Looming development spells trouble for commuters
BRANDON - More than 1,000 people in Bloomingdale have told county leaders they were surprised and angry to learn a new big box store would be bringing traffic to their neighborhood soon - and angrier still there was nothing they could do about it.
Plans for the project on Bloomingdale Avenue near Lithia-Pinecrest Road were approved by the county years ago but lay dormant as developers and retailers rode out the recession.
Now, it turns out, there are even more surprises in store: The same economic recovery that is putting people back to work and energizing the housing market will add a lot more traffic to roads that can't handle it.
From one corner of Hillsborough County to another, according to a Tampa Tribune analysis, zoning was approved years ago on more than 2,500 properties now poised for some form of commercial or large-scale residential development.
"People with commercial entitlements are going to look to develop them," said attorney Kami Corbett of Tampa, president-elect of the commercial real estate development association NAIOP. "Activity is certainly picking up on the residential and commercial sides."
And unlike in years past, the activity can progress without a now-defunct statewide requirement that roads that will be needed to handle the added traffic are in place by the time the projects are finished.
Instead, developers today need only make a payment to cover their share of the burden - with no provisions for who pays the rest or when the work gets done.
The impact of renewed growth, the Tribune's analysis shows, is likely to be greatest in a 45-square-mile area of Brandon where many roads already are graded "F," meaning travel lanes can come to a complete stop during peak hours.
It's an area where a dozen parcels are approved for the kind of development that would allow a big-box store, and it takes in the controversial Bloomingdale store - likely a Walmart, judging from planning documents - as well as a Bass Pro Shops the county is helping develop as a jobs generator by kicking in money for road improvements.
For those who drive this area, it's hard to imagine traffic getting worse.
"Bloomingdale Avenue, Lithia-Pinecrest Road - they're all overcrowded. They're unbelievable," said Sonny Cooper, who was sipping a beer with Jim Hogue last week at the Fox & Hounds British Pub on State Road 60.
"We live here," Hogue added. "We don't travel. We stay off the roads. I'll do anything to stay off 60."
Traffic is at the heart of the opposition to the big-box store.
Bloomingdale Avenue is graded F for most of its length except for a segment in front of the proposed development. Lithia-Pinecrest, a two-lane road, is also an F.
County commissioners, while expressing sympathy for people living around the project, say there's nothing that can be done. The property has been zoned to allow a big-box store since 2003, and any move to block the development in court would likely fail, according to the county attorney's office.
With thousands of other vacant parcels around the county similarly zoned, the commission is likely to see more of the kind of neighborhood face-offs that were more common before the recession took hold in late 2007 and stifled development of all kinds.
"There's no nice way of saying this," Commissioner Al Higginbotham told the Tribune in May. "You'll be seeing this all over the county."
What smart-growth advocates now denigrate as sprawl was the accepted way of developing to handle a county population hike that started in the late 1970s and continued through the 2000s.
Growth flowed north and east from Tampa's urban core along a few existing thoroughfares. Streets to accommodate the added traffic lagged in the frenzy to build and pump more tax money into county coffers.
The concept of a walkable, town-center based community that the county now encourages was not yet in vogue.
"People living in a subdivision needed to have a place to go buy groceries and pick up odds and ends," said County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. "The easiest thing to put out there were strip malls. After a while you realize it looks kind of ratty and I can't move around because of the congestion when it's strip mall after strip mall."
Corbett, of the commercial real estate group NAIOP, points out that many of the subdivisions in Brandon were built before the state Legislature passed its landmark growth management law in 1985, requiring that certain infrastructure upgrades be in place "concurrent" with the completion of a project.
Before then, developers didn't have to concern themselves with whether roads could handle the traffic they were generating.
"Sprawl - all that occurred before the growth management laws were in place," Corbett said. "When the growth management laws were put in place and we got a comprehensive plan, it wasn't as if we did it on a blank slate."
Other, more recent factors complicated the problem. In 2011, the Florida Legislature made sweeping changes in growth management laws. One prohibited cities and counties from forcing a developer to upgrade failed roads around a proposed project as the price of developing it.
Under the new rules, the developer only has to pay for road improvements based on the amount of new traffic his project alone will generate - called proportionate share.
The practical effect of the change: "We can't deny them for failed roads," said assistant county attorney Adam Gormly, who works on land-use issues.
So if a developer doesn't have to pay to fix overcrowded roads, that leaves the county. But the county doesn't have the money.
The recession, with its housing crisis and double-digit unemployment, sapped county sales and property taxes. Before it hit, commissioners borrowed heavily against the Community Investment Tax - a half-cent sales tax used to build parks, schools and roads. They essentially tied up all the tax's money-generating capacity, leaving nothing for future road projects.
Consequently, the county last year had to shelve $129 million worth of priority capital projects, many of them roads.
"Essentially, what needs to happen is the county needs to come up with new revenue sources other than new development to fund transportation improvements," Corbett said.
But county commissioners have little appetite for new or higher taxes for transportation. In 2010, voters soundly rejected a 1-cent sales tax increase for roads, buses and a light rail system. Voters in Tampa supported the tax; voters in unincorporated Hillsborough County, including those in Brandon, did not.
"Last year we paid collectively $10 billion in taxes - local, state and federal - and I have yet to hear anyone say we're getting our money's worth," said Higginbotham, the commissioner who represents Brandon. "To come in and talk about a tax increase, even though the economy has had an uptick, I think you'd have a revolt."
Still, there is a continued push from business groups and young professionals for some type of tax to finance better mass transit and road improvements.
Members of this coalition say allowing traffic gridlock to worsen will cripple economic growth.
"If you want to fix the problem, you're going to have to spend some money," said Sharpe, who backed the 2010 referendum. "As we look to the future we're going to have to put money into roads, lights, signalization, but also into transit and transit-friendly development."
Many agencies are studying the problem, trying to reach a consensus that will win support from voters. In March, Sharpe won commission approval to create a transportation policy group that includes mayors of the county's three cities, commissioners and transportation agency heads. So far, the group has made no decisions.
Most transportation experts and public officials agree that alleviating future traffic jams will require changes in land-use planning, as well as improvements to transportation systems. Hills- borough's population is projected to grow by 400,000 to 600,000 people by 2024, according to the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county agency that handles transportation planning.
One idea taking hold is focusing growth more compactly along established mass-transit corridors, whether rapid-transit bus or light rail lines. Mass transit moves people more efficiently, and a dedicated transit line with its concentration of potential customers would create reliable opportunities for developers, said Beth Alden, assistant director of the MPO.
"Someone making a real estate decision can't have confidence that five years from now that transit line is still going to be there," Alden said. "But with a rail corridor or dedicated bus lines with nice transit stations, you'll see that confidence there if there is a commitment to a specific transit."
The MPO is also looking for some quicker, less-expensive ways to relieve traffic congestion. One, called an Advanced Traffic Management System, uses computers to control traffic signals so motorists need not hit a red at every traffic light.
Another idea is reversing lanes during peak commuting hours to provide an extra lane for the heaviest flow of traffic. The MPO and the Florida Department of Transportation are also considering pay express toll lanes on interstate highways.
"We can't always widen every road," said Wally Blain, an MPO planner. "We have many corridors that are already too wide, and we can't widen them any further."
Meanwhile, motorists in Bloomingdale, like Dee Bristol, are "constantly looking for ways around the traffic," wondering when and if those in charge will ever get it right.
Said Bristol, "I think it's just poor planning overall."