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Solving Florida’s Transportation Woes From a Podium

Wed September 28, 2005 - Southeast Edition
CEG



With more than 20 speakers in an eight-hour timeframe, many would think that the Floridians for Better Transportation (FBT) Retreat would be a congested nightmare similar to Orlando’s streets during rush-hour, but commuters can only wish things ran as smoothly on Florida’s roads as they did at the 2005 FBT Retreat, held July 14 to 15 at the Hilton in the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.

More than 175 transportation officials, advocates and legislators navigated the busy and informative two-day itinerary in a timely fashion. However, it remains to be seen whether the retreat’s ideas on “Transportation and Florida’s Future” reach the intended destination of a safe and free-flowing mobile system.

Just as Florida commuters are painted a bleak picture everyday they listen to radio traffic reports, FBT Retreat attendees were given the gloomy details of Florida’s current transportation system.

• FDOT has a $23-billion funding shortfall over the next 10 years

• Florida leads the nation in deaths among older drivers, but lacks the funding to make transportation systems safer for older adults

• Florida is home to eight of the 58-most congested areas in the nation

• More than 330,000 new residents are added annually to Florida’s already over-burdened road system.

The FBT membership recruiting video wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as it provided fodder on why something should be done to properly fund Florida’s transportation system.

• Transportation is the economic engine of the state, it moves products, it moves people, and commerce developed from transportation is vital to the state

• Every dollar invested on transportation yields $5.50 in economic activity.

The annual retreat provided a forum on how to improve Florida and its transportation system not only for long-time residents but also newcomers, and not only for tourists but also businesses and industries.

State Sen. Jim Sebesta, transportation committee chairman, provided hope for the future, starting off the speakers’ list by talking about where the statehouse ended its latest legislative session —the successful passage of Florida’s Growth Management legislation.

The legislation will provide an additional $1.1 billion in transportation funding in fiscal year 2005-06 and an additional $542 million each year after.

“This year they put it all together,” Sebesta said. “For the first time we really start to address the growth planning problem — and opportunity — for the state of Florida. It’s a great first step, from a transportation standpoint.”

Rep. Randy Johnson, House Growth Management committee chairman followed Sebesta to the podium to discuss the growth management issue. He provided the audience with insight on the mindset that went into creating the legislation.

“I understood very little about this other than what I kept hearing from people over and over again; that it is broke. It is broken and it needs to be fixed … . When I moved to Florida, it was a completely different place than what it is today. To me, if we were to be successful in our growth management bill we were going to do one thing, and that is to deal with the 50 things that will happen to you today — maybe not here, not in Fantasyland [Disney], maybe not at a convention — in a normal day when you get in a car and drive the kids to school and try to get to work on-time … it’s the 50 things that cause you to collapse on your couch at the end of the day frustrated; those are the things that are impacting our quality of life, making living in Florida less than what it should be.”

Johnson said the legislature tried to address key quality-of-life issues in Florida, such as money for roads, schools and water. The result was a growth management bill that passed in the last five minutes of the legislative session. Johnson said the bottom line of the bill is that if local government wants help to fund for its future it has to prove it has a vision, and the application reflects that vision. “Lots of communities are doing it, but you would be shocked on how many are not.

“If our growth continues like it is, we’re going to have around 140 percent more in population in 20 years than we do today. When you do the calculation it tells you that 70 percent of our infrastructure — all of our schools, all of our roads, all of our water requirements, all of our green spaces and parks — has not been built yet. Think about that, we really are at a crossroads. We really are doing this at the right time.”

Biggest Bang for the Buck

The Reason Foundation’s Bob Poole, from the public policy think tank in Los Angeles, said the nation’s efforts for increased mass transit, carpooling, etc., are not working. While increased road capacity does work, new lanes in urban areas are costly. “The new approach is that if we add lanes we really ought to try to squeeze the most transportation value possible, don’t just add ordinary general purpose lanes.”

Instead of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, Poole suggests High Occupancy Toll (HOT), express or truck-only toll lanes, where transportation funding can be raised through charging for the use of these specialized areas.

“What has been shown is that pricing that space really does work. You find the people that really have the most valuable trips that are willing to pay — particularly at rush hour — to get a fast trip, to bypass congestion. It turns out that it generates a sizeable amount of revenue; in some cases enough to pay the entire costs of building, operating and maintaining those lanes.”

Poole said the specialized toll roads can be marketed to motorists as congestion insurance, or the peace of mind that if you need to get some place on time you can. The premium for that congestion insurance could be as high as 20- to 30-cents per mile. “Which is a lot of money, but it’s something you maybe wouldn’t use every day.” He added that these specialized toll roads are a “win-win situation,” as people who use them have a reliable way of getting to where and when they need to be; mass transit could benefit with more riders because of the express lanes; motorists on non-tolled roads will see less traffic; truck drivers will be able to keep to delivery schedules; and officials will be able to raise more transportation funding.”

Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based policy institute, complemented Poole’s discussion of raising more transportation revenue by talking about the current inadequacies in the federal transportation funding bill.

“In 2003, had [Florida] gotten the same share out [of the Highway Trust Fund] that you put in, you would have gotten an additional $254 million in one year alone. Now, Florida’s situation is like that year after year, so just imagine the billions and billions of dollars you’ve forgone, that you’ve lost, that you’ve shipped elsewhere, since this program was created in 1956, you might not even have to have this event or this organization,” he said.

Utt discussed the diversions from the Highway Trust Fund.

“Beginning in the early 1980s, there has been access to other programs and entities … transit began having access, and today get about 25 percent of the money coming from the Highway Trust Fund. This means that about 25 percent of the federal money goes to serve about 1 percent of the population.”

Utt calculates that only 63 percent of the money motorists paid into the last federal transportation bill (TEA-21) came back to them through improvements to the general highway system; he forecasts that only 57 percent of the next transportation bill will be used for system improvements benefiting the general motorist.

Creating a New Toll Authority

Wayne R. Malaney and John Beck, of Beck Barrios, Malaney and Henderson, spoke about creating a new toll authority.

“I think there’s a movement afoot in the legislature that they are beginning to see how important tolls are in terms of what we can do to build roads and move forward,” said Malaney, who mentioned several expressways currently under different stages of development in Florida. “It’s a way to begin to look outside the box, to begin to be creative, along with things they’ve done with public/private partnerships, etc. It’s going to be the way to go.”

In discussing ways to overcome the state’s $23-billion transportation shortfall, Beck, said, “Toll roads, I think, are one of the major answers. It’s not going to get us all the way there, but it’s going to get us a long way; that, along with the public/private partnership projects, and I think the divisions and DOT are going to be promoting those in the upcoming years. Toll roads are but one answer, but I think it’s a very good answer.” Beck added that the stigmatism regarding toll roads — and not being popular politically, by the general populous, or by DOTs — needs to be overcome.

Malaney said education — so people won’t think toll plazas will be showing up on public roads — is part of the information process. He added that education will change peoples’ perspectives, such as with businesses. “People that don’t want to raise the gas tax, the people that don’t want to have to pay sales tax … think about what it’s costing you in terms of labor, manpower, gasoline, whatever it is. If you have a driver from Lowes or Home Depot, or wherever it is, that’s sitting there in traffic in some of these congested areas —what it’s costing you? When you start educating people about what it’s costing them from a business perspective I think that you can start to see that tolling isn’t such a bad idea.”

Selling Tolls to a Skeptical Public

Faced with the scenario that “nobody likes to pay tolls,” Kimberlee Poulton of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise took the podium.

“From what we’ve learned, marketing the Florida Turnpike has been a great investment,” said Poulton, the director of marketing for the Florida Turnpike Enterprise. “Every car we get off the interstate system makes it a better ride for everybody throughout the entire state.”

Poulton told how the Florida Turnpike Enterprise first asked customers what they sought from using toll facilities, and based on the varying reasons formulated their marketing plan, or branding, message. In promoting the turnpike system, the SunPass — FDOT’s prepaid toll program — grew, as it issued its 2-millionth transponder in July 2005.

The marketing plan has sparked somewhat of a cult following. The Florida Turnpike Enterprise’s distinctive shirts, decorative cars and now mascot Sunny SunPass are selling the idea of toll roads for convenience and savings to Florida motorists. Ironically, the first question for Poulton after her presentation was about the shirt, which was unveiled in 1999. “People just think it’s a great welcoming, ’Go Florida,’ we really like it. It’s a lot of fun.’ I’m not aware of any plans to make any changes to the shirt, like they say, ’If it’s not broke don’t fix it.’ Right?”

FDOT 2025 Plan

The final day of the FBT Retreat’s speaker list began with Janet Watermeier of the Florida Transportation Commission, who spoke about the 2025 Florida Transportation Plan, which is currently being formulated and scheduled to be adopted this December.

Watermeier said some of the high-interest areas the group — consisting of entities representing citizens, business, public agencies, transportation providers, rural, urban and up-and-coming communities, and all levels of government — is considering are: security, balancing mobility with safety, environmental stewardship, pedestrian/bicycle friendly, new corridor planning and funding, prioritizing limited funding, establishing sustainable funding structure, local and regional funding resources and private/public partnerships.

“Probably the overall emerging theme from this point in planning is that transportation funding is an investment into Florida’s future,” Watermeier said. “It’s an investment into our infrastructure and we shouldn’t be raiding transportation funds and we shouldn’t be doing things that take funding away. We should be looking at every investment dollar that we put in is helping build the economy of Florida.”

ITS in Florida

Neil Schuster of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America and Elizabeth Birriel of FDOT spoke about the future that is here now —Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS).

With ITS celebrating its 15th year in 2006, Schuster said people should now be aware of the integration between the vehicle and the road.

“Start to think about transportation, the road and the vehicle on the road — whether it’s a car, bus, truck, etc. — as one system, connected in communications; cars aware of where other cars are around it, and as a result drivers aware; the road system aware specifically of where cars are and cars aware of what the road system is, that is, if there’s a pothole the car should be aware of it, if the road curves, the car should know that.”

Schuster said the ultimate goal of ITS is “where people and goods are transported without delay, injury or fatality by integrated systems that are built and operated to be safe, cost effective, efficient and secure.”

Birriel spoke about ITS in Florida, and how approximately $850 million will be invested into the state’s system over the next 10 years. In fulfilling FDOT’s ITS mantra of “save lives, save time, save money,” Birriel discussed different implementations going on today, such as the I-75 safety barrier system, which when upgraded will alert safety officials and pinpoint where accidents occur. In the next two years recurring and non-recurring congestion will be monitored so drivers can use different routes to avoid traffic tie-ups; and in possibly seven years sensors on the automobile and roadway will be able to exchange information to alert motorists of road conditions.

“I really think we need to start looking more into ITS,” Birriel said, “So you can squeak out that last bit of capacity out of our roadways that we already have. When you can’t build, you have to be more efficient with what you already have.”

Transit-Oriented Development

in South Florida

Kim Delaney and Jeff Weidner were next at the podium to talk about ways of making transit-use more appealing in order to alleviate future congestion by getting cars off the road.

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is “the blending of smart-growth principles and transportation planning.” The goal of TOD is to increase transit ridership by getting people living and/or working near transit stops; studies show that these “walkable villages” must be located within a one-quarter to half-mile ring around the transit station. Within the TODs are conveniences such as service retailers, childcare, groceries, etc.; civic, cultural and entertainment uses; and integration with other multi-modal and pedestrian facilities. TODs are a change in philosophy from Transit Adjacent Development (TAD), which caters more towards auto-oriented uses by providing large surface parking lots, suburban office districts, big-box retail stores and aren’t geared toward pedestrian use.

Delaney, of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, and Weidner, of FDOT District 4, spoke of several TOD opportunities in South Florida.

It is the goal that TODs will not only provide mass transit access but also provide access to retail and business opportunities; kind of like if you build it they will come.

“One thing to keep in mind about TODs, is that this is leveraging public dollars to get private investment,” said Delaney. “Public dollars, public transportation dollars, are leverage that we can use … to get better design. There’s an opportunity to make money at the end of the day if you’re a developer, there’s an opportunity to have better quality of life if you’re a [transit] user, patron or resident.”

New Corridor Development

FDOT’s Don Skelton and Stan Cann discussed the importance of new corridor planning in helping manage and better serve future growth.

“Not including new corridors when discussing the future is like telling my 12-year-old son that he has to fit into his size-5 shoe for the rest of his life,” Skelton said. “No matter what happens he’s going to grow, he knows it and I know it. It’s important that we provide the infrastructure so he can fit into the shoes necessary to accommodate that growth.”

“We’re doing a lot in a way of transportation in the state, we’re adding a lot of capacity to our existing system, we’re making our existing system more efficient with the use of ITS, we’re paying more attention to transit, both inside our urban areas and connecting our systems together,” Cann added. “With all that you can’t get away from the need to also consider corridors, we’re going to have to do that.”

Along with discussing corridors in their own districts, Cann and Skelton explained how FDOT works with local governments in recognizing planned and future growth so it can ensure infrastructure is in place. Skelton pointed out that new corridors, however, aren’t just serving future needs, they also help alleviate current congestion.

The two FDOT district secretaries talked about how planning corridor routes aren’t simply marking Point A and Point B on the map and connecting them. Besides identifying starting and ending points much study goes into all points in between, as a list of environmental impacts, schools, existing and historical structures and parks have to be planned around in order to find the route with the least amount of impacted areas.

Innovative Contracting and Engineering Ideas

In the Retreat’s final seminar, Ayres Associate’s Sia Kusha and Florida Transportation Builders Association’s Bob Burleson spoke about design/build, alternative contract deliveries and other innovative contracting and engineering ideas.

Burleson cautioned that something has to give if the retreat’s previous 12 sessions were to come to fruition.

“There are big problems ahead for construction,” he said, using the analogy of a family trying to remodel its kitchen while trying to keep to its schedule of three home-cooked meals a day. “One of the things we need to really figure out in order to keep everybody happy is figure out ways we can improvise —move ahead, go forward — without sacrificing the quality and safety that has to be there. We can do that, but not with the normal bureaucratic schemes that we have set up.”

Though elated to have the current and future work in Florida, Burleson said the construction industry is faced with a dwindling workforce — especially with the increase in construction projects — and dwindling materials, which range from lack of aggregates, lack of truck drivers to get the aggregate and a lack of tires to go on the trucks and machinery.

“All of us, not just the contractors but also the engineering community and the public sector — the department and local government — needs to find better ways, new ways, to do things and adapt to the new environment that we’re living in.”

With the ideas that were shared at the 2005 FBT Retreat, transportation will adapt and serve the future needs of Floridians, tourists, businesses and industries, but it will take all entities working toward that goal in order for the state’s future to remain at the forefront — so ideas don’t become stuck like traffic on an Orlando highway.

(This article originally appeared in the Summer 2005 issue of “Florida Transportation Builder.”)