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Orlando’s traffic solution: tax hike?

A population boom and an estimated 40 million visitors a year have overwhelmed Orlando area roads and left drivers so frustrated they’re ready to approve a sales tax hike to ease the congestion.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Amber Tassone feels like she’s spending the best years of her life stuck in traffic. Most weekdays, the 22-year-old receptionist drives nearly 10 miles from her apartment to work, then eight miles to class at a community college, then 25 miles to her mother’s home.

She figures all that commuting should take about an hour, but she sits idling at least two hours in gridlock. And don’t get her started about the out-of-town motorists who pour into Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and other tourist attractions: “They should have buses for them.”

A population boom and an estimated 40 million visitors a year have overwhelmed Orlando area roads and left Tassone and her fellow drivers so frustrated they’re ready to approve a sales tax hike to ease the congestion.

A proposed half-cent sales increase on Tuesday’s ballot in Orange County would raise about $2.6 billion over the next 20 years to finance a sweeping transportation plan. The plan calls for widening Interstate 4, improving surface roads, sidewalks and railroad crossings, synchronizing traffic lights, building bicycle trails and beginning the development of a light-rail system.

Opponents believe the plan is nothing more than a boondoggle. They insist the $400 million earmarked for light rail is just the beginning, that more taxes will be needed. They’re incensed over the proposed construction of four toll lanes on I-4 besides the eight free ones.

“To toll our last remaining freeway is absolutely ridiculous,” said Doug Guetzloe, head of Ax the Tax.

Orange County voters historically have been hostile to paying for transportation improvements, repeatedly rejecting measures for roads and light rail.

But in the last 20 years, the county’s population has doubled to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2002 estimate of 946,484, prompting a local traffic expert to claim that the traffic plan is less about solving problems than preventing disaster.

“If you don’t do it, you’re going to stifle economic development,” said Essam Radwan of the Center for Advanced Transportation Systems Simulation at the University of Central Florida.

Such warnings are why the county’s business community, including Disney, every city within Orange County, police and firefighters’ organizations and both political parties support the measure.

“The opponents’ mantra seems to be, ’We shouldn’t build any more roads because if we build it, they will come.’ I will tell you, they’re coming anyway,” said Rick Walsh, chairman of the campaign. “So, the question is: Do we plan for this or do we let it choke us to death?”

The average rush-hour trip in Orlando takes about a third longer than it should if the roads weren’t congested, according to a nationwide study released last week by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.

Orlando tied with Tampa for 23rd-worst among the 75 cities studied by the institute in 2001. The worst was Los Angeles, where the average driver spent 90 hours in traffic. Nationally, the average driver spent 51 hours in traffic — four hours more than five years ago.

Another sprawling metropolitan area in a low-tax state trying to cope with gridlock caused by a burgeoning population is Phoenix.

Phoenix’s freeway system was sadly lacking for much of the latter half of the 20th century. Interstate 10, supposedly connecting Jacksonville, Fla., and Los Angeles, ended in distant farm fields barely in sight of Phoenix’s skyscrapers.

In 1985 — with metro Phoenix’s population pushing 1.6 million, close to present-day metro Orlando — a half-cent sales tax was passed by Maricopa County voters.

The Phoenix area is now laced with nearly 100 miles of wide freeways.

But traffic is still a problem; Phoenix has the nation’s ninth-worst traffic according to the Texas A&M study. That’s because the highways opened up to development areas that were once just desert.

Orlando-area residents seem in favor of their traffic plan. Orange County voters favored passing the tax by a margin of 52 percent to 36 percent, with the rest undecided, according to a recent poll.

The random telephone poll of 625 likely voters was done Sept. 23-25 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. for the Orlando Sentinel and WESH-NewsChannel 2. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.