The argument by Hillsborough County in recent years to spend more and more for roads and not mass transit went like this: Developers were contributing record sums for roadway improvements, and it would be foolish to interrupt that flood of money by switching the focus to buses and rail. The only problem, as St. Petersburg Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler found recently, is that the county often made up the numbers. Developers got the credit for tens of millions in roadwork that never left the drawing table. Chronically congested roads were made to appear in better shape than they are. And county government, in the process, lost time, money and leverage that could have gone toward planning a more balanced transportation system.
Officials estimate it will cost up to $6-billion to ease congestion on the county's most clogged roads. For two years, officials have championed a road-heavy plan that gives almost no role to mass transit. The logic: Developers were contributing more than $1-billion toward road improvements, and to keep the money flowing, the county needed to put money on the table and act like a committed partner. Buses could wait, and so could tighter growth management rules to curb ever-outward sprawl.
But as Van Sickler reported, the county's tally of developer contributions is inflated, to the point it makes the entire accounting suspect. The county claims it collected $1.4-billion from developers for roads. But that includes contributions that were counted twice, representing nearly $300-million in duplications. Many projects were scrapped because of the depressed housing market yet remain on the list. At least $250-million in work goes credited for turn lanes and traffic signals — which hardly add roadway capacity — while other work on remote and dead-end streets does little to improve the county's traffic flow.
After the Times questioned the county figures, officials acknowledged their report overestimated the contributions of three projects alone by a total of $60-million. One project contributed only $493,000 of the $21-million in improvements credited to it, another contributed $7-million of the $28-million listed and a third contributed about $164,000 of the $21-million valued by the county. An official admitted errors but said "you can discount it by 30 percent" and still it involves a "tremendous amount of private money." What accounting system has a margin of error of 30 percent? Either get in the ballpark or get out of the business of hyping that growth pays for itself.
By inflating the value of this work, the county is holding out the false hope that it can spend its way — on paper, at least — out of gridlock, so long as it puts all its eggs into the road-building basket. That approach to transportation is unsustainable in a metro area already struggling with slow growth and $4-a-gallon gas.