Thomas Hawkins: Transportation planning has improved our quality of life


Published: Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 10:46 p.m.

Gainesville, Alachua County and the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (or MTPO) plan decades ahead of time for transportation improvements.How we invest in transportation affects economic development, how much time we spend getting where we need to go and how safe our streets are for drivers, transit riders, bicyclists and walkers.

Our record of holistic and long-range transportation planning has improved the quality of life and the quality of transportation in Alachua County.

For example, in 2003, a daily average of 56,000 cars drove on Archer Road just east of Southwest 34th Street. In 2012 — after a decade of growth at the University of Florida — the Department of Transportation counted an average of 44,000 cars per day at the same spot

That 21 percent decline in congestion means faster commutes and real-time savings for everyone.

This reduction in gridlock has not been limited to Archer Road. The daily number of cars on Southwest 13th Street in 2012 was 33,000, down 31 percent from a 2004 peak of 48,000. The daily number of cars on Newberry Road in 2012 was 35,000, down 15 percent from a 1999 peak of 41,500.

Gainesville reduced congestion while growing jobs by looking at roads, parking and transit as one interconnected transportation problem. This approach taught us we can shorten commutes for drivers by improving transit. Through investments by riders, RTS has grown 10-fold from 1,084,862 passenger trips in 1995 to 10,811,322 in 2012!

Today, Gainesville is continuing to improve all aspects of its transportation system to benefit drivers, transit riders, bicyclists and walkers.

For example, the City Commission recently committed an additional $490,000 to its annually recurring road resurfacing budget. This summer, Gainesville will consider whether to add another $1.1 million to recur annually for road repairs. Proactively funding road repairs will prevent the city from one day facing a nearly insurmountable maintenance backlog like Alachua County.

Most recently, Gainesville selected Tindale-Oliver & Associates Inc., a Florida-based planning and engineering firm, to conduct a study of transit services to connect our biggest job centers: Shands, the VA, UF, Innovation Square, downtown and the burgeoning Power District.

At the beginning of this study, it is worth providing background information on the planned research.

1) Gainesville calls this a streetcar concept study because Gainesville will specifically be looking at a kind of transit service called an “urban circulator.” That term is transportation planning jargon for transit that provides in-town trips rather than commuter trips.

2) In 2010, the MTPO set studying streetcar as the third-highest surface transportation program priority for the entire Gainesville urbanized area. County Commissioner Lee Pinkoson made, and I seconded, the motion to set studying streetcar as this high of a priority.

3) The scope of the study is not limited to understanding transportation impacts but includes learning how public investments in infrastructure will allow the private sector to grow our economy.

Just as major roads like I-75 increase property values, so do substantial transit investments. In 2009, the Brookings Institution determined that a $140 million investment in streetcar in Washington, D.C., would lead to a more than $1 billion growth in land values.

4) In 2009, Gainesville conducted a $71,650 analysis of in-town parking. That study concluded that each new in-town parking space would cost $22,153 to build and $60 per month to maintain.

Because Innovation Square estimates its ultimate parking demand at 6,332 spaces, Gainesville's most promising economic development opportunities face a nearly $140 million parking deficit with an additional $4.5 million annual operating cost.

Those projected parking costs dwarf the price tag of even a rail-based urban circulator. Moreover, unlike a transportation solution that includes transit, a parking-only transportation plan would undo Gainesville's reduction of traffic congestion.

In the least, looking for the lowest-cost approach to improving transportation is fiscally responsible. More importantly, the decisions that we make on transportation affect not only how folks get where they need to go but how successfully Gainesville can grow our economy and improve our quality of life.

Understanding the consequences of public investment takes time and planning. One reason for Gainesville's many successes is our historic willingness to research many possible solutions to problems and to base decisions on the best data.

Thomas Hawkins is a Gainesville city commissioner.

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