Sunday, April 22, 2018
Transportation

Speculative road-building won't lead to growth

Gradually — and unfortunately — Florida is cranking up its old speculative road-building machine.

Gov. Rick Scott has revived the state's once-dormant toll-road initiative, Future Corridors.

A new transportation bill, SB 1132, would create regional turnpike authorities with the power to plan and build new highways.

The state has also devoted $25 million to buy right of way for the $550 million, 27-mile extension of the Suncoast Parkway — a road to, if not quite nowhere, a dot on the map in northwest Citrus County called Red Level.

That's not nearly enough money to buy all of the land needed. But it is enough to get the project started again — enough that the "suspended" label on the website of Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is definitely obsolete.

Maybe you think things wouldn't be moving forward without good reason. You might even believe the official line that the Suncoast extension was put on hold back in 2009 because of the economic downturn, and — now that things are looking up — needs to get back on track.

Well, don't.

Because there's actually less reason to build this road now than there was four years ago.

For starters, look at how much money in annual tolls the first phase of the Suncoast was forecast to raise by now: $35 million. And compare that to how much it did raise last year: $21 million.

Put another way, more than a decade after the road opened, it generates only enough revenue to pay half the debt service on the bonds that financed it.

The state's old feasibility rules for new toll roads — rules axed by lawmakers when they threatened to get in the way of building unneeded roads — called for toll roads to reach this funding threshold after five years.

Also, it seems to me that showing the need to build the parkway farther north would require demonstrating demand — that lots of people are now driving as far north as possible on the existing road.

But the number of vehicles that reach the end of the Suncoast, just south of the Citrus line, is small — miniscule, really — by the standards of an expressway: an average of 5,600 per day last year.

That's less than one-sixth the daily average on the Suncoast's southernmost portion and 70 percent less than another notably quiet road, the stretch of U.S. 19 in extreme northern Hernando.

Farther north, in Citrus, U.S. 19 gets a little busier, but not much. And if you need another north-south route, you can always take County Line 491. I tried them both on a recent trip to Crystal River and was struck by how little traffic there was on either road, how much open space.

And it doesn't seem likely to fill up soon.

Duke Energy is closing one of the area's main economic drivers, the nuclear power plant in Crystal River, and doesn't exactly seem to be forging ahead with the one planned for nearby Levy County.

And, far from returning to a growth mode since the parkway extension was suspended in 2009, Citrus has gradually lost population.

This jibes with market trends that show more people moving to cities, not away from them. Witness, for example, the strong interest among developers in the site of St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field, which we wrote about in last Sunday's Times: tinyurl.com/a8e6lnl.

Future phases of the parkway may veer east toward Gainesville and then Jacksonville. So the ultimate idea, advocates say, is not to open up countryside but to link urban centers. Okay, but looping through Lecanto seems a roundabout way of accomplishing that goal.

So why is the state moving ahead?

Big, powerful landowners, of course. And developers, including the two hired as consultants for Future Corridors.

And, finally, there are local officials, such as Citrus County commissioners, who are less powerful than the people steering this ship in Tallahassee, but just as enthusiastic.

I understand. They're desperate. They think roads equal economic development. Leaders in Hernando thought the same thing before the first part of the parkway was built.

And, yes, we like the parkway. It makes it easier to drive to Tampa and, probably, to find renters for the industrial park at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport.

But mostly what speculative road building brought us was speculative home building and, when the bubble burst, the highest foreclosure rate in the Tampa Bay area, the second-highest unemployment rate in the state.

All things considered, "unfortunately" seems like an understatement.

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