KISSIMMEE – As the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority struggles with the issue of postponing a scheduled toll hike in 2012, neighboring Osceola County is in the infant stages of putting together its own board to propose roads that needed to be built in the future.
Last year, the Florida Legislature approved a bill allowing for the creation of the Osceola County Expressway Authority. It separates Osecola County from the Orlando/Orange County Expressway Authority and allows Osceola officials to set guidelines for the highways that go through the county. It also gives Osceola the ability to establish tolls to pay for these road improvement projects.
This is a way for Osceola County to chart its own destiny, said state Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, who co-sponsored the bill to create the county’s own Expressway Authority. At the moment, he said, the county is still forming the authority’s governing board.
“It hasn’t been formed yet,” Horner said. “They’re still in the process of putting together the authority.”
But while keeping in mind that no one likes to pay tolls, Horner said it was too early in the process for anyone to be complaining about the possibility to toll roads being built in Osceola.
“That’s something the authority would decide, what roads to build and how to pay for it,” Horner said. “But it wouldn’t change any existing tolls.”
Toll roads, Horner said, are the most direct form of user fees – if people want to use the road, knowing it has tolls, they can, and if they don’t want to pay the toll, they can take a different route.
“That’s how it works,” Horner said. “You don’t put tolls on any road you want. You just put tolls on roads built with tolls. Right now, there’s no tolls to raise. We haven’t built any roads yet. But there’s only so many ways to pay for roads.”
This has been a particular challenge for Osceola County, ever since the housing market went bust. Traditionally, Osceola County relied on two areas — tourism and home building — as the mainstays of the local economy. Both have been hurt by the downturn in the economy.
When the housing market was still booming, Osceola was among the top three fastest growing counties in the nation. To handle growth, commissioners responded by imposing impact fees. Those are fees imposed on the sale of newly constructed homes, paid for either by the developer or, in most instances, fees passed on to the buyers.
Those fees were supposed to be used to pay for needs that growth produced – such as new schools, libraries and expanded roadways.
But when the housing market tanked, and the home building industry collapsed along with it, the impact fee money dried up as well.
As a result, Osceola commissioners were forced to take a different approach last year. Commissioners placed a referendum on the county ballot for voters to decide that would have established a 1-cent sales surtax to improve a series of local roads.
Counties have the discretion to increase sales taxes. The referendum would have raised Osceola County’s sales tax from 7 percent to 8, the highest in the state. But it proved to be a tough sell in a bad economy, and it lost on Nov. 2 when 70 percent of Osceola voters rejected the amendment.
That’s left the county without a clear funding mechanism for new road projects.
That’s why tolls may be the fairest way to get new roads built in Osceola, Horner said.
“If the Expressway Authority gets created, they will build roads that the public wants,” Horner said. “If people don’t want to pay tolls, they don’t have to ride on those roads.”
Horner also notedthat having the county invest in road projects will create thousands of new road construction jobs for an area still suffering from a double-digit unemployment rate.
Thomas R. Kohler, a principal with the firm of Real Estate Research Consultants in downtown Orlando, is now working with the city of Kissimmee and Osceola County on an analysis of U.S. 192. RERC is studying how the county could boost economic development opportunitites there. Kohler said the region has a window of opportunity to make improvements to the transportation infrastructure network that services residents and visitors alike.
“I use the term access and mobility,” he said. “High speed rail and SunRail will appeal to the international traveler who is used to that. That is a real opportunity for the Central Florida community.”
The high speed rail system would run from Cocoa Beach to Orlando and over to Tampa, with stops at Orlando International Airport, Walt Disney World and Lakeland. But its future is in doubt, since Gov. Rick Scott has questioned the cost of this project.
SunRail is a 61-mile commuter rail line that would run from Volusia County to downtown Orlando, and then continue on to the Poinciana Industrial Park.
These projects help the region, Kohler said. Being a popular tourist destination means the region will continue to attract visitors, he noted, and he recommended that counties start questioning how solid their highway network is.
“I think we’re in a real interesting period of time where access and mobility go together and play off this tourism industry we have here,” he said.
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