The Realities of Congestion


The Realities of Congestion

The sooner Sarasota city and county leaders start implementing anti-congestion strategies, short and long term, the easier and less costly they will be.

Sarasota County commissioners, Sarasota city commissioners and Longboat Key town commissioners will be wrestling with some tough, perennial issues in 2017. Here is some advice to consider as they address the most pressing issues of growth and traffic, homelessness and affordable housing. This column will start with growth and traffic.

Since season is upon us, traffic looms large in everyone’s daily life now. The Sarasota area is simply fabulous. Indeed, most of us transplants moved here because this place beat the competition for quality of life. Such an attractive place will, well, attract lots of new residents.
And new people have just as much right to be here as those who moved here in the past, or even those who were born and raised here.

Owners of land have the right to build new housing or commercial properties on it, just as past landowners built the houses we live in and commercial buildings we work in.

Limiting growth is both morally and practically bankrupt: Morally bankrupt because it assumes those of us here who already consume development are justified in stopping others from following suit, and practically bankrupt because even the most stringent growth controls fail to prevent growth in attractive places — it just makes them prohibitively expensive and clogged with traffic, lowering the quality of life for everyone.

But growth does put a real burden on the county commissioners.

If they accept that new people have the right to live and work here and land owners have the right to develop, then they must meet the needs of that growth.

New residents and workers pay the same taxes for the same services those of us already living here do. Per person, new housing doesn’t demand any more transportation, sewer or water, police, fire or trash collection than do the houses and businesses already here.

So with specific examples such as the Vue condominium and Westin Hotel at the corner of U.S. 41 and Gulfstream and the proposed Promenade at Stickney Point and U.S. 41, yes, direct effects on the neighbors and on traffic around the projects must be addressed. Some of that is the responsibility of the developer and subject to review by the respective commissions.

But at the same time the city and county have taken on responsibility for providing us all with transportation infrastructure, they owe just as much to those new properties as they do to the existing commercial developments on the other corners of those two intersections.

A simple reality of an attractive, growing community is that the transportation system must keep growing, too. Congestion is simply more people trying to travel than the capacity of the system. Sarasota has more roads and some wider roads now than it did in 1966 or 1986, and the same will simply have to be true in 2036.

I frequently hear that the answer is not with the road system but “encouraging residents to get out of their cars and use other methods of transit.” That is important, but also a tiny part of the picture.
Only about 2% of travel in the Sarasota region is by transit, so even unprecedented success at increasing it, say tripling the share, would still leave mass transit carrying less than 10% of travel in the region.

Indeed, major metropolitan areas throughout the United States have for decades spent 30% to 60% of their transportation budgets on public transit and failed to boost their share of travel above a few percent. That means that at the same time they were spending only 40% to 70% of their transportation budget on roads, which still carry 90% or more of travel. In other words, they were letting the road system fall behind, get worse and become more congested.

Sarasota would be ill-served by repeating that mistake.

Some of the answer is that growth must be spread out to areas where there is room for new transportation infrastructure. Meanwhile, some of the county will get denser, and fighting congestion will be more challenging.

Transit can do its share with smart elements like bus-rapid transit in the densest corridors. The best transit, however, will be road-based, so that investment in new and wider roads gets double bang for the buck.

Even more important is developing parking, parking pricing and seasonal transit services that are well designed to serve temporary residents and vacationers; well designed to link their origins and destinations; and well marketed as an alternative to driving. Other resort communities, such as South Beach in Miami and Sedona, Ariz., and Vail, Colo., have models from which we can learn.

But the bulk of the work at addressing congestion will be:

  • An improved road network and management, characterized by extending roads into new development, improving intersections and adding traffic signals;
  • Expanding some roads in existing right of way, including underpasses or overpasses at major intersections;
  • And using new technologies to manage the flow of traffic by controlling signal timing, speeding up clearing incidents, improving pedestrian crossing, etc. Houston, for example, more than any other major city, reduced the growth of congestion by focusing on adding road capacity where possible and using technology and design to get the most out of existing roads.

All of this, and likely more, will be needed. It is not easy or cheap, but it is the reality of dealing with congestion. The sooner Sarasota leaders recognize this and start taking action, short and long term, the easier and less costly it will be.

Adrian Moore is vice president of Reason Foundation and lives in Sarasota. This column first appeared in the Florida Business Observer.