In the never-ending drive to build a more prosperous economy in Florida, highways are often seen as an essential vehicle. But there are costs that hitch a ride along with any benefits. It’s critical to bear those costs in mind as highway planners weigh projects such as a northern extension of Florida’s Turnpike and an upgrade of U.S. 19 to I-10 in Madison County.
The Northern Turnpike extension — with possible impacts to Citrus, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties — is in the first phase of planning, with four alternative corridors being evaluated. The selected corridor will then go through the project development and environment process, which requires a no-build option. The Florida Department of Transportation is then required to report its recommendations to the Florida Legislature. Concerned citizens, municipalities, counties and even the Southwest Florida Water Management District have weighed in with concerns about impacts to springsheds, agriculture, natural resources and the rural quality of life.
The revised Suncoast extension could impact Citrus, Dixie, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Levy and Taylor counties. This segment is now going through the state’s preliminary planning process, but there is no requirement for the Department of Transportation to report back to the Legislature.
When new or wider highways are extended into rural or transitioning areas, economically productive agricultural and ecologically valuable lands surrounding the interchanges are often converted into development.
Typical patterns include automobile-oriented commercial development near the interchange, surrounded by low-density often single-family subdivisions. Combined with unrelenting population increases over the decades, highway expansion and sprawling low-density growth have resulted in substantial increases in the footprint of new development throughout Florida — and significant costs to taxpayers to subsidize it.
Some communities view this new development as an economic boon, envisioning new residents and construction jobs bringing dollars to struggling areas of the state. But a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the regional impact should be undertaken before jumping on the development bandwagon.
Regions can face many economic costs associated with development: loss of productive agricultural lands and the existing businesses that support them; loss of ecological services such as cleansing water and recharging underground supplies when natural lands are paved; diminished air quality and increased energy costs; and negative impacts on existing businesses when the new interchange results in drivers bypassing traditional Main Streets and existing stores.
Other costs include public (that is, taxpayer-funded) expenditures to support sprawling development. Front-end expenses often include building new roads, sewer lines, schools, parks, police stations and more. And this does not include ongoing maintenance and replacement costs for infrastructure as it ages, nor the staff to provide services indefinitely.
There are also personal costs as low-density development usually necessitates private vehicles for transportation, increases travel time, adds to maintenance expenses and has negative impacts on health as walking and biking may not be options.
Florida’s local governments are required under state law to “discourage the proliferation of urban sprawl.” But at the same time, new highways that could promote sprawl continue to be proposed. Citizens would be well-advised to advocate to their local governments that a regional and comprehensive cost-benefit analysis be undertaken up front, so that residents and decision-makers truly understand the fiscal impact.
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And if highways move forward, guardrails are essential in the planning process. Limit by state statute how many and what interchanges are allowed. Ensure that siting does not impact or fragment key agricultural, ecological or other valuable lands. Work with the Department of Transportation to permanently protect from development lands adjacent to interchanges and develop updated plans for the adjoining lands. Include measures to protect Main Streets and existing businesses from having their livelihoods siphoned away. Advocate for sensitive design for both the highway and interchange that respect community character.
Florida’s rural lands and towns are unique. We must not allow inadequate planning for highways to take that away.
Vivian Young is the communications director for 1000 Friends of Florida, a statewide nonprofit that focuses on saving special places and building better communities in our state. She previously served as Florida’s first State Main Street Coordinator.