""CREATING GRIDLOCK Development is supposed to stop when roads get too congested. But politicians and developers are finding exceptions to the rules.
Source: Orlando Sentinel 06/25/2007
Traffic jams madden drivers throughout Central Florida because many roads handle more cars than they are supposed to, or close to it.
A policy called concurrency is supposed to stop development if the roads are too crowded. But that rarely happens.
Many policymakers argue that concurrency is a failure because it encourages sprawl. In theory, it forces development outward to where roads haven't been congested yet. That "consumes unspoiled land and requires that you have to build roads to get there," said Jon Peck, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, which regulates growth.
There are ways around it.
Some cities have chosen to establish "transportation concurrency exception areas." More than 30 communities across Florida have designated portions of land -- sometimes, huge ones -- as TCEAs.
Even though roads are congested, development can continue as long as planners encourage transportation alternatives such as buses and carpooling and plan for dense development.
Orlando planners say the city's exception area has allowed big downtown redevelopment projects that might not have otherwise existed because, realistically, there's no way to widen the streets.
"All of this high-rise development downtown probably would have had trouble," said Kevin Tyjeski, Orlando's chief planning manager.
The exception area takes up almost half the city limits, but Tyjeski said it makes sense because so much of the city has been densely developed.
TCEAs took hold in 1990s
The exception areas were designed in the mid-1990s after it became apparent that there were many problems with tying development to road capacity, said Tom Pelham, secretary of Florida's Department of Community Affairs.
Among the problems Pelham cited: Traffic-study numbers can be manipulated. Also, policies allow developers to buy their way out by paying for partial transportation improvements.
There are many ways to measure whether roads are too crowded, and different agencies use different methods -- sometimes yielding conflicting results.
What it all means is that despite so many crowded roads, concurrency rarely puts a stop to growth, said Pelham, who was recently in Orlando for his agency's growth-management summit.
While at times project sizes might get reduced, Pelham said, "I think in practice, the players generally find a way to get approval" of their developments.
Proponents of the exception areas say they instead require cities to consider other ways of moving people around besides simply widening roads. Many exception areas are in places where the city is trying to encourage redevelopment, often downtowns.
Widening roads to allow more cars to travel comfortably often isn't the answer in those places, many say.
"The great cities of the world get to a point where the automobile is no longer the preferred method of transportation," said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida.
Sanford already has an exception area in its downtown along Lake Monroe. Now the city, along with Seminole County, is trying to create another one along U.S. Highway 17-92 south of downtown, an aging road where officials hope to attract vibrant new businesses.
Altamonte Springs is having public hearings on the exception area it will create for the city's central core. That includes the Uptown Altamonte development of high-rise apartments and condominiums, shops and offices.
Maitland also wants to establish an exception area for the portion of U.S. 17-92 that it wants to redevelop.
There has also been informal talk of exception areas in Tavares and Casselberry.
While many "smart-growth" proponents say it's advantageous to allow parts of cities to opt out of the road-capacity requirements, others say things have gone too far.
Have cities overreached?
Many governments have very small exception areas, but other planners have exempted huge portions of their cities.
In Tampa, where planners say more than 30 percent of the roads are operating at failing levels, one member of the local transportation-advisory board wants the exception area scaled back from its current size of more than 40,000 acres.
"That's a horrible thing," said Margaret Vizzi, a Tampa resident. "All of this development is occurring, and they don't have to pay a bit of attention to traffic."
Cities say they have encountered little resistance from residents or state officials when establishing exception areas. Peck could not cite an instance when the DCA, which oversees growth management, had blocked an attempt for one.
But officials said requirements for exception areas have become tougher since the Legislature enacted a growth-management overhaul in 2005.
Not just anything can get exempted. There are limits on amounts of vacant land and requirements for dense development.
And "you don't just forget about mobility," said Mike McDaniel, chief of comprehensive planning for DCA. Programs must be in place to encourage other modes of transportation, he said.
Putting onus on employers
In Sanford's first exception area along Lake Monroe, commercial developments with 50 or more employees will have to help pay for transit or create a program that details how employers will reduce employees' time on the road. That could include plans for on-site day care or incentives for carpooling.
Still, Sanford principal planner Antonia Gerli said it's uncertain how the city will make sure employers follow their plans. "Those are issues that probably need to be worked out still," she said.
And other goals have not been met. For example, the city was to encourage Lynx to start Sunday service and increase its frequency in the area by 2006, but the service has stayed the same, city officials said.
Many of the roads within Central Florida's exception areas aren't yet over capacity, but they can still be miserable to drive on during the wrong times -- namely, rush hour. And the roads are expected to get increasingly crowded as time goes on. Many more major roads will be over capacity, transportation officials say, unless there are radical changes in planning and more emphasis on alternate ways of getting around.
In Altamonte Springs, where State Road 436's capacity is considered close to a failing level, much of the development in its core commercial and business area doesn't have to meet concurrency standards because plans were approved in the 1980s, before current policies went into place. But having an exception area would likely make approval of land-use changes easier.
In the meantime, other cities are looking at variations on the theme.
In Kissimmee, officials are considering a similar type of district for downtown. Concurrency isn't ignored, but it has a more flexible definition.
City officials must fix transportation problems "with alternate modes of transportation," said Craig Holland, the city's development-services director. "Walking is the big one. Bicycle paths, buses." "