Want to Be Prepared For Future Growth? Do the Opposite of This.


A map by 1000 Friends of Florida shows the proposed toll freeway corridors.

The state of Florida is a perennial contender in the Olympics of Bad Ideas, and its latest is a doozy. The state Senate has voted 37-1 to advance a plan that would construct three new toll roads totaling more than 300 miles, and would divert over $1.3 billion from the state's general fund to pay for them. The bill is headed to the House for a vote as of this writing.

These roads would mostly parallel existing Interstate 75 through parts of the state that are rural and very sparsely populated. The proposed routes pass through what are now cattle pastures, citrus groves, and pine forests. The largest city on the longest of the three routes—Perry—has fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.

The bill is backed, entirely unsurprisingly, by groups with names like the Asphalt Contractors Association of America. It's opposed by a host of organizations including the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida. Thomas Hawkins of 1000 Friends makes a collection of arguments against these roads concisely and eloquently in this Gainesville Sun op-ed. I won't reinvent Hawkins's wheel in this post—I recommend reading his op-ed.

Let's get one thing clear: There is absolutely no present, looming problem that these toll roads would solve. None. It's not hard to travel north-south through the rural parts of Florida. You might encounter brief congestion around a construction zone or crash site. But 95% of the time, traffic flows fine on Interstate 75, and traffic is extremely sparse on the mostly 4-lane federal highways that would be replaced by these new north-south freeways: U.S. 19/98, and U.S. 17.

Ah, but what about hurricane evacuation? Don't we need another highway to get people out of the state quickly in the event of a catastrophic storm?

In a word: no. During Hurricane Irma in 2017, six million people—nearly a third of the state's population—left Florida. Interstate 75 was at a crawl, but parallel routes, including U.S. 19—the route of the proposed Suncoast Parkway—were not especially congested. The issues reported after the fact had more to do with long lines for gasoline, and people evacuating who lived on higher ground and did not need to. There are many roads that lead north through Florida. Evacuation is an information and coordination problem, not a capacity problem.

So why is this proposal even taken seriously? Enough that it stands a very real chance of becoming reality? It's an exorbitant amount of money for extensive new highways in places where there's almost zero current demand.

Proponents offer a laundry list of justifications, some of which are fairly laughable ("expand bicycle and pedestrian trails" was cited by the bill's sponsor as an auxiliary benefit), but one of which deserves a serious rebuttal, because it is taken seriously, even by many people who don't favor unfettered development in rural areas for its own sake.

I hear versions of this refrain over and over again, in local debates and in statewide ones:

"We need to start building more infrastructure now to prepared for coming population growth. We need to be proactive, not reactive."

That view—that the purpose of road infrastructure (and water and sewer and broadband, which Senate President Bill Galvano says the toll road projects will also lay the groundwork for) is to get out ahead of growth rather than to respond to the needs of already productive places—deeply misconstrues the relationship between public infrastructure and private development. And that misunderstanding is at the root of the fiscal crisis that communities all over North America are facing.

The Circular Logic of "Preparing" For Growth by Building Roads That Enable Growth

Florida is growing. Fast. The state could add 7 million people to its existing population of 20 million by the year 2045, according to UF demographers. Let's say we don't dispute that statewide figure, but accept it as valid. There is good reason to do so.

The more you zoom out, geographically speaking, the more reliable such growth projections are, because they depend much less on local decisions. If I tell you the entire state of Florida will add 7 million people, you can imagine that the forces that drive that—the retirement of baby boomers; immigration to the United States; people's perennial love of warm winter climates, nice beaches and Mickey Mouse—include things well outside the control of Florida policy makers.

On the other hand, the population of your block or your neighborhood can't be projected in this way, because it doesn't primarily depend on macro forces—it depends on micro decisions that we get to make. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of your city or county. These population projections by county have a dramatic range between the "low" and "high" estimates, because local political decisions can have a profound impact on where development occurs.

And the local decision that most influences where development happens or doesn’t is the decision of where we build vital public infrastructure like—you guessed it—new roads. When we talk about the need to "prepare" for growth with a brand new road deep into a rural area, we're glossing over a huge chicken/egg problem.

A vision of one possible future growth scenario in rural Taylor County, Florida, located 200 miles from Tampa and 50 miles from Tallahassee.

The biggest city on the 150-mile proposed Suncoast Parkway route has 7,000 people. I cannot stress enough how remote and unpopulated this area is. Do we need a toll freeway through that region to "prepare for growth?" Only if we take it as a given that the projected growth is coming to that part of Florida.

And there's the rub: There are a small number of land owners and developers who stand to make a whole lot of money if it does. Such as Florida's richest man, Thomas Peterffy, who owns much of Taylor County, home to that 7,000-person town. The entity that Peterffy bought his land from, Foley Timber and Land Company, in fact worked with the Taylor County Development Authority on a 2005 conceptual plan (pictured) that would dramatically grow the remote county’s population.

The "prepare for growth" argument is a circular one, when the road itself is what induces the growth. This logic gets used to defend speculative infrastructure investment that serves primarily to open up huge tracts of land for development.

This chicken/egg scenario is common at the city or county level. There is often political pressure to expand roads on the suburban fringe in anticipation of growth, but doing so acts as an implicit subsidy for that very same growth—and a disincentive to reinvest in places we've already built. The crazy thing about Florida is that its growth pressure is so strong that an entire state faces a similarly stark set of trade-offs about where to build infrastructure and where to channel new growth.

To understand what's at stake in these toll road proposals, consider The Villages, a mammoth complex of 55+ retirement communities that was the fastest-growing city in the U.S. from 2010 to 2017. Now home to 125,000 people, The Villages is surrounded by rural land on all sides—it feels all but conjured out of thin air. But it's just close enough to Orlando for an easy day trip—take the grandkids to Disney World when they visit, or go have a nice meal, visit a museum, or see a play. And the presence of a freeway connection via Florida's Turnpike is the reason that's the case.

If you look at these toll road proposals and don't think an enterprising developer has visions of another The Villages or the like—if you don't think that's the single biggest impetus for these projects—then I've got some swampland in Florida to sell you.

Juicing New Development at the Expense of Existing Communities

As a rule, land is valuable because of what is close by. And "close" is a relative term. When you build a high-speed road that shortens the travel time from a piece of land to key destinations, you make that land significantly more valuable.

But—and this is a hugely important "but"—when you build that road, you don't create value out of thin air. More likely, you bring about a net transfer of value from already-developed areas (whose comparative advantage of being closer to stuff just diminished) to the newly developable land along the highway, which attracts development that would have happened somewhere else.

It’s not perfectly zero-sum, but it’s close, because these new roads aren’t doing much to alter the factors (boomers, beaches, Mickey Mouse, etc.) that are making people want to move to Florida. They’re mostly just altering where we end up accommodating those new arrivals within Florida.

The result over time of making these decisions over and over is that your population ends up spread thinner on the landscape. And the places in which you've already invested in infrastructure you've made a commitment to maintain—your historic cities and their core neighborhoods—find themselves stagnating instead of incrementally renewing themselves with new residents and businesses.

How to Actually Prepare for Growth

A state that's growing as fast as Florida is growing will still need to build some roads. But they shouldn't be speculative "roads to nowhere" like the proposal that just passed the state Senate. They should be built in much smaller, more incremental steps, and only where there is existing proven demand. This ensures that, as much as possible, infrastructure decisions are responding to development patterns instead of shaping them.

The future that Florida needs to prepare for is one in which ballooning maintenance liabilities, as well as growing challenges like sea-level rise, combine to strain the resources of existing cities to the breaking point.

The natural trajectory of cities under the traditional development pattern was to "thicken up" over time if they became successful, prosperous places. They would not only expand their borders gradually outward, but become incrementally taller and more dense in their built-up interiors. Building roads to nowhere disrupts this pattern: it literally paves the way for the developer who wants to carve out a whole new The Villages amid the citrus groves, putting them at an advantage over the bootstrapper who wants to rehab small apartment buildings in 100-year-old neighborhoods.

And this has real looming consequences, ones which dwarf the comparatively mild specter of more traffic on rural interstates a decade from now. Because those 100-year-old neighborhoods already have pressing needs that we’re going to struggle to keep up with—even if we don’t divert resources to shiny new development in remote rural regions.

When geoanalytics firm (and our frequent collaborators) Urban3 did an analysis of tax base productivity in Sarasota County (a fairly developed part of Florida, with 400,000 inhabitants), they found that a typical suburban residential townhome development would take 42 years to generate enough revenue to pay off its infrastructure costs. Most streets don't even last 42 years.

The future that Florida needs to prepare for is one in which ballooning maintenance liabilities, as well as growing challenges like sea-level rise, combine to strain the resources of existing cities to the breaking point. 7 million new Floridians and the taxes they pay could actually be enormously helpful in resolving that set of issues—if the state accommodates most of them in its existing cities, through patterns of growth that make better use of the pavement and pipes we've already committed to maintain.

We do that by legalizing incremental development, and by abandoning the practice of subsidizing the leapfrog suburbanization of rural areas. And that means we need three new roads to nowhere about as badly as we need another hurricane this year.