Orange County Voters Reject Mobility 20/20, Gridlock Continues

Mon October 27, 2003 - Southeast Edition

Orlando, FL (AP) Amber Tassone feels like she’s spending the best years of her life stuck in traffic.

Most weekdays, the 22-year-old receptionist drives nearly 10 mi. from her apartment to work in downtown Orlando, then 8 mi. to class at a community college, then 25 mi. to her mother’s home near Walt Disney World.

She figures that without all the heavy traffic that commute should take approximately an hour, but she spends at least two hours a day jammed in gridlock.

“[Tourists] shouldn’t even by allowed to dry,” she fumed, “They should have buses for them.”

A population boom, an outdated road system and an estimated 40 million visitors a year have overwhelmed Orlando area roads and left motorists such as Tassone so frustrated that they’d be willing to approve a tax hike to ease the congestion.

But, Tassone is not in the voting majority, as Orange County voters on Oct. 7 rejected the half-cent sales tax increase that would have financed a sweeping transportation plan aimed at ending the gridlock threatening to smother central Florida.

The measure, known as Mobility 20/20, was defeated by a vote of 54 percent opposed to 46 percent in favor. It would have raised nearly $2.6 billion over the next 20 years. The plan had called for additional widening of Interstate 4, improving surface roads, sidewalks and railroad crossings, synchronizing traffic lights, building bicycle trails and beginning the development of a mass transit system such as light-rail.

Opponents of the plan saw nothing more than a boondoggle, insisting, for example, the $400 million earmarked for light rail is just the beginning — more taxes will be needed. They also were incensed over the proposed construction of four special toll lanes on I-4 — derisively nicknamed “Lexus Lanes” —besides the eight free ones.

“To toll our last remaining freeway is absolutely ridiculous,” said Doug Guetzloe, head of Ax the Tax, an anti-tax advocacy group.

Gov. Jeb Bush, who has opposed any effort to increase taxes since taking office in 1999, has not taken a position on Mobility 20/20. But he said the plan would be better than other traffic fixes being touted.

In 2000, Florida’s voters approved a constitutional amendment requiring the state to build a bullet train system spanning the state. Construction was supposed to start next month, but lawmakers are balking at the high cost.

“I would much prefer to deal with the Tampa Bay area, the central Florida area, the South Florida area and Jacksonville on regional transportation solutions than build a high-speed rail program that will cost billions and won’t solve the problems that every day Floridians have to face,” Bush said.

The average trip during Orlando’s rush hour takes nearly 32 percent longer than it should if the driver were on a non-congested road, according to a report released in early October by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. Orlando tied with Tampa for 23rd-worst among the 75 cities studied.

Orange County voters historically have been hostile to paying for transportation improvements, repeatedly rejecting measures for roads and light rail.

But in the last 20 years, the county’s population has doubled to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2002 estimate of 946,484, prompting a local traffic expert to claim that Mobility 20/20 is less about solving problems and more about preventing disaster.

“It will just prevent deterioration of the system,” said Essem Radwan, executive director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Systems Simulation at the University of Central Florida. “If you don’t do it, you’re going to stifle economic development.”

Mobility 20/20 backers agree with warnings like these, which is why the county’s business community, including Disney, every city within Orange County, police and firefighters’ organizations and both political parties supported the measure.

“It is an issue we’re going to have to address over the next 20 years,” said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, one of many elected officials who backed the proposal.

“Voters looked at the plan and thought it was an absolute disaster,” said Guetzloe.

No problems were reported in the county’s 250 polling stations, said county elections supervisor, Bill Cowles.

Turnout was heavier than expected, possibly topping 30 percent of the county’s 433,233 registered voters. Approximately 20,000 absentee votes were cast, Cowles said. The results of those ballots were important because Mobility 20/20’s backers blitzed the electorate with a mail campaign encouraging people to vote absentee and providing the necessary paperwork for mailing into the county elections office.

The Phoenix Connection

The parallel to Orange County’s current plight and its proposed solution can be found in another sprawling metropolitan area in a low-tax Sun-Belt state trying to cope with a population boom: Phoenix, AZ.

Substitute Florida’s lakes for the desert’s mountains, and the regions are very similar, down to the massive housing developments sprouting on the cities’ fringes that encourage cars as the primary form of transportation at the expense of other alternatives.

Phoenix’s freeway system was sadly lacking for much of the latter half of the 20th century. Interstate 10, supposedly connecting Jacksonville, FL, and San Diego, ended in distant farm fields barely in sight of the city’s skyscrapers.

In 1985 — with metro Phoenix’s population pushing 1.6 million, close to present-day metro Orlando — a half-cent sales tax was passed by Maricopa County voters.

The Phoenix area is now laced with nearly 100 mi. of wide freeways, some bearing paintings of Native American figures in tribute to the first Arizonans and another decorated with whimsical sculptures, such as an oversized teapot.

But traffic is still a problem; Phoenix has the nation’s ninth-worst traffic congestion according to the Texas A&M study. That’s because the highways opened up to development areas that were once just desert.

Mobility 20/20 acts a growth management tool by not building new roads to nowhere where, all of a sudden, subdivisions can spring up,” said Rick Walsh, of Orlando-based Darden Restaurants Inc., which owns Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains. “If this included a whole bunch of brand new roads, then I’d say you have a foundation to start talking about this not being growth management.”