To tax or not to tax: counties face a challenge on road projects.

Keith Laytham (standing) talks to meets of the civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, which he is the president of. (Photo by Dave Raith).

POINCIANA – When a new Race Trac convenience store opened in Poinciana this month, it gave local residents another option for filling their gas tanks.
It also gives the residents an opportunity to become better consumers, said Keith Laytham, a resident of the Solivita development in Poinciana — and not just because they can compare Race Trac’s prices to other local stations.
Residents of the 10 villages in Poinciana also have the option of considering the taxes imposed on gasoline sales at the county level, Laytham said, since Poinciana is divided between two counties.
“We live between two counties,” said Laytham, the president of Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, a civic group working to improve the community. One of the differences between the two counties, he added, is how they raise revenues.
“Polk County has a 5 cent a gallon gas tax,” Laytham said. “In Osceola County, they don’t. So it’s typically cheaper to get gas in Osceola.”
According to the Florida Counties Foundation, Florida’s 67 counties have numerous options for raising revenue, including property taxes, local option sales taxes, and local option motor fuel taxes, among them.
The Florida Constitution authorizes counties to impose a tax on motor fuel and diesel to finance the acquisition and construction of roads.
It makes sense then, Laytham said, for Poinciana residents to use gas stations on the Osceola County side of the community. But the irony of doing that, he said, is that Polk County probably could use that revenue, since the county commissioners have started investing more in Poinciana – including committing to help fund the new Poinciana Parkway, a toll road that would be designed to make it easier for residents to get to Interstate 4.
Most of the highway will be in Osceola County, though – less than two miles of it will be in Polk – and it will be operated by the Osceola County Expressway Authority.
Polk County’s support for this project, Laytham said, was critical to getting a green light for construction, and once completed, this roadway will likely help bring more businesses to a community that was very hard hit by the recession and the collapse of the housing market.
“The commercial growth of Poinciana is tied hand and glove to getting around,” he said.
The only way the counties can support a project like this one, he added, is by having the revenue to commit to it. The Poinciana Parkway was originally proposed back in 2004 by the major builder in the community, AV Homes, but the cost of the project soared from $40 million to more than $170 million when the state’s environmental agencies ordered that AV construct a bridge over the Reedy Creek Preserve, an environmentally protected area.
AV Homes was forced to turn to the counties to fund the road. And local residents should be grateful the counties signed on, Laytham said.
“The Poinciana Parkway is a subject near and dear to all our hearts,” he said. “This is a big, big deal for Poinciana.”
There are still issues to be decided – the project’s groundbreaking isn’t expected to happen until November, at the earliest – including whether the highway will have a 45 mile-per-hour speed limit, or 65. Osceola County officials also have to decide if they want to construct a two-lane bridge, and two lane roadway, at a cost of $60 million, or a four lane bridge at a cost of $81 million.
“The real question is where does the county come up with the extra money,” Laytham said.
Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington said residents can expect the parkway will have the same speed limit as other major highways in Central Florida.
“We’re not going to build a 45 mile-per-hour road, I can guarantee you that,” he said. “We’re not going to build a 45 mile-per-hour expressway.”
Osceola also has a challenge, Arrington said, because normally road construction projects are financed by impact fees. Those are fees imposed on the construction of new homes, to help pay for the infrastructure needs that rapid growth brings to a community.
The fact that the Poinciana Parkway will be a toll road, Arrington said, in which tolls collected from it are used to cover the long term maintenance costs, means this project can’t be built by impact fees.
“That cannot go toward toll roads,” he said. “That can only go to impact fee roads.”

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