Suncoast Parkway extension boondoggle wastes finite road building dollars

I love the Suncoast Parkway, as much as anyone who doesn't like driving can enjoy a long ribbon of asphalt.

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Graham Brink
, Tampa Bay Times Business Columnist, Tampa Bay Times

I love the Suncoast Parkway, as much as anyone who doesn't like driving can enjoy a long ribbon of asphalt.

The 42-mile highway that takes up where the Veteran's Expressway leaves off has whisked me north so many times that I know where to expect its gentle curves and how Hernando County's rolling hills signal its conclusion.

It has shortened the drive to the hiking trails at Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park and to view the manatees of Kings Bay, and recently returned my wife and I safely to St. Petersburg after riding bikes across Florida's midsection. It wasn't built when I lived in Brooksville in the late 1990s, which meant trips to Tampa required navigating the narrow two-lane roads of Hernando and Pasco counties, or the long slog via Interstate 75.

My affection for the $507 million project stems largely from its relative emptiness. Most often, it feels like my own private highway, nary another car or truck for miles.

There's the rub. Highways that cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build shouldn't feel empty. How empty? Turnpike officials expected to collect nearly $15 million in tolls the first year. Instead the Suncoast Parkway brought in $6.7 million. By 2014, the projection was $150 million a year. The reality: $22 million. And too little of the forecasted economic development ever materialized either.

Those failures apparently won't stop "progress."

The state is now hellbent on spending another $250 million to extend the road about 13 miles north, close to Lecanto, population 6,000. Once long dead, the extension idea rose like Lazarus after Gov. Rick Scott surprisingly apportioned $150 million in 2015. The long-term goal is to create a "Coastal Connector" that links the Suncoast Parkway to Interstate 75, relieving traffic from the interstate and creating another hurricane evacuation route. A cynic might say it's simply a gift to the state's politically savvy road builders.

Workers had started clearing trees to make way for what's dubbed Suncoast 2, though a federal judge on Thursday told them to stop, at least temporarily, so that questions about permits raised in a lawsuit filed earlier in the week could be addressed.

This isn't an argument against new roads or expanding existing ones. The state will need more of both to accommodate an estimated 5 million more residents by 2030. But 72 percent of that population growth will be concentrated in nine counties, none of which are anywhere near Lecanto, according to data from the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

We shouldn't be spending our finite tax dollars on road building boondoggles, even if drivers like me enjoy all those empty miles.

• • •

Speaking of the Florida Chamber, the main message at its Learners to Earners Workforce Summit in Tampa was the importance of nurturing and recruiting a talented workforce, which I wrote about Wednesday.

The business group also highlighted a slew of intriguing statistics and forecasts, part of its Florida 2030 plan.

On work and trade:

• More than half of all jobs could be automated "today using currently available technologies."

• Millennials are now the largest segment of U.S. workers, supplanting the quickly retiring Baby Boomers.

• Florida accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. exports to the seven most industrialized nations, but up to 30 percent with many emerging Latin American countries. That might prove a decent tradeoff as emerging markets are forecast to be home to 45 percent of all Fortune Global 500 companies by 2025, up from 17 percent in 2010.

On demographics:

• Nearly one out of every four Florida residents will be over 65 years old by 2030.

• Nearly one in five are foreign born, and nearly one in eight are U.S.-born with at least one immigrant parent.

• Rural areas make up 86 percent of Florida, but only 10 percent of the population. And nearly 80 percent of the population lives near the coast.

On challenges ahead:

• By 2030, more than 25 percent of all miles driven could be by autonomous vehicles.

• Sea levels in southeast Florida -- think Miami, Fort Lauderdale and their many neighbors -- are projected to rise 2.5 inches by 2030 and 10.5 inches by 2060.

• In town halls held in all 67 counties, 87 percent of residents said they were optimistic about the state's future, but when asked if their own community was positioned for global competitiveness and prosperity, most answered no.

• • •

In recent years, Tampa Bay's electrical utilities have had a hard time keeping up with Florida Power & Light's lower prices.

This won't help.

Starting in July, FPL will lower monthly bills by 30 cents to $99.37 for 1,000 kilowatt-hours, about what typical residential customers use each month. FPL, the state's largest electricity provider, has about 4.9 million customers, mostly in the southern part of the state.

Tampa Electric's residential customers currently pay $106 for 1,000 kilowatt hours. For Duke Energy, it's $124.16.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.

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