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Hillsborough's surprising traffic count has its skeptics

Traffic headed south on Anderson Road between Linebaugh and Waters avenues during rush hour in July.


Traffic headed south on Anderson Road between Linebaugh and Waters avenues during rush hour in July.

TAMPA — Traffic can get so heavy on Waters Avenue that when Eugene Goff leaves work, it can take 10 minutes just to pull out of the office parking lot.

So Goff was surprised to learn that, according to Hillsborough County, daily traffic plummeted more than 20 percent from 2006 to 2007 along this stretch of Waters. Rush hour traffic was even better, sliding more than a third.

“Out here? Are you sure?” Goff, who works for a building materials company, said recently. “Traffic looks the same to me. If anything, it’s getting more congested.”

Motorists such as Goff may not know it, but Hillsborough County says gridlock is loosening its hold on many county roads. While tales from all over indicate that higher gasoline prices are thinning traffic, the county says road conditions began improving before the recent surge in prices.

It’s a claim some experts find hard to believe.

“That big of a drop in traffic is possible only if there had been that much road construction making these road segments better,” said Joe Zambito, a traffic analyst with the Hillsborough Planning Commission. “And that’s not the case. There wasn’t that much construction.”

News of the improved roads comes at a fortuitous time for the county. Millions in state grants and private developments ride on Hillsborough showing it is trying to ease congestion. If it doesn’t take the right steps, the state can impose stiff penalties such as withholding money and stopping future development.

By 2007, Hillsborough’s chances didn’t look good. Traffic was growing progressively worse on county roads.

Then, just months after the state flagged the county for falling short in its road plan, it published a traffic study showing steep drops in traffic.

County officials are confident in the results, citing several possible reasons for the sudden drop.

Among them: At least six road segments saw traffic plunge because of the opening of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway reversible lanes. Five more segments saw drops because of construction. Visitors to the county dropped 1 percent in 2007. And, years of worsening congestion might have changed driving habits, said Bob Campbell, the county’s director of transportation planning.

Along with flat school enrollment and a slump in the real estate market, the traffic dive reported in the August 2007 report fit the general narrative of the end of the housing boom.

Yet the drop came before this year’s spike in gas prices, making some traffic engineers puzzle over why the county saw a decline so early.

“That’s what baffles me,” said Billy Hattaway, an Orlando transportation engineer and the former state roadway design engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation. “Makes you wonder if someone screwed up the counts.”

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who said he hadn’t noticed a change in traffic, questions how it could have dropped so sharply.

“It leads you to ask, 'Has there been any manipulation of the data?’ ” he said. “I don’t have any evidence that suggests there is. But it does beg the question.”

Campbell stands by the counts. “We have a high level of confidence that they’re accurate,” he said. • • •

Counting traffic is not always easy. Tallies must take into account many factors, including seasonal traffic fluctuations and the weather.

Counts help estimate how much room is available on roads, especially during peak times. It is during these times that motorists become all too familiar with what happens when a road “fails” — also known as gridlock.

If a road’s posted speed limit is 55, and cars average speeds of less than 16 mph during peak times, the road is designated as failing.

The state required local governments to count the number of failed roads they had and set aside money to help ease traffic on them. But the requirement had no penalties, so few bothered to comply.

“No one was really calling them on it,” said Charles Gauthier, a top planning official at Florida’s Department of Community Affairs.

In 2005, the state passed a law that finally included penalties for governments that don’t plan to ease congestion on failed roads. The penalty deadline is set for the end of this year.

With this date looming, good news came last August, with a report that counted traffic on 305 Hillsborough road segments. Traffic plunged by more than 181,000 total daily trips on the most congested roads.

The number of miles of county roads that were clogged at rush hour fell by 55 between 2006 and 2007, the report found. The number of road segments that failed by all measures fell from 84 to 60.

It was quite a turnabout from the previous three years, when the number of failed road segments climbed by an average of 20 a year. Also, county traffic slipped 2.6 percent at the same time the number of registered vehicles in Hillsborough increased by 2 percent.

Driving behavior is difficult to predict, Hattaway said, so it’s possible that even before gas prices climbed, people made adjustments that reduced traffic.

The Tampa Bay area ranks near the top nationally in the percentage of household income spent on transportation. So motorists might have changed their habits because they were already sensitive to price, especially as the economy started to weaken last year, Hattaway said.

But many of the counts defied convention. The rule of thumb in traffic count comparisons, planners say, is if there’s a large disparity between two consecutive years, a second count might be warranted. “If counts fluctuate 10 to 15 percent from last year’s count, that’s a red flag,” said county transportation planner Charles White. “Something might be wrong with the count.”

So were recounts done on the 58 failed roads segments, including Waters, where rush hour traffic fell by more than 15 percent? Over the entire county system, rush hour traffic averaged a drop of 15 percent.

“I didn’t realize there had been that big of a drop,” said deputy county administrator Wally Hill. “I would hope that we would have taken a second look at that.”

The man responsible for overseeing the counts is Campbell, the county’s transportation director. When asked for details on recounts, Campbell said there were 10 to 12 recounts, not unusual for a typical year.

In some cases, the reasons for dwindling traffic were clear.

For instance, one of the biggest dips countywide was on Falkenburg Road between State Road 60 and Causeway Boulevard. Between 2006 and 2007, average annual traffic fell 42 percent. Peak traffic dropped nearly 60 percent.

During that same period, elevated lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway opened and diverted traffic.

But others are harder to explain.

Traffic on Bloomingdale Avenue declined more than 40 percent between Bell Shoals Road and Lithia-Pinecrest. Campbell said that drop was also caused by the opening of the Crosstown lanes.

But Zambito said that was unlikely.

“The Crosstown doesn’t go that far,” he said. The two are 5 to 6 miles apart.

A drop was so steep on Lumsden Road between Kings Avenue and Lithia-Pinecrest that the county estimated there were 10,000 fewer cars using the road in 2007.

“That’s a lot,” White said. “Without knowing what construction took place to cause that type of diversion, it’s hard to tell.”

Zambito said a drop like that seemed too big.

“You don’t usually see a variance like that,” he said. “It looks suspicious.”

A segment of Bearss Avenue saw traffic slip at rush hour by 46 percent. White said motorists might be listening to radio traffic updates and avoiding certain roads. Zambito said a deviation that big “doesn’t make sense.”

But the county doesn’t have to defend its numbers. All it has to do is produce a report that identifies the failed roads. With budget cuts, the agency that reviews the reports, the state Department of Community Affairs, doesn’t have the staff to analyze and question them, Gauthier said.

“If the traffic counts are way down, it makes everything more feasible,” he said.

“If a county gives us that information and says that’s how much traffic is down, we tend to accept it.”

“We’re not in a position to double check their data,” he said.

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this story.

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or [email protected]

Hillsborough's surprising traffic count has its skeptics 07/19/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 3:56pm]
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