Transportation and Land Use Reforms in Alachua County Florida

By Dom Nozzi

September 16, 2008

Florida Statutes (§163.3180) requires that land use and transportation facilities be coordinated to ensure there is adequate transportation capacity to support the future land use adopted in the Comprehensive Plan. Policy 1.1.8 in the Transportation Element of the Alachua County Comprehensive Plan requires that adequate roadway capacity needed to support new development shall be required to be available “concurrent” with the impact from development.

This statute is perhaps the most disastrous ever adopted by any state in the US, which is bitterly ironic, given how the 1985 state growth management law is touted nationally as a model. It is a hideous example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. The primary objective of the framers of this language was to discourage costly sprawl and promote quality of life. Yet this language powerfully states that there is a state law requiring all communities in Florida to establish a mechanism that profoundly promotes suburban sprawl and an eradication of a quality of life. It enshrines the ruinous hypothesis that “free-flowing traffic” is the be-all and end-all of quality of life and the means of discouraging sprawl. Because cars and people have strongly clashing habitat needs (the world that makes a Ford happy is nearly opposite of the world that makes Fred happy), and because “adequate roadway capacity” tends to be in remote sprawl locations, this statute is exactly the opposite of what FL communities should strive to adopt.

Objective 1.1 of the Transportation Mobility Element requires that “Level of service standards, in accordance with the latest version of the Level of Service Handbook developed by the Florida Department of Transportation Systems Planning Office, shall be adopted in order to maximize the efficient use and safety of roadway facilities in order to coordinate capital improvement planning with land use decisions to meet the requirement that adequate roadway facilities be available concurrent with the impacts of development.”

Transportation Mobility Element is a profound blunder in word choice for this Element. I lost this battle when I tried to name the long-range transportation plan I wrote for Gainesville FL the Transportation Accessibility Element. I was over-ruled by my supervisors. As Reid Ewing points out, it wrongly puts the focus on moving motor vehicles, rather than the word access, which properly puts the focus on moving people. Indeed, high mobility is an effective way of reducing access for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users (due to what Todd Litman calls “The Barrier Effect”). High mobility also destroys quality of life (even for a Ford, in the long term).

As Ian Lockwood points out, “efficient use” and “safety of roadway facilities” are biased terms that put the emphasis on high-speed motor vehicle roadway design (“free-flowing traffic” enshrinement) and promoting “safety” for driving at 80 mph, rather than safety for Suzy and Bobby. They are, in other words, counterproductive code words leveraged by traffic engineers to suboptimize happy cars instead of a better community.

This wording is also backwards. “…adequate roadway facilities be available concurrent with the impacts of development” should instead state that “roadways shall be designed in such a way as to be compatible with the community development vision.” In other words, if the community vision is a walkable, charming, low-speed, mixed-use, human-scaled main street corridor, the roadway should be built no larger than two lanes and should use low-speed street dimensions. The street should not be widened or speeded up or scaled for cars to be made “adequate for proposed development” because such an “improved” road undercuts the community vision for development along the street. Instead of walkable charm, the “improved” street will inevitably deliver unsafe, high-speed strip commercial, retail and office vacancies, and loss of civic pride.

The State’s Growth Management Act calls for implementation of the mandate know as concurrency through a combination of regulation and capital improvement programming. As applied to roadway-based level of service standards, the regulatory component consists of a review of the impact of new development to determine if there is adequate roadway capacity to serve the traffic generated by the new development. Concurrency approval is granted to the new development if there is sufficient roadway capacity available at the time of approval or if new capacity is fully funded for construction within three years of development approval (see s.163.3180 (2)(c), F.S.). Local governments are also required to adopt a financially feasible Capital Improvements Element (CIE) to provide the roadway capacity needed to maintain adopted roadway level of service standards. The State’s Growth Management Act has included a longstanding requirement that a local government include a Capital Improvement Element (CIE) in the adopted Comprehensive Plan that identifies capacity enhancing transportation projects required to serve the impact of future land uses. Local governments have been required to show in the five year Capital Improvements Program (CIP) that needed transportation capacity can be fully funded and constructed in a five-year period to meet projected demand needs. The legislature has put added emphasis on the requirement for a financially feasible Comprehensive Plan, mandating that local governments update their CIE to ensure it is financially feasible by December 2008 (emphasis added) or be subject to various sanctions (see s.163.3177(2)(b)(1), F.S.), such as prohibitions on the ability to amend the future land use map.

The Concurrency Management System in Alachua County, especially in the western urban area, has been under an increasing level of stress as a number of roadways in the western urban area are operating either near or over capacity.

This is a good thing, despite this biased wording.

The majority of roadways over capacity are operating below the adopted level of service (LOS) due to reserved trips from already approved development.

Adopted “level of service” should not be a measure of free-flowing traffic, as is done by the County. It should be based on the health of retail, offices, and residential along the street, the quality and extent of transportation choices provided along the street, and the health of property values along the street.

Proposed developments along portions of Archer Road and Newberry Road are currently unable to receive final development plan approval due to a lack of available roadway capacity.

When development in areas intended for higher densities is unable to receive plan approval due to state law, we have an excellent example of the unintended consequences of the law.

The County does not currently have a transportation plan to address roadway concurrency within the Urban Cluster.

Which is fortunate, since the “plan” would undoubtedly be to widen. Widening and speeding up roadways powerfully disperses the lifeblood of an area. Densities and intensities plummet. I suspect this is not what the County would like to see in an “Urban Cluster.” (Congestion and low-speed streets, by contrast, promote clustering, huge turn radius for roaddensification and intensification. So why does the State and County have laws requiring that roads disperse development away from Clusters by making sure the road capacity is “adequate” — i.e., widened?)

The concept of concurrency was well intended, but the application of it has led to unintended and unsustainable consequences.

Why did it take over 20 years to realize this? Why did it take so long for an enormous number of NIMBY, environmental, progressive and no-growth groups to see this?

Instead of ensuring that adequate roadway capacity is available concurrent with development, as urban areas approach build-out, new development in those areas is restricted under the regulatory component of concurrency management, creating pressure to allow more development in rural areas where capacity is available. The end result of this approach to concurrency is that denser development within urban service areas is stopped or significantly delayed due to a lack of capacity, while a favorable climate is created for sprawling development in rural and agricultural areas.

It is becoming increasingly evident that local governments and the state cannot build their way out of congestion by adding more roadway capacity.

Once local governments stops development through concurrency and begins accepting proportionate fair-share contributions to add roadway capacity; they can find themselves going down the slippery slope of continuously having to add new capacity to mitigate the impact of new development. This unsustainable pattern has proven to be an ineffective means to provide mobility.

Change “mobility” to “access.”

Please.

Arlington County rightly emphasizes accessibility over mobility. Part of their plan is a strong call for moving people, not just vehicles.

And by the way, it is telling that I was marginalized and essentially run out of town for saying these things over and over again for the last 10 years of my career in city planning in Gainesville.

It is also telling that Florida communities must engage in complex, costly, time-consuming planning in order to set up “special exception” districts such as MMTDs, TCEAs, and TCMAs as a way to avoid the unintended sprawl consequences I note above.

In Urban Clusters, urban areas and town centers, this should be the law, not the special exception requiring costly studies. Urbanized and urbanizing areas are incompatible with concerns for “adequate road capacity.” In urbanized and urbanizing areas, the default rules should be an absence of concern for adequate road capacity. In such areas, the complex and costly studies for special exceptions should be required to show why such places are not urbanized or urbanizing.

By putting the onus of burdensome calculations and justifications on urbanized or urbanizing areas, the County and State have it backwards. It should be easy to do the right thing and difficult to promote sprawl. Right? Requiring special districts and “Transportation Concurrency Exception Area” studies in urbanized or urbanizing areas does the reverse. State law, in other words, needs to have context-sensitive concurrency rules. In urban or urbanizing areas, LOS is focused on making people happy. In suburban areas, the focus is more toward conventional (car happy) LOS rules.

There was draft legislation proposed in Florida to correct some of this mischief through the creation of a mobility fee based on vehicle miles of travel that would potentially replace both proportionate share and transportation impact fees. It ultimately failed to be adopted.

This was an excellent idea already being used in other parts of the nation, I believe. With such a system, well-designed walkable neighborhood/town center development would pay dramatically lower fees. We need the transportation system to move substantially in the direction of user fees (via road fees and parking fees), instead of keeping motorists on welfare.

If the County were to actually find funding to start improving walking, bicycling, and transit trips, most all of the money would be wasted by building quality facilities that would be almost entirely unused, and the under-use would be a unforgivable waste of public dollars. These facilities, by themselves, will not deliver more bicyclists, pedestrians and transit users. They must be coupled with the “Four S” ingredients: Less Space for cars, less Speed for cars, less Subsidies for cars, and Shorter distances to destinations.

Because the County saw much of its development occur in a world of huge and high-speed roads, massive amounts of free parking, and cheap gas, low-density dispersal is the only form of development available. Rapidly rising motor vehicle costs are beneficially changing the price signals, but major portions of the “Four S” ingredients will remain unused for a very long time (which makes the popularity of bike lanes, buses and sidewalks extremely unlikely). It is irresponsible, therefore, for the County to spend large sums of public dollars for these needed facilities until essential tasks are completed:

  1. Lots of road diets to reclaim street space. In general, no road in the county should exceed three lanes in size.
  2. Removal of an enormous amount of off-street parking (converting it to residential and commercial buildings) and properly pricing the parking that remains. An essential County task: require that the price of parking be unbundled from the price of the residence or commercial building. And in urban or urbanizing areas, convert parking minimums to maximums.
  3. A substantial effort to use traffic calming (speed lowering) street design.
  4. A lot more mixed-use, compact development.

Without congestion, lower speeds, proximity and proper prices for roads and parking, it will be irrational to use even high-quality buses, bike lanes and sidewalks. Indeed, elected officials and its professional staff get a well-deserved black eye if they spend millions and billions of public dollars for buses, bike lanes and sidewalks that no one uses.

When the County sets up these more walkable places, the County land development regulations must be tailored to be compact and human-scaled (rather than suburban). There should be no Floor Area Ratio max. Landscaping should not be required (except for formally-aligned street trees). Stormwater basins should not be allowed to consume land at-grade (when needed, it should be underground or on roofs, as basins powerfully reduce walkable compactness). Front facades of buildings must be required to be built up to the sidewalk (instead of set back). Off-street parking is not required, but if it is provided, the price must be unbundled and special studies must be performed to show why it is needed. It also must be behind or at the side of buildings. (fee-in-lieu of parking should be made an option, by the way). All buildings within such urban places are allowed to contain all types of residential and non-residential uses (in other words, there is no use-based zoning). However, certain uses are prohibited from the urban place, because they are inherently detrimental to compact walkability: Gas pumps, car washes, parking as a primary use, garden centers).

Any adopted transportation fee must strongly de-emphasize motorized travel. Western Alachua County has way too much road capacity, and needs a number of road diets. For a transportation fee to actually improve the community, it is absolutely essential that there is no possible way that any of this revenue can be used to widen roads, or add turn lanes, or synchronize traffic signals, or build bus bays, etc.

The County needs to openly state that it will not widen roads to try to reduce congestion.

The County and its citizens face decades of costly pain as a result of its blunderous past: big roads, abundant free parking, and low-density suburban development. Bike lanes, sidewalks and transit will do very little to change that unsustainable environment—until the changes I mention above are in place.

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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