TAMPA — Hillsborough County estimates it will cost $3-billion to $6-billion to bring relief to the crawl of traffic along its most congested roads.
County officials, however, say they're doing everything they can to fix the road system — including extracting big bucks from the private sector to ease your commute.
But have they?
A county report boasts that Hillsborough has coaxed more money from developers for roads since 2004 than it has collected from federal, state and local government sources together.
Yet the report relies on many contributions that don't add up.
Take the one from a subdivision called Flint Ridge Trails.
The county says this project's developer pledged to build roads from the project in Thonotosassa to McIntosh Road at an estimated cost of $20.7-million.
Because the subdivision only has six homes, that would mean the developer agreed to a road fix that costs $3.5-million per house.
Two weeks after the county was notified by the St. Petersburg Times about questionable totals for Flint Ridge and at least two other projects, officials confirmed they had made mistakes.
County officials said the report overestimated the contributions from those three projects by a total of $60-million.
What is unclear was just how many other mistakes inflated the county's claim of collecting $1.4-billion from developers for roads, a grand total that includes:
• Developer contributions that were counted twice, representing nearly $300-million in duplications.
• Many projects that have been scrapped because of the slumping real estate market, yet remain on the list because the county hasn't pruned it of defunct projects. Flint Ridge, for instance, is no longer planned but is still counted as a contribution toward road construction.
• At least $250-million in contributions for turn lanes and traffic signals — costs that developers have long paid to enhance their projects, but that don't necessarily relieve existing congestion.
• Contributions on remote and dead-end streets that do little, if anything, to improve the county's road network.
Despite these duplications and mistakes, county officials have used the report repeatedly to bolster claims that they're addressing Hillsborough's growing traffic problems.
"Over the last three years, Hillsborough County has secured over $1-billion for improvements through our developer contribution program," Commissioner Ken Hagan said, citing the report last year while chairing a transportation task force. These contributions, combined with property tax and sales tax money set aside for roads, indicate commissioners have "shown leadership and made positive decisions with respect to transportation."
The county ranks these developer contributions third among nine strategies for improving transportation, right after a greater reliance on toll roads and sales tax revenue.
Commissioner Brian Blair has joined Hagan in touting the private money.
"From what I understand, the developer contributions are over a billion dollars," Blair said in a 2007 meeting. "So (along with sales tax money) we'll have $2-billion, basically, in the long run … that hasn't been spent yet."
County officials vouch for the report's accuracy and say commissioners are interpreting it correctly.
"Everything in this report has made the county's roadways better and flow easier," said Deputy County Administrator Wally Hill. "I don't think what we've done is deceptive."
But at least one other agency said the county is exaggerating the money it has for roads.
The Planning Commission's executive director, Bob Hunter, said contributions listed in the report weren't easily verified because backup material, such as the names of owners and locations of projects, wasn't included. The report itself, he said, had errors, duplications and road fixes that don't ease congestion.
Hill staunchly defends the report's accuracy, while acknowledging mistakes.
He said the vast majority of duplications — about $268-million — were made because the county released its 2007 report to the media without calculating the last three months. So it added the last three months of 2006 contributions, which Hill said would be a comparable estimate of money collected or pledged in the same period in 2007.
Other duplications were caused by data entry mistakes — which made up about $25-million — but they're so small in proportion to the entire total that they're negligible, Hill said.
It's fair to question whether the report's total includes too many projects that were scrubbed, Hill said.
"We know that some won't happen at all," he said.
He also conceded that some amounts credited to developers didn't make sense, considering the size of the project.
After the Times asked, Hill determined that Flint Ridge should be credited with $493,476 in road improvements — not $20.7-million. A project called Townhomes at Rocky Creek contributed only $7-million of the $27.7-million credited to it, while Jefferson Estates pitched in about $163,000 of the $20.7-million the county said it paid.
Hill said these errors were caused by a consultant who had given each project the wrong cost and length estimate.
But records show the Planning Commission told Hill more than a year ago that the Jefferson Estates total was wrong, yet it remained unchanged in the report until the Times asked about it this month.
Many other large contributions credited to smaller projects seemed bloated as well. Hill said these figures were accurate — in reflecting what government would pay if it were building the road. A developer pledging $21-million, for instance, might pay half that if it could do it cheaper, said Bob Campbell, the county's transportation director.
It's a lot of confusion for a report that was supposed to clarify what developers pay for roads. Hill said he created it in late 2006 after he and Campbell concluded the public didn't appreciate the private sector's contribution to the road network.
"It's been the missing story," Hill said.
While the report meshes with the board's small-government approach to growth management, Hill said no commissioner ordered staff to produce it. During the boom years, commissioners opposed higher fees on developers that would have subsidized many of the road fixes now needed. Instead, commissioners favored a laissez-faire strategy that kept impact fees low. They relied in part on subsequent property and sales tax revenue from the influx of new homes to pay future infrastructure expenses.
Meanwhile, congestion ballooned. Estimates vary wildly on what's needed to finance the necessary road projects to hold all the traffic. County planners estimate it would cost $3-billion. The City-County Planning Commission in 2006 estimated it would cost $6-billion.
The county's coffers won't cover either estimate. Last year, the task force headed by Hagan approved $500-million in sales tax, much of it to be spent on these road needs.
If it turns out that the $1-billion in developer contributions isn't a reliable figure, the county's road deficit is all the more daunting.
"We've used that (developer contribution) number in several forums where we've discussed what to do about transportation," Hagan said. "If it's not real, it's problematic. It makes our work that much more difficult on the task force."
Hill said commissioners don't need to worry.
"Obviously, we've made errors here so there's some degree of overstatement," Hill said. "But you can discount it by 30 percent and it would still be true that there's a tremendous amount of private money meeting the county's transportation needs."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3402.