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  1. Transportation

DeWitt: Suncoast Parkway extension will not bring economic boon

Published Feb. 5, 2015

It's a big deal for people in Citrus County who drive south, big for people in Hernando County who drive north.

What's not big, judging by traffic counts on existing roads, are these groups of drivers. Certainly, they're not big enough to justify spending $149 million on a 13-mile extension of the Suncoast Parkway to Lecanto.

This project showed up in Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget last week, restoring not only life but urgency into a plan that has been more or less on hold since the economy tanked in 2008.

Local boosters celebrated, of course, making the usual assumption that a major road project equals a major boost for the local economy.

No, it does not.

That was the conclusion of a 2013 study by University of Minnesota researchers who looked at projects such as widening rural highways and building bypasses and their impact on the most "transportation intensive" economic sectors, including construction and retail.

The study, after accounting for factors such as the ups and downs of the larger economy, found that "none of the industries studied . . . show statistically significant increases in earnings."

Your gut might tell you otherwise; no matter where you're from, you've probably seen a new or improved road kick off an era of fast-sprouting strip malls, industrial parks and housing tracts.

The researchers didn't address whether such spurts of sprawling growth are beneficial; they just determined they're a lot less likely to happen now that the country's transportation network is "mature."

We've got roads going pretty much every place we want to go, said one of the researchers, David Levinson, professor of civil engineering. Building new ones or improving existing ones will save less time for fewer people than, say, the first generation of circle freeways.

There are exceptions, of course. There are regions that have remained in economic lockdown because of a lack of highways — areas that, as planners say, show signs of "latent demand."

But western Citrus isn't one of them.

Its main north-south corridor, U.S. 19, is comfortably under capacity; the northern section of the parkway, absurdly far under. Nearly 14 years after completion, it gets only a little more than 5,000 trips per day.

By comparison, a toll road in Maryland has been labeled "not successful" because it only attracts about 50,000 trips per day, Levinson said. "So 5,000, I guess, would be very not successful."

Yes, the extension of Suncoast Parkway is imagined as part of a long-term plan for the toll road to veer east, to Interstate 75, and then to Jacksonville. I still don't think this explains why its has to make a detour through Lecanto.

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So why did Scott put it in his budget? For the same reason, judging by what we're learning from the former leaders of the departments of Corrections and Law Enforcement, that he does most things: politics.

People love a new road, especially influential people such as Jim Kimbrough, the SunTrust Bank executive and Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority vice chairman who has been lobbying for all segments of the parkway for decades.

In case you're wondering, there's a reason I had to look as far away as Minnesota for a recent study about whether roads, in and of themselves, are economic drivers.

That question was answered to most experts' satisfaction years ago, said Jeff Brown, chairman of the department of urban and regional planning at Florida State University.

"It's a pretty settled issue," Brown said. Roads do not "magically cause development."

I almost hate to break that news to the people in Citrus. They were having so much fun.

Dan DeWitt can be reached at ddewitt@tampabay.com; follow @ddewitttimes.

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