusts me," said Breese, an employee at Pall Aero Power.

Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the toll those miles take on one's wallet. A recent study indicates that Tampa Bay residents spend more on transportation than on any other expense, including food, shelter, medical care and education.

The study, completed by the Surface Transportation Policy Project in Washington, looked at household expenses in 28 metropolitan areas. Tampa Bay ranked 10th in the amount of money residents spend each year to get around -- $5,864 per household or $6-billion for the whole area.

The culprit, according to the study, is urban sprawl. Communities in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area are designed in ways that force residents to use cars to go from one place to another, the study said. And cars, as any owner knows, are expensive to buy and maintain.

The report states that area residents spend 17.8 cents of each household dollar on transportation. Ninety-eight percent of that money is spent buying, caring for or fueling a car. The remaining 2 percent is spent on public transportation.

"It's like being in a club with a high initiation fee. To be part of transportation in this county, you have to buy a car," said Barbara McCann, who coordinated the study for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, an organization that emphasizes the needs of people, rather than cars, when it comes to getting around town.

"You're in that category that spends more on transportation than on anything," she said. "When you have people spending more on their car payments than on a mortgage, something's wrong with that picture."

Gary Brosch, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, warns that the study's results should be considered with a few caveats. Lots of data can skew the numbers.

For instance, if residents of Tampa Bay prefer to buy new cars more often than the residents of Honolulu, that might add to the expenses. Also, he said, sprawl is not the villain some make it out to be. It provides choices. If a Pinellas resident works in downtown St. Petersburg, he or she can choose to live close by and spend less time and money on transportation or he or she can choose to live in northern Pinellas -- possibly buying a newer house on a larger lot -- and do the commute.

"The fundamental concept that's important is that all over America, all over Florida, all over Tampa Bay, families are making decisions: Do I want to live in the Old Northeast if I work in downtown St. Pete and have a shorter commute, or live in Palm Harbor and make a longer commute?" Brosch said. "Generally, people are pretty rational in their decisionmaking. These studies, to some degree, underestimate the decisionmaking abilities of families."

The report places much of the blame for high transportation costs squarely at the feet of local government, which controls development and transit priorities.

Governments that spend more money building highways inevitably end up costing their citizens more to get around, the report finds. It suggests instead devoting that money to public transportation, bicycle paths and walking trails to give residents other options.

"There is this idea that bigger, broader transportation belts that hold more cars are the way to go," said Virginia Littrell, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network and a St. Petersburg resident. "That is such an outmoded idea. We have to get to a smaller scale, not larger. We need to go in the opposite direction."

Residents and local officials have celebrated the recent commitment to fixing U.S. 19, Pinellas County's most dangerous road. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, a Largo Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, secured $50-million for the highway this year.

The state's Department of Transportation is slated to spend about another $100-million on overpasses at Drew Street, State Road 590 and Sunset Point Road during the next three years. And $150-million is available from the state in 2009.

Local officials say they cannot see pulling all that money from the U.S. 19 improvements no matter what the Washington study shows.

"I think it's been such a long-overdue completion of a north-south highway," said county Commissioner Karen Seel, who led a task force that recommended more than 60 solutions for U.S. 19. "I think you go ahead and solve that situation and then you look at corridors for rail."

Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd agreed that government needs to make U.S. 19 safer while at the same time looking at alternative means of transportation. The county has already begun to investigate building a rail system in Pinellas, although it is a long way from committing to such a project.

"I think it's important for us to continue working on (U.S. 19) and be aggressive when we see special funds that could be available for it," Todd said. "But I don't think we should allow ourselves to be put in a position where we can't pursue other alternatives."

Tampa Bay is not without public transportation. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority operates 125 buses during peak hours, said authority executive director Roger Sweeney. Despite the community's apparent preference for the automobile, bus ridership has increased 9 percent during the past three years to 9.7-million passengers a year, he said.

* * *

Furthermore, 7,500 passengers each month bike part of the way to their destination and take the bus the rest of the way, using the bike racks mounted on the front of the buses, Sweeney said.

Even if the county invested in rail, some residents say they simply do not want to give up their cars. Jim Kunsman of East Lake is not crazy about the county's traffic, but he likes the freedom of having his car with him. He can travel to places not served by public transportation, and he can do so at his own pace, he said.

"I'm impulsive. I change my mind. If I go somewhere, I might say, "I'd like to go out to the beach now because the weather's nice,"' Kunsman said. "I just like the flexibility. I'm a free spirit."

Plant City resident John Vale said public transportation simply is not an option for him. A representative for a software company, Vale is on the road every day and his route is always changing.

He figures he spends $150 to $200 a week on gasoline. He puts 50,000 miles a year on his van. Since June, he has logged 12,000 miles on his wife's white pickup truck.

"Just that truck alone, without even moving it out of the yard, costs me 20 bucks a day in payments," Vale said. "That's just on one vehicle."

He owns four.

Public transportation is not for everyone, but government should make it more available for those who would use it, McCann said. Some communities, such as Seattle, San Diego and Honolulu, also set up clubs where a group of residents shares a pool of cars, McCann said. The residents reserve them when they need them, and it costs less than renting or owning a car.

Bev Vargas, Madeline Masucci and Mary Ann Mraz have a less-formal arrangement. The three Palm Harbor neighbors carpool almost everywhere. Each has downsized her family to one car, which she shares with her husband.

"Sometimes (sharing one car) is inconvenient," Masucci said. "But you work around it."

Breese said she would give up her 39-mile drive to work if public transportation could get her from Largo to New Port Richey early in the morning. She leaves her house by 5:15 a.m.

"I leave in the dark and I come home in the dark. There are times I literally fall asleep at the wheel. It's been very hard on me doing that," said Breese, who hopes that a bus or rail of some sort will end her long commute. "I'd take it in a heartbeat."

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