Toll It and They Will Come?

August 24, 2011 39 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

In one of the most amazing public policy statements that I can ever recall reading, State Transportation Secretary Annanth Prasad acknowledged - as reported in the Florida Times-Union on Aug. 22 - that "gas tax financing of roads is not sustainable, and tolls will be the first choice for financing all new capacity and major bridge replacements in Florida."

Secretary Prasad continues:

"Florida will be implementing a policy that all new capacity on interstates and expressways and widening and replacement of all major river crossings should be tolled where feasible."

Although Prasad’s statement that essentially all future highway construction in Florida will be paid for by tolls is enough of a bombshell by itself, the stated rationale behind this new policy is even more startling.  For the first time in history, we are being told – officially – that our present gas tax-based approach to building highways in Florida is fundamentally unsustainable, and that other means of paying for new construction must be found.  And, as Peter Samuel of suggests (as also reported by the T-U in the same story), “there will eventually be a need to toll existing roads just for maintenance.”

In plain English, state officials are telling us we can no longer afford to build new roads and bridges, and we probably will not be able to keep up the ones that we already have in the future.  Highway building, as we have known it in the past, is simply no longer sustainable.  Think about that.  Locally, we are looking at implementing tolls to pay for the proposed “unsustainable” intersection improvements to State Road 23, the northern, Duval County end of the proposed Outer Beltway through Clay and St. Johns Counties, but this appears to be a bellwether for what is to come throughout the state.
While none of this should come as a surprise to readers of Jim Kunstler and to those who have followed the New Urbanism movement, the announcement of something like this in the mainstream is, well, absolutely unheard of and amazing.  If, as suggested by Secretary Prasad and Mr. Samuel, the existing paradigm of road building in Florida has fundamentally changed and our existing highway system is already unsustainable, what might be a better response than simply continuing to build more roads, to be paid for by tolls, as though nothing at all has actually changed?

If the entire First Coast Outer Beltway is built, it will take a serpentine route through the counties of St. Johns, Clay and Duval.

Invincible Ignorance and the Need for New Approaches in Tallahassee

The alternative, of course, is to rethink our entire approach to providing a more balanced transportation system in Florida, but this seems to be beyond the ken of anyone at FDOT or in the Governor’s Office.  As I have observed in another commentary (The Great Reset - What will it mean for Jacksonville?), we are now experiencing one of the most fundamental shifts in economics, demography, and ways of life that can be imagined, yet Tallahassee seems happily mired in the approaches of the past.  Sadly FDOT can offer nothing better than “what we are doing is by our own admission unsustainable, therefore we will do more of it and pay for it with tolls.”  If this isn’t the definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – I don’t know what is, but this kind of perversely backward-looking, ideology-based thinking apparently “works” for the good folks in Rick Scott’s Administration.

Similarly, here at home in Jacksonville, the “outer boondoggle” still has its vocal proponents, even though no private company – having looked at the actual numbers involved and blinked – is willing to risk financing its construction.  No matter, opines FDOT, we will build it ourselves and then bill the sheeple (oops, we meant to say the users) for our bad judgment.  At what point, if ever, do we finally begin to “get it” that conditions have fundamentally changed and that we are now living in a very different world?  And if, by the state’s own admission, the old “build it with tax money” paradigm of sprawl development-based highway construction is no longer working very well, shouldn’t we try something else?

Right now, even though Mr. Prasad and other officials seem eaten up with “invincible ignorance” and evidence a total unwillingness to face up to the reality of such change, we are beginning to look at alternatives to sprawl-based planning here in Jacksonville, and it is about time.  In this sense, perhaps FDOT’s brave new world of toll-financed highway construction is just the thing to remind us of why we have elected a new set of more open minded local officials and why we are beginning to look at planning in a different way.  If FDOT’s toll-based approach to transportation planning (i.e., simply building more highways that, by their own admission, we can’t afford) is the “wave of the past,” at least we are finally doing a little better than this here at home.

Guest editorial by Milt Hayes, Jr.