Increase in mileage rate? A sales tax hike that must be approved by referendum? Increase impact fees or change their use? A caution ? Better coordination with regional organizations to get more benefits for leveraged dollars?
All on board as the City of Lakeland grapples with a traffic network congested by at least $200 million in unfunded road projects, costly jurisdictional complexities, state law that leaves little discretion and the pressing reality that more cars, people, homes and businesses are coming whether the roads are ready or not.
Fundraising for roads was the dominant theme Wednesday morning at the Lakeland City Commission’s annual two-day strategic planning session at the RP Funding Center in downtown Lakeland.
Sure, there’s nothing new about Lakeland’s lack of transportation funding, but what’s new — or, at least, mounting amidst the urgency — is the fury at the increased traffic in the rapidly growing area directed at city commissioners and officials.
And this increase in traffic anxiety may make what was politically untenable not so long ago potentially acceptable now.
“Millage (increase) or referendum?” asked commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley.
Polk County voters beaten down a 2014 sales tax measure for roads and public transit.
But that was then, McCarley said, and this is now. Voters in Lakeland “could have more buy-in than eight years ago,” she said.
The 2014 sales tax proposal was poorly coordinated and failed to make its case to the “private sector”, she said. Next time, “do it up front” and “get them involved,” she said.
Lakeland Director of Engineering Ryan Lazenby suggested the city “come up with two or three priority projects” and a “catchy name” for “some type of initiative” to “show voters and the world business that we are serious about”.
But good luck, he said. “In Central Florida, these kinds of initiatives have failed. People don’t want to pay more,” Lazenby said.
That’s the problem, said Mayor Bill Mutz. “We like to work with other people’s money” – federal, state, regional county – but unless local taxpayers reach “into their pocketbooks to help fix some of the problems”, the road system will never get much more than “lip service”, he said.
Amid “all the nuances of the many facets of needs,” Mutz said, “traffic is the No. 1 problem of importance. We can’t keep talking about it like everyone is financing (projects). Look to you for some of that triage funding.
A sales tax referendum and other options to increase road funding must be explored to avoid “an increase in mileage for this purpose” that “no one wants”, he said.
Finding ways to bridge the gap between planned and funded projects has been a constant theme at previous annual strategy sessions and throughout, the meter has ticked.
Lakeland Transportation and Development Review Director Charles Barmby said what was a $160 million gap several years ago is “north of $200 million” today.
Lazenby explained that the main sources of funding for the city’s roads are property taxes, impact fees paid by developers, and through allocations and projects undertaken by federal and state governments.
“The state has its work program, the county has its work program, and the city has a transportation fund” with 51% made up of gas taxes and much of the rest coming from impact fees, a he declared.
The city uses this money to fully fund highway projects or leverage in tandem with contributions from federal, state and county agencies, as well as regional planning organizations such as the Polk Transportation Planning Organization.
Among the problems with the funding formula is that gas tax revenues are stagnating as cars become more fuel-efficient and electric vehicles are more common, Lazenby said.
“The city is heavily dependent on fuel tax revenue, which is maxed out,” he said. “The city’s growth exceeds fuel tax revenues. We expect (gas tax revenues) to peak and begin to decline in this decade. »
Fuel tax-funded road projects “were great coming out of the horse and buggy era,” Barmby said, noting that transport revenue mechanisms need to be modernized, but that’s part of the challenges. “outside the city’s control”.
“We need help from Tallahassee and Washington,” he said. “We really need Tallahassee to help us.”
State laws passed in the wake of the 2007-2008 housing recession limit local government discretion in processing development proposals. Among the 2011 bans is the denial of new development because existing roads are inadequate and require developers to pay for improvements to upgrade existing deficiencies.
Voters should “really get mad and say it’s not working” the next time they vote for state lawmakers, Bramby said.
McCarley said she recently filed a complaint from a state senator about traffic on South Florida Avenue, which is a state highway. “I said, ‘So what are you going to do? It’s your road,” she said.
Lakeland Chief Financial Officer Mike Brossart said the city “can fund the debt” for a bond issue with a “pay as you go” fuel tax and impact fee revenue.
Brossart said issuing a bond isn’t always the best solution if the city wants to quickly raise money for a project. “Borrowing directly” from local banks can be “cheaper” because “we don’t need rating agency review” for a municipal bond issue.
The bonds are for large-scale projects “planned well in advance”, he said.
A less dramatic route to finding more money for city transportation might be to build flexibilities into the new Transportation Impact Fee to encourage builders to contribute to offsite improvements.
Lazenby said the city’s impact fee structure was last overhauled in 2019 and may be revisited. “Perhaps start at a higher level” in upfront fees “but with much more flexibility” to encourage “retail uses with internal capture”, such as the recently approved development agreement with Forestar.
Last year, he said, the city collected $5.9 million in impact fees, of which about 14% — $235,000 — was available to manage traffic pressure from new developments. Currently, 65% of the city’s total road budget is spent on maintaining the existing system. Without an increase in revenue, it will soon be around 80%, he said.
Lazenby said that with better coordination with the county and the Polk County TPO, not to mention the state Department of Transportation, “the city can make small investments to get closer (unfunded projects) to the shovel ready”, which the state favors when approving projects.
One way for the city to leverage its money for state money is to manage all of the initial permits such as the “right-of-way phase” to make it an “appealing project for (state) funding. )”, did he declare.
Barmby said studies from 2019 recommended the city increase its impact fee while providing incentives for high-wage industries.
The “only uses subject to full impact fees are warehouses,” he said. “The next update we need to get closer to 100%” because it “signals to the state that we will have more funding available for shovel-ready projects” to “push the DOT.”
Exactly, said McCarley, more upfront money is needed.
“That’s what I mean – skin in the game,” she said. “When it comes to the budget, you have to have the money to show that we have skin in the game.”