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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Squeezing them in: Florida’s growing population will come at a price

Twenty million and counting.

Florida leaped over another population milestone this year, according to U.S. census figures, and is now the nation’s second-fastest growing state behind Texas.

Most of those new Floridians — some 1,000 per day — are arriving not in the delivery room but by one-way trips in ports and airports and along interstates 75 and 95 with trailers in tow.

That influx is not expected to slow down anytime soon with the state’s population predicted to rise to 26 million by 2030, according to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida.

That pace of growth could bring a host of problems, experts warn. Without investment, the state’s environment, roads and other infrastructure may be overburdened. Increased demand for land and homes likely will drive up prices, making it tougher to find affordable homes. Demand for water could outstrip supply over the next decades.

Of all those issues, water may be the biggest. Florida faces a projected daily water shortfall of 1 billion gallons a day by 2030, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, widely expected to run for governor in 2018, has made preservation of water a top priority and is pushing state lawmakers next year to pass the Florida Springs and Aquifer Protection Act to preserve supplies.

“Florida’s increasing population will continue to stress our critical water resources,” Putnam spokesman Aaron Keller said in an email. “We must invest more in water supply planning and alternative supply development to meet the needs of this growing population and continue to support a thriving economy while balancing the needs of our natural environment.”

The situation is less acute in Tampa Bay, where existing sources, mainly reservoirs, lakes and other surface water, will provide enough potable water until about 2040, said Damann Anderson, vice president with Hazen and Sawyer, a consultant that provides estimates for Tampa Bay Water.

The company is working on a five-year master plan that will include an analysis of potential new water sources including desalination, groundwater and the cleaning and recycling of wastewater, which some Tampa Bay communities already use for irrigation.

“By the 2030s, we may need to have new water supplies constructed and ready to go,” he said.

The most critical water shortage may be in the Orlando area, where five central Florida counties are predicted to have a shortfall of 250 million gallons per day of groundwater by 2030, in part because of pumping limits.

The region will have to invest in developing surface water supplies, Anderson said. The Central Florida Water Initiative, a coalition of three water management districts, estimates it will cost about $3 billion to address the demand shortfall.

“They’re going through the same thing we went through 20 years ago,” Anderson said. “It’s a big issue over there.”

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No surprise, Florida’s new residents are helping to fill up the state’s already overburdened road network.

The state was already on course for gridlock before the 2006 real estate collapse derailed thousands of development projects, said Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida.

The subsequent recession also dampened appetites for long road trips.

“We’ve had almost a decade of catch your breath where we’ve had slower travel demand than before,” Polzin said. “We’re fortunate because had demand continued to grow, people would have been in a real pickle from congestion.”

But with the recession in the rearview mirror, new car sales increasing and gas prices at their lowest since 2009, residents are driving more and making longer trips. While the number of vehicle miles traveled rose about 3.6 percent across the nation in 2015, that number rose by about 6 percent in Florida, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

That trend will only continue as the state adds more people.

State and local governments are still playing catch-up on road maintenance and new road construction projects that were put on hold during the recession, Polzin said.

Under the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Transportation has focused on toll and paid express lane projects. Locally, that includes the $454 million Gateway Express, which will link Interstate 275 to U.S. 19. The state is also moving ahead with the $3 billion Tampa Bay Express, which will widen I-275 through downtown Tampa and redesign its interchange with Interstate 4, commonly known as “malfunction junction.”

The state is now funding road and other transportation at record levels, and even more money will be needed to keep up with demand, Polzin warns. That could be especially true in the Tampa Bay area, where the region’s unusual geography — a huge metropolitan area linked by just three bridges — will make it difficult to solve traffic woes.

The region has the second-lowest number of freeway miles of any major metropolitan area in the nation, he said. Attempts in the past to build ring roads to alleviate the burden on I-275 failed to materialize because of environmental concerns.

More people also will mean more cars on the road during events such as hurricane evacuations.

“Virtually everything in the region needs to go on I-4 and I-275; there aren’t good alternatives that would help relieve pressure on that critical link,” Polzin said. “It foretells some pretty serious congestion and traffic problems.”

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Many of the residents who will head to the Sunshine State over the next two decades are expected to be baby boomers.

Some 75 million Americans were born between 1946 and 1964, a group that will swell the ranks of retirees seeking smaller homes.

The challenge for Florida will be to accommodate that increased demand without land and property prices spiraling out of the reach of working- and middle-class families, said Jack McCabe, chief executive of McCabe Research & Consulting of Deerfield Beach and an independent housing analyst.

In the past, Florida was a natural destination for retirees with many becoming snowbirds, living in mobile homes in the mild Florida winters before returning north for the summer.

Many of the residential towers recently completed or under construction are luxury-priced and aimed at affluent retirees or millennials. Prices of condos and downtown apartments are already out of reach for many residents in places like South Florida and downtown Tampa, he said.

“That was always one of Florida’s biggest selling points in the past — that it was affordable,” he said. “That isn’t the case anymore.”

Availability of land will also be a problem, McCabe said. South Florida, hemmed in by the Everglades and the Atlantic Ocean, already is close to being built out.

The likely spread of urban and suburban areas to accommodate the state’s burgeoning population will further squeeze wildlife habitat and put more pressure on natural resources like beaches.

Florida’s climate makes it home to many wildlife habitats, including pine rockland, cypress swamp and wet prairie.

After Florida’s population surpassed New York a year ago, leaders of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Population and Sustainability warned that habitat is increasingly under threat from encroaching development.

Phil Compton, senior organizing representative for National Sierra Club, said it will be critical for the state to rein in sprawl and make it more attractive for developers to focus on urban markets and build communities that are safe for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The passage of Amendment 1 should mean lawmakers will have to spend more money from documentary stamp taxes to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive land and water supplies, he said.

“If we continue to grow the way we have with building new suburbs to accommodate people, we will lose every reason why people come to Florida,” Compton said. “On the other hand, if we use the money we voted to use with Amendment 1 and preserve wildlife corridors for bears and panther and other critters, we can share Florida with them.”

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