Sunday, April 02, 2006

"The rationale for a road like this is either a lie or it's delusional."

Big dreams of a megahighway

If built, New Corridors would dwarf all current Florida highways. But its feasibility is uncertain.

April 2, 2006

St. Petersburg Times
copyright 2006

What is 1,000 feet wide and 150 miles long?

According to the Florida Department of Transportation, it's a proposed megahighway and transit hub that would ease Interstate 75 congestion and gird the Tampa Bay region for a looming population explosion.

Or, the way some planners see it, it's a project of monstrous scope that could push suburban development into west-central Florida's remaining rural fringes and divert investment from urban cores.

Don't know much about what would be the one of the most massive highways in Florida history? Neither do local transportation officials.

"I really can't say anything because I don't know much," said Ed Mierzejewski, the director of the Center for Urban Transportation at the University of South Florida.

"I know very little about it," said Ralph Mervine, interim executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.

Credit some of the mystery shrouding what Transportation Department officials have dubbed the "New Corridors" project to its uncertain status. A $750,000 study approved last year by department administrators will determine whether it's feasible. That report won't be completed until the end of the year. Until then, no one has even an estimate of the cost.

If the project is deemed viable, then it would enter an engineering and design phase that could take years before actual construction.

In the meantime, consultants are scouring a two-mile wide corridor through 10 counties - including Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco - to determine if there's enough suitable land.

Transportation Department officials have already begun meeting with local government and civic leaders to discuss areas not to build. On Thursday, they meet with Hillsborough County Administrator Pat Bean.

If built, New Corridors would dwarf all Florida highways that came before it. It would be more than three times the typical interstate highway width of 300 feet.

At least some segments could be toll facilities. Other regions of the state are considering similar projects, said Bob Clifford, the department's planning manager for the district that includes Tampa Bay.

It isn't just for automobiles, Clifford said. Lanes would be set aside for passenger and freight rail, car pooling, bus rapid transit, trucks and utilities such as fiber optics.

It might be a single corridor stretching from Charlotte County to the northern edge of Hernando. Or it might be various segments that feed into existing roads, like Interstate 75 and the Polk Parkway near Lakeland.

"We're trying to address all the needs that we foresee in the future," he said. "We're looking at this from a big picture perspective."

Clifford said the project is needed in west-central Florida to accommodate an anticipated influx of 2-million people by 2030. Much of the future gridlock can be avoided because New Corridors would provide the needed road and transit space before new homes get built, Clifford said.

But far from being visionary, New Corridors sounds more like a throwback to a mid 20th century model of autocentric transportation projects that fuel further sprawl, some national planning groups say.

"The rationale for a road like this is either a lie or it's delusional," said David Goldberg, a spokesman for Smart Growth America, a planning group based in Washington. D.C.

For one thing, Goldberg said, passenger rail won't work there. With the project likely to be built in rural areas where land is cheap, there won't be enough people to walk to the rail line and support it with fares. Since people would have to drive to the facility, it's unlikely they'd get out of their cars to take the rail unless the highway is completely gridlocked, he said.

"I don't see this being anything more than a highway for motor vehicles," Goldberg said. "It'll open up land for suburban development, and we'll be right back in the soup again with more traffic. "

When it comes to traffic, America is at a crossroads.

Alternate energy sources, rising construction costs and fuel-efficient cars are depleting a chief source to pay for new roads: the gas tax. With less money to build, many communities are opting to build different types of transit.

Several cities - including Charlotte, N.C., Seattle, Phoenix and Denver - are embarking on ambitious light rail projects aimed at relieving congestion.

Tampa Bay has turned away from rail. In November 2004, Hillsborough County's Metropolitan Planning Organization dumped a long-discussed rail project from the county's transportation plan because there was no money for it. The downtown Tampa streetcar has fended off heated criticism for more than a year that it wastes taxpayer money.

Rather than pursue rail, Florida and Tampa Bay are following other regions in continuing their devotion to road building.

Georgia is planning to expand I-75 to as many as 23 lanes. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is betting his political future on the Trans-Texas Corridor, a 50-year plan to build a series of 1,200-foot-wide highways.

Although it's only in the planning phase, the $184-billion Texas project was the inspiration for New Corridors, Clifford and project manager Ming Gao said.

Like the potential Florida project, the Trans-Texas Corridor bundles multiple uses, from toll roads to freight and passenger rail, into a series of segments laced across rural parts of the state. About 4,000 miles are planned, and the corridors would include oil and gas pipelines, utility and water lines, and space for broadband data.

There aren't any construction contracts yet. But the developer of the first phase of the project near San Antonio was selected in 2004.

If Florida follows this example, there's unrest on the horizon.

Many Texans refuse to sell their land for the project. A Web site,, says 32 Texas counties have passed resolutions opposing it.

Perry, a Republican, is running for re-election and his opponents, Democratic nominee Chris Bell and independent candidates Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, are critics of the project.

"Its biggest problem is that it has to eat up so much land," said David Crossley, president of the planning nonprofit Gulf Coast Institute in Houston. "Rural counties with farmers aren't happy about it.

"The view, increasingly, is that this project is little more than a development scheme."

* * *

So if the Trans-Texas Corridor is grabbing headlines, why no buzz about New Corridors?

Project manager Ming Gao said it's premature.

"We don't know if it will be in Hillsborough," Gao said. "It may not even come to fruition."

The first public meetings may be held this summer, Gao said.

Transportation Department officials approved the $750,000 study last year after various chambers of commerce and civic groups like the Tampa Bay Partnership pushed for an alternative to I-75, Clifford said.

The partnership, a nonprofit economic development group with more than 150 member organizations and businesses, is a one prime sponsor.

Many partnership members are developers. Its chairman is a Realtor, and members include land use lawyers, home builders and engineering firms whose livelihoods depend upon suburban development.

Spearheading the group's planning is Joe Smith, an adviser of special projects for Walbridge Aldinger, a Detroit commercial builder with a Tampa office.

Smith said the Partnership has been discussing the project for two years. He said he has met with various transportation officials to discuss it.

The corridor would spawn concentrated nodes of development at the few access points that get built, he said. No more than 100 acres large, these areas would have work force housing, entertainment districts and offices, he said. Development outside these areas would be limited, Smith said.

"It certainly will favor cars and trucks in the beginning," he said, but that would change as the population gets dense enough to support mass transit.

"This is an exciting project that will deal with growth intelligently," Smith said.

Many local officials say they want to learn more and be assured that it won't drain resources and from urban cores.

"We don't object at this point," said David Goodwin, St. Petersburg's director of economic development.

"We just want the DOT to tell us more than just how much the road is going to cost. Its impact on central cities and sprawl needs to be thoroughly examined."

Information from Times wires was used in this report.
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