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Several counties have turned to “mobility fees” that discourage highway expansion and steer development toward cities.

In facing a massive infrastructure crisis, America is learning the hard way that the cost of highways doesn’t end with their construction. Roads must be maintained for years and years—a ceaseless strain on local budgets. As chief of development and infrastructure for Florida’s Hillsborough County, home to metro Tampa, Lucia Garsys knows this lesson all too well.

“As we add more roads and don’t have the money to keep the roads resurfaced, I know what the impact of that is,” she says.

That knowledge is at the root of a policy shift that’s sweeping across Florida government. Hillsborough is one of several counties in the state that has recently made, or is considering, a shift from traditional development impact fees to so-called “mobility fees” that discourage new road construction by steering development to areas where infrastructure already exists. The hope is the shift will keep road maintenance costs from spiraling further out of hand—and limit sprawl to boot.

“So how can we use mobility fees to incentivize redevelopment?” says Garsys. “And conversely, how do we keep them from encouraging sprawl?”

Hillsborough and Tampa have struggled with sprawl for years. “There is no limit to how far our area can sprawl,” one county planning official said back in 1998. That forecast has held painfully true. Tampa ranked 124 out of 221 U.S. metros on a recent sprawl index, with residents spending more than half their income on transportation and housing combined. Writing in Salon in 2012, Will Doig summed up the bleak situation best:

In 2010, Forbes ranked Tampa dead last out of 60 metro areas for commuting. Transportation for America declared it the second-most-dangerous city for pedestrians. And a 2007 survey of 30 metropolitan areas found exactly one with no walkable destinations: Tampa, Fla. “Tampa is not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn recently admitted.

To some extent Tampa and Hillsborough have been victims of Florida’s best intentions. In the mid-1980s the state passed a law requiring local governments to adopt comprehensive plans with the explicit goal of discouraging “the proliferation of urban sprawl.” The basic idea was to charge developers a fee for the impact they imposed on infrastructure, and that way make sure metro areas had enough of it to accommodate growth, but the devil was in the details.

The state used the car-friendly “level of service” measure to establish that impact—meaning any development plans that created new rush-hour traffic congestion required higher fees, and thus became less desirable. The result was sprawl in a bottle. Writing in The Urban Lawyer a few years ago, Thomas G. Pelham, then Secretary for the Florida Department of Community Affairs, outlined the “unintended planning and financial consequences” that emerged:

  • Transportation. If new building plans targeted an area with bad congestion for development, then the impact fees went toward widening roads in that area—not strengthening transit or providing alternative options.
  • Land use planning. If new building plans targeted areas where congestion was bad and there wasn’t space to widen roads, then developers shifted their focus to remote areas where traffic could handle the strain of new residents.
  • Funding. Since later builders had to pay to alleviate the traffic created by earlier builders, the system created a “last one in” problem that discouraged precisely the type of dense development many cities need.

Pelham concluded:

Focused on roadways and automobiles, the system has not only failed to produce a sustainable transportation system, but it has also contributed to the proliferation of urban sprawl.

Mobility fees would take a wider view of the transportation network. Rather than focus on alleviating traffic congestion, the fees would be sensitive to vehicle miles produced by new development, with the money conceivably being directed toward alternatives modes, such as transit, bicycle, and pedestrian facilities. The end result should be that fees in central urban areas are considerably lower than those far outside the core.

Using Charlotte County as an example, a 2009 report from the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida showed that mobility fees based on vehicle mileage for building a single-family residence in an urban area would be 55 percent lower than existing fees, while those in rural areas would rise as much as 45 percent:

Seggerman et al (2009)

“The old model really had impact fees that were very low in rural areas, far from the suburban, urban core,” says Garsys. “For builders who wanted to move out that way it was a no-brainer—you’d move further out, where the impact fees were lower, where land was cheaper.”

The push by Florida counties reflects a broader move away from development based on road-friendly “level of service” measures in the U.S.—with California leading the paradigm shift. There’s been some predictable pushback, with particular concern that the new fees won’t generate enough money to offset transportation impacts, but Garsys says fiscal responsibility demands some type of change to the existing system. Hillsborough hopes to craft its full plan by December.

“[Mobility fees] give us the option to understand a broader dynamic of how people travel and where they travel,” she says. “So it just doesn’t assume everyone’s going to get in a car and drive.”

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