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Leader must, well, lead when it comes to sprawl

Before we get to the main topic of this column — county Commissioner David Russell's shortsighted opposition to the THE Bus — let's look back at his support of a subdivision planned for northwestern Hernando, Lake Hideaway.

That project may someday be home to more than 7,000 residents and pour as many as 315 cars per hour into a failing intersection at Mariner Boulevard and State Road 50, a crucial crossroads that is expected to cost more than $15-million to upgrade.

But because state rules that supposedly require each development to pay its fair share to improve roads actually do no such thing, county planners calculated Lake Hideaway's debt to widen this intersection at a paltry $230,831.

I bring this up because it shows why new development almost always increases congestion and adds to the state's $45-billion backlog of unfunded highway projects. It also shows that the current system of building more roads to serve far-flung subdivisions is broken beyond repair.

I suspect that Russell knows this as well as any politician in the state.

He's the former chairman of the state House of Representative's Transportation Committee and is a board member of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. I've heard him speak with authority on the folly of trying to fix all of the state's transportation problems by building more roads.

Which is why his stances on Lake Hideaway — which he voted for in February and called the "epitome of good planning'' — and the county's 6-year-old bus system are so disappointing.

See, sprawl helped create this mess. And, whether or not we car-loving folks like it or not, mass transit is the best way to clean it up.

We need local and regional systems not only to control costs, but to also conserve fuel and give residents with no other options a way to get to work, doctor's appointments and grocery stores.

Though the number of riders on THE Bus dipped in the past two years after a cut in service and a fare increase, rising gas prices have boosted daily ridership to about 650 in June, near the all-time high.

The county's share of running THE Bus, $620,000 per year, is a pittance compared with the cost of building roads. Eliminating the system would save only $140,000 per year because the county would be required to expand its door-to-door van service for disabled residents, according to a recently completed consultant's study.

Yes, I understand where Russell is coming from. THE Bus still serves only 1 percent of Hernando's population, he said. The sight of nearly empty buses endlessly circling the county has become a symbol of government waste. Plenty of voters, I'm sure, would rather see the entire system dismantled than lose a single deputy or firefighter.

Russell said that if he wanted to pander to these residents, he would have done so under the intense pressure of last year's budget season. He favors doing away with THE Bus, he said, only because he believes the county's population is too widely dispersed to allow mass transit to work.

He said he is willing to rethink his position as he hears more evidence about the cost of the system in the summer's budget workshops.

That shows flexibility, and flexibility I admire.

But what we really need from Russell, on this issue especially, is leadership.

Leader must, well, lead when it comes to sprawl 06/21/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 11:24am]
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