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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida's highways to nowhere

Florida's major metro areas, from Tampa Bay and Orlando to South Florida, are looking for every penny they can to invest in new solutions for mass transit. Yet under Gov. Rick Scott, the state continues to push ahead with pork-barrel road projects that will only encourage residents, commuters and developers to move deeper into rural areas, worsening the impacts of sprawl and creating ever more expensive demands for public services. This is a gross failure in planning that hurts taxpayers, the natural environment, the economy and Florida's quality of life.

The Tampa Bay Times' Caitlin Johnston highlighted two of the latest misguided projects in a report this week on the Florida Department of Transportation's plan to build the Gulf Coast and West Bay parkways. Officials say the roads are needed to relieve congestion near Panama City, spark job growth in the Panhandle and improve hurricane evacuation and emergency preparedness in the region. These are farfetched excuses intended to rationalize the waste of nearly $1 billion in spending on 55 miles of new highway.

As Johnston reports, the parkways would pass far outside the city limits — doing little for Panama City, an area that is one-fifteenth the size of Tampa Bay and has barely grown in a decade. The Center for American Progress, a Washington-based nonpartisan think tank, says the state is using trumped-up traffic data and bad economic models to justify an expense that won't serve commuters, taxpayers or even Panama City. That money could be better used in established urban areas clogged by traffic congestion and desperate for solutions beyond wider roads and more turn lanes.

The larger problem is that the parkways reflect outdated thinking as motorists drive fewer miles, younger workers look to move to cities and trade their cars for buses, businesses change the way they deliver goods and services and residents look for more sustainable development patterns. The Gulf Coast project, for example, emerged more than a decade ago from a regional business development group; the West Bay parkway is poised to serve a massive community being planned by the St. Joe Co., one of the state's largest private landowners. And this approach by Scott — who rejected billions in federal funds to build high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando — comes as the state pushes ahead with building new corridors across rural Florida and vastly expands the use of toll lanes because the gas tax is not generating enough revenue to pay for needed road construction.

The state's transportation planning is going in the opposite direction of the job market, the opposite direction of what new residents want and the opposite direction of consumer demand. And it is costing taxpayers billions. The state needs to take a fresh look at regional priorities, do a better job of integrating them with statewide projects and be more supportive of local policy choices that meet the needs of individual communities. A one-size strategy won't work. Roads will always be part of the mix, but highway spending should be as deliberate as any spending for rail, buses or sidewalks. Florida needs to make smarter choices if it hopes to compete with other states for more younger residents, high-tech jobs and company headquarters.

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