County struggles with transportation issues after state changes developer’s rules

By PENNY FLETCHER

trafficWhen the Florida State Legislature took away some of the requirements for developers building new homes and retail projects, it left counties scrambling to find the money to fund infrastructure that the new residents impact.

Because of the change made in Tallahassee in 2011, developers no longer have to pay for site access into new developments, or pay impact fees that had been used to enlarge roads, schools and other facilities.

As explained at the meeting, developers still are required to do some things but not nearly what they used to have to do, so Hillsborough County staff is trying to get a “mobility fee” to make them pay according to their new development’s impact on infrastructure, education and other public uses. The county is currently putting together an ordinance that will go before the Board of County Commissioners, to take to the state.

After 90 public meetings — 54 just since the first of this year all around the county, listening to specific problems of residents — county staff has listed ways to alleviate the worst problems that have resulted in making Hillsborough County the 11th worst for congestion in the U.S.

Yes, it’s that high on the list  — and getting worse — according to a sign posted during the Aug. 24 meeting at the Ruskin Branch Library.

There’s a detailed transit development plan made by county staff and residents listed as “Go Hillsborough” that can be studied at  GOHillsborough.org, but even the most-needed projects are at least five years away due to lack of funds.

Michael Williams, county engineer in charge of transportation planning and development; Marco Sandusky of HARTline transportation service; and Bob Clifford, vice president and area manager for Parsons Brinckerhoff, were on hand to hear from South County individuals.

Parsons Brinckerhoff  helps government agencies worldwide plan with residents in areas of public services, including national defense, transportation, education, housing and emergency services. The firm has been contracted to help Hillsborough County with public relations, prioritizing and data gathering.

The three men spoke with those who showed up at the recent South County meeting and, as they knew they would from previous public meetings, found needs that are entirely different from those in the northern part of the county.

Yet according to them, the whole county is at risk of much more congestion — and soon — because, in 2011, rules were dropped that had required developer commitment to infrastructure before their permits were issued.

Recent figures given in talks about growth by County Commissioner Sandra Murman say that by 2020, we can expect 330,000 new residents in Hillsborough.

The timetable for infrastructure cannot keep up.

Transportation plans show widening of Big Bend Road  and other problem areas are a high concern; public bus and circulator van transportation and improvement of existing roads and bridges are also at the top of the county’s list.

This sign was posted at the transportation meeting. Penny Fletcher photo.

This sign was posted at the transportation meeting. Penny Fletcher photo.

Williams, the county engineer, says transportation is the number one concern of residents during all the public meetings held.

“Sometimes we have held two to three meetings a day, three and four times a week. Just this week we’ve been to Brandon, Odessa and Tampa,” Williams said. “We’ve heard about the bus shortage, resurfacing and the needs on Big Bend [Road].”

Hopefully, some resurfacing will be done in the next five years. Many areas of the county are badly in need of that. As for traffic, that also depends on funding because of the severe lack of public transportation.

Already traffic on Big Bend Road backs up to get on I-75, especially northbound, all the way to U.S. 301 during rush hour and even at other times of day. The Gibsonton Drive – Boyette Road intersection at U.S. 301 is also high on the list of priorities.

Cheryl Hurley and her husband Raymond have other concerns. They live south of the Little Manatee River in Ruskin, just north of Sun City, and say there is no public transportation available to them at all.

Cheryl has a service dog and cannot drive places by herself.

“When are they going to get a circulator van like they have in Tampa that takes people to the bus stops?” she asked. “We don’t get anything in our area at all.”

Marco Sandusky of HARTline says they have plans to add circulator vans like the one Hurley describes — but they don’t have any funding for them before 2022.

He says the HART Transit Development Plan and the  Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation Plan call for the plans made by GoHillsborough to be finalized this December. However, implementation always depends upon funding.

Parson Brinckerhoff’s Clifford expressed concerns, and suggested a way to fix the problem of deteriorating infrastructure.

“We can’t maintain our existing facilities to where we need to stay safe,” he said. “We’re in safe condition at this moment but every year we fall further behind.”

Clifford said a half-cent sales tax would correct this in the first 10 years. And in 38 years it would generate $3.5 billion for funding.

“The sales tax is minimal and would solve that problem,” Clifford said. “The main thing we’ve learned through all these meetings is that each community in the county has different needs. Everything depends upon where someone lives, what the priorities there are. But the three biggest things are to maintain what we already have; get new and improved widened roads; and we desperately need local and express transit service.”

Materials that Williams, Sandusky and Clifford brought to the meeting showed that 1.3 million people live in Hillsborough County at this time; the county is the size of Rhode Island; and it has 12,000 miles of roads, enough to make a giant loop around the U.S. from Miami to Maine to Washington State to southern California.

“Our county uses more than 50 percent of its dollars in transportation,” Clifford said.

The GoHillsborough comment line is 813-274-6922 and the website is GOHillsborough.org.

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