The devil's in the details

Everyone hates I-4. That is, perhaps more than anything else, the one constant in Central Florida politics. (There's even a clever website to that effect -- Politicians pledge to make the god-awful commute more bearable, but whatever gains they make are muted by the every-increasing number of cars. The interstate is the beast that can't be slaughtered.

But Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty is going to try. Fresh off his first election last September (he was appointed a year-and-a-half earlier to succeed the Washington-bound Mel Martinez), and facing criticism that he wasn't much of a leader, Crotty proclaimed that he would tackle the region's crippling transportation problems. A blue-ribbon commission would be formed, reports would be filed, all-night county commission meetings would be held, and on Oct. 7 voters would decide whether to tax themselves an extra one-half cent sales tax for every dollar they spend.

"It's time for somebody to step up and show some political courage here," Crotty says.

That's what he says is needed to enact Mobility 20/20, the county's latest -- and perhaps last -- shot at avoiding future gridlock. Others think the plan isn't so much courageous as foolhardy. Detractors call it the same-old same-old, meaning more roads for more cars.

It's no surprise that a plan this big has opponents. But these aren't the usual cadre of cranks who mechanically oppose any tax increase; these folks might actually know what they are talking about.

"I would speculate that the deal was done before the transportation committee ever met," says Lou Treadway, a former Orange County commissioner and current head of CountyWatch, a respected, bipartisan, watchdog group. "It was a dog-and-pony show for the benefit of the public. No other alternatives were ever considered."

It's starting to look like a battle. And the outcome should be interesting. At this point, no one is quite sure how to handicap the race. "The polls look good," says Orange County commissioner Linda Stewart. But she's nowhere near guaranteeing a win. Conservatives and anti-tax types typically show up in force during low-turnout elections. Stewart, however, thinks the soccer-mom vote -- suburbanites who hate congested highways -- may offset the anti-tax crowd.

Like anything, the devil is in the details. And for the most part, many voters will be unfamiliar with the minutiae of this plan. Mobility 20/20 backers will doubtlessly mount a quick-hit campaign to sway voters in the five weeks left until the election. And you can bet that the campaign will skim over some of the meatiest issues. Like the fact that many environmentalists say the $2.6 billion plan lays the groundwork for sprawl and doesn't do enough to protect the environment. (Counterpoint: Mobility 20/20 does include $720 million for mitigation, or land the county must buy to compensate the environmentally sensitive land it destroys while expanding roads and freight lines. Counter-counterpoint: That may sound like a lot but the county isn't actually preserving any new green space with this plan.)

Or the idea of installing toll lanes (nicknamed "Lexus lanes") on I-4. Or the idea of using county tax dollars to pay for interchanges on toll roads, thereby requiring county residents to pay for roads some of them can't afford to drive on.

But Treadway's beef is that the county isn't thinking outside the box, and is investing billions in a road-widening project that simply won't work. By the time the construction is finished, he argues, enough new traffic will be there to fill up the additional lanes.

"`You get` six lanes of congested traffic or 12 lanes of congested traffic," he says. "I-4 is as good now as it's ever going to get. Congestion reaches equilibrium. People tend to use other routes. I-4 has probably reached an equilibrium -- `it's` going to stay like that. The money would be better spent going for light rail now, not I-4. If you spend all this money, and if it's not going to accomplish what you want it to accomplish, maybe you need to take a different approach.

"I do support the concept, but I don't support the garbage that's being espoused here."

Light rail is 10 years down the line in Mobility 20/20. The federal funding cycle happens only once per seven years, and county officials want to get their ducks in order -- a widened I-4, deciding a definite rail route -- before asking the feds to step in and help foot the bill. So the county will likely ask for money in seven years, and the rail line would be built three years after that.

When rail does come, Treadway thinks it needs to be visible and above-ground -- "an attraction unto itself" -- like Disney's monorail.

Crotty has little patience for Treadway's concerns. "Lou Treadway's stuff is not of much interest to me," Crotty says. "He had his chance. The old soldiers who've been pulled out of the closet from the past need to wake up."

There's some truth to that. During Treadway's tenure as county commissioner, from 1980 to 1988, the county failed miserably at growth management, trying to meet a growing population with bigger roads. It was a lesson well learned, says Treadway, and not a mistake he wants this generation of commissioners to copy.

And while Treadway is among the plan's louder critics, CountyWatch itself, while not taking a formal stance pro or con, has a laundry list of questions and worries county officials have yet to answer. Among them: Did county officials disregarded public input? Will Mobility 20/20's oversight committee have any input into how the Florida Department of Transportation spends the roughly $1.3 billion in sales taxes to fix I-4 and state roads? Why won't the county reach an interlocal agreement with FDOT specifying how the money will be spent before the October election? How will the county secure ridership for light rail? Why don't development impact fees cover more of these transportation-related costs, instead of passing the hat to taxpayers?

Linda Stewart, who was CountyWatch chairman before winning her county commission seat last year, says most of the group's questions are easy to answer, though the answers are "not all what they want to hear."

True, the county will have little oversight of FDOT, Stewart and Crotty say. But these are projects FDOT would do eventually, and if the county waits, it will have no say whatsoever. Plus, the county expects to recoup the costs from the state, so from Crotty's standpoint, it's a win-win.

"It's a fabulous investment," the chairman says. "For someone to be against this is almost unfathomable."

He lists the many endorsements he's gotten so far: Democrats, Republicans, environmentalists, nearly every politician in Central Florida. And of the critics: "You have a band of negative gadflies that seem to be against everything."

Details aside, Mobility 20/20 backers stress that the need for the tax is imperative. "The price of doing nothing is catastrophic," Crotty says.

"We need to get this taken care of right away," Stewart echoes.

If voters turn the sales tax down, the county has a less desirable Plan B, raising the local option gas tax. Legally, Orange County commissioners can jack up the gas tax five cents, from the current six cents per gallon to 11 cents-per-gallon. That wouldn't raise nearly enough money to build for the future, says Stewart, and would doom the $187 million the county has planned for "pedestrian safety projects," including bike trails and sidewalks.

"What is half a cent?" she asks. "It can't be that bad."

Tune in Oct. 7 to see if she is right.

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