Growth vs. Gridlock: A Head-On Collision Ahead

Lee County’s transportation planning and budgeting process has long been a behind-the-scenes staff-controlled process that is incomprehensible to the average citizen. As a result, there is no effort to educate the public about how either the “big picture” or the “local impact” on transportation works and how citizens can have a voice in the process. With minimal data and no analysis provided by the County about the transportation plan or budget, staff can and have controlled the story, which has created a misleading and incomplete narrative about what’s been happening on transportation.

This white paper was developed to try to explain to the average citizen the “transportation story” based on the complete facts and a broader context, outlining the journey we’ve been on these past six years, what is facing us ahead in next 20 years, and the consequences of the path we’re on. In order for our elected officials to address the growing crisis, there must be a common understanding of where we are, how we got here, and the options for going forward.

Here’s the reality:

Florida is one of the fastest growing states in the country, and Lee County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state. The continuing growth in Lee County’s population has been projected for the past 20 years, so the county has had plenty of time to prepare and to plan for growth and development in ways that are sustainable and most cost effectively meet the county’s transportation infrastructure needs.

Each year, this County Commission told county taxpayers that its Transportation Plan is “fully funded.” This misleading narrative has been used by the commission to justify its agenda of promoting development (and even subsidizing development by slashing the collection of impact fees) without regard to whether the county’s infrastructure can handle
this fast pace of growth.

By the county’s focus exclusively on the five-year CIP budget window, the cost of fully constructing the planned transportation projects is obscured from public view. As the funding shortfall grows (due to insufficient revenues and ever-increasing project costs), more of the costs of “planned projects” are pushed into the out-years, potentially creating a massive balloon payment to complete the projects now underway or in the County’s approved three-tier priority plan. For example: To complete the 24 projects in the county’s Priority Plan will cost more than $1 billion — but only $234 million (less than 30%) is budgeted in the CIP.

Also, it will take 30 years for all 24 of those projects to be completed – but the county’s projections only show the next five years.

This “growth without adequate infrastructure” strategy has not only created gridlock on our roadways and eroded the quality of life for all residents; it has created an ever-growing long-term transportation obligation for the county’s taxpayers, which will have to be paid through debt financing and/or additional taxes in the not too distant future.

The second building block is the federally mandated regional transportation planning process controlled by the Lee Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), made up of representatives from the County Commission and each of the six municipalities. Every five years each MPO is required to develop a Long Range Transportation Plan (LRTP), with a 20+
year time horizon. The 2040 LRTP adopted in December 2015 was addressed the known problem of shrinking revenues (decline by 26%)and growing population (increase by 68%) over the next 20 years. The overarching strategy was to, for the first time, utilize a land use scenarios process (as recommended by the federal and state governments) to develop optional growth patterns that could reduce or shorten vehicle trips and increase other travel choices, maximizing the cost effectiveness of its constrained transportation revenues.

The MPO Board unanimously adopted the “smart growth” land use scenario, which was the foundation for the development of the 2040 LRTP. Unfortunately, the Lee County Commission ignored the MPO Countywide Plan and continued on their path of business-as-usual rapid growth through suburban sprawl. Developments continue to be permitted and built without regard to whether needed infrastructure to meet that demand exists or is planned to be built by the time the residents arrive.

In light of the scarce resources for transportation projects, one would think that the most urgent needs would be prioritized first.

Unfortunately, that is not necessarily the case, as detailed in the discussion of three largely developer-driven projects that moved to the top of the priority list.

The paper outlines the major role that road impact fees have historically played in building the county’s roadway network, illustrated by the 31 transportation projects that were built in 2000-2015, with 48% of the costs of these projects being funded with road impact fees. The county commission’s policy decisions to slash road impact fees for 10 years (six years to date and four more to go), only collecting 45% of what is owed the county. To date, the county has given up $50 million in road impact fees – and another $50 million loss is projected for the next four years. This is approximately $100 million that could have been used to meet the need for roadway improvements for new residents.

While the red ink continues to grow, the county’s “solutions” thus far have been to transfer General Funds (revenues collected through property taxes paid by all residents) to the Transportation CIP, thereby shifting who is paying for the impacts of growth. While this “Growth Increment Funding” (GIF) scheme was billed as solving the impact fee problem, it doesn’t even cover the annual project cost increases for the transportation plan. The transportation funding shortfall is huge and growing each year. Not only does the county need to restore impact fees to 100%, they need to continue to transfer the GIF amount to the Transportation CIP every year – AND they need a new revenue source.

This year they have decided to add another “solution” — borrow money to fund already planned transportation projects, potentially doubling the size of the proposed 5-Year CIP funding levels, with HALF of the revenues coming from LOANS and pledging future gas tax revenues as collateral.

Of course, there are no excess gas tax revenues anywhere on the horizon, so this amounts to simply “kicking the can down the road.”

For decades, one of the MPO goals for this region has been to create a multi-modal transportation system, which means investments in both transit and bike/ped facilities. Lee County has actually gone backwards, not forward on this goal in recent years. The county’s award-winning transit system has become a stepchild agency, languishing on the sidelines as ridership continues to fall. The county’s award-winning Complete Streets Policy is stalled, in spite of Lee County being ranked one of the most dangerous metro areas in the country for pedestrians. As the county continues its rapid pace of growth (with inadequate infrastructure in place) and continues to build roads that are “dangerous by design” (e.g., high-speed highways through residential communities), our roads are becoming more dangerous, not less.

As a result of the county’s poor transportation planning and misguided revenue policies we are faced with three possible outcomes:

  1. Projects won’t get built and traffic will be terrible;
  2. More debt will be incurred; or
  3. New taxes will be imposed on the residents of Lee County.

No amount of fiscal sleight of hand or political smoke-and-mirrors can change these three possible outcomes facing the county.

Because of past decisions by county leaders, our transportation future is underfunded and overpromised, and county government is unprepared for future or even present transportation needs. Either we find leaders who can make tough decisions, or we resign ourselves to decades of gridlock, inadequate facilities and overtaxed roadways (and, eventually, residents).

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