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Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Bump in the Road

The Gainesville Sun made a few good points today about the problem with funding the county's $350 million road maintenance backlog, but as usual, The Sun failed to address the main problems – poorly planned growth and the failure of growth to pay for itself.

The Sun's solution to the problem is to throw more money at it, and because the voters defeated the 7-year sales tax increase on Nov. 2 that would have funded some of that backlog, the paper wants the Alachua County Commission to find the money elsewhere:

"They can raise the gasoline tax by as much as a nickel a gallon. They can redirect funding from other programs into road maintenance. Or they can do some combination of both."

And of course an increase in property taxes would help, but that is not likely to be proposed by any sitting elected official who desires to be re-elected. But even if the commission was to have that kind of political backbone (it won't), throwing money at the problem is not going to solve the problem, only delay it.

The reason that the county has such a massive backlog in road maintenance projects is twofold: First, the county, dominated by pro-development commissioners, have been approving new and wider roads for decades whenever a developer needed one built. This was good for people who make money from real estate development, because roads guide where growth happens, but it is bad for the taxpayers because each new road is a future road maintenance project.

According to The Sun: "Roads maintained on a five-year schedule cost about $250,000 a mile to resurface. Roads that are neglected for 10 years cost $1.2 million a mile because, at that point, foundations and bases begin to break down. Some of Alachua County's roads, voters were told, hadn't been resurfaced for 20 years or longer."

These roads made a lot of people rich, I can guarantee that, but it has left the taxpayers with a hefty bill.

That, too, could have been avoided had the county been taking measures all these years to ensure that growth paid for itself. Instead, county commissioners, almost always elected using the wealth of the real estate development community, have chosen to subsidize the costs of growth with tax revenues. Again, that's good for people who make money from growth, and bad for those of us who now face the task of paying for it.

So the county could start working on this problem by taking any money it has budgeted for new or widened roads and spend it on the maintenance. Also, the county needs to stop building any more roads until it can both fix the current problems and address the unfair subsidization of growth so that we do not have the same problems a decade from now.

The Sun, in the post-Buddy Davis era, has never argued for anything remotely like that. The Sun likes growth to happen as fast as possible, because it means more money for the newspaper. Growth = more people and businesses = more readers and advertisers = ability to charge more for advertising = fat bank account.

Doubt me? The check out this sentence from The Sun's eddy: "The adequacy of the county's transportation grid is directly linked to its economic prosperity and is as essential to the public health, welfare and safety as, say, police and fire protection."

The Sun ranked our economic prosperity above the public's health, safety and welfare.

It will be interesting to see how the County Commission responds to the problem. Keep watch for the commissioners to try to cut important programs, such and environmental protection. My guess is that the commissioners will have no spine and try to put another sales tax initiative before the voters, but this time with some sort of built-in threat that if voters don't approve the sales tax increase, then the county will have to raise property taxes. It's called a shakedown, but often it is effective.

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