Hillsborough transportation tax: What you need to know

 

WHAT DOES THE BALLOT INITIATIVE DO?

  • Here’s the question on the ballot for County Referendum No. 2: “Should transportation improvements be funded throughout Hillsborough County, including Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace, Brandon, Town ‘n’ Country, and Sun City, including projects that: Improve roads and bridges, Expand public transit options, Fix potholes, Enhance bus services, Relieve rush hour bottlenecks, Improve intersections, and Make walking and biking safer, By amending the County Charter to enact a one-cent sales surtax levied for 30 years and deposited in an audited trust fund with independent oversight? A new 1% sales surtax is in addition to the current 7% sales tax and is estimated to raise $276 million annually and $552 million the first two calendar years. Revenues will be shared by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART); Metropolitan Planning Organization; and, using a population-based formula, by Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, City of Tampa, Plant City, and City of Temple Terrace. Expenditures will be governed by the Charter Amendment.”
  • Most of the money — 54 percent — would be earmarked for roads, sidewalks and trails. About 45 percent would go to bus and transit. Here are highlights of how the tax proceeds would be used: resurface Tampa’s roads every 25 years instead of every 75 years; build a mass-transit system linking the university area, downtown Tampa and the Westshore-Tampa International Airport area; round out a planned network of 400 miles of bike and pedestrian trails; add 10 new routes, 150 new buses and increase the frequency of at least four bus routes to every 15 minutes; plug roughly 500 miles of sidewalk gaps on roads in unincorporated Hillsborough; and make intersection improvements throughout the county, including the addition of intelligent traffic signals that adjust to real-time traffic flow. For a household with an income that’s average for the county, around $55,000, the proposal would mean an extra $120 per year in taxes, according to a sales tax calculator developed by the Internal Revenue Service.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

Transportation officials say no one has come up with a way to pay for hundreds of pressing transportation needs amounting to some $9 billion. To address this, a citizens group backed by business leaders including Jeff Vinik gathered the signatures necessary to put a one-cent-per-dollar sales tax on the Nov. 6 ballot. Other backers include Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and major local employers. No opposition to the measure surfaced until three weeks before the election, when a tea party-affiliated group that successfully fought transportation ballot measures before in the Tampa Bay area organized a political action committee. Among its arguments, the group says the increase would help make Hillsborough’s the state’s highest sales tax and is unnecessary because county commissioners re-prioritized $800 million of existing revenue for transportation over 10 years that, combined with gas taxes, will fund needed maintenance and safety issues. The local NAACP also opposes the hike, saying it’s a burden on poor people. All for Transportation, the group advocating the tax increase, said the $800 million doesn’t come close to answering current transportation needs or  those that will be created by a Hillsborough population increase projected at 700,000 in the next 30 years. If the measure passes, it would amend the county charter to increase the sales tax by 1 percent and would create a 13-member citizen oversight committee to make sure local governments spend the funds as intended.

The Train That Only Libertarians Can Love

Will Florida’s sleek, for-profit rail project become an advertisement for the limitations of bipartisan compromise?

by Maddy Crowell

Barack Obama had a vision—expressed in a literal, color-coded map he carried with him in 2009—for how high-speed rail would transform America. There would be 150,000 jobs, environmental benefits, less highway and airport congestion, and, most importantly, “a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the twenty-first century.” As part of that vision, in his 2010 State of the Union address he announced that the state of Florida would receive a federal grant, later set at $2.4 billion, to build a high-speed rail project that had been shovel ready since the 1990s: an eighty-five-mile line connecting Tampa and Orlando, offering a super-fast alternative to traffic jams along Interstate 4. The young president showed up a day later in a sweaty gymnasium at the University of Tampa to promote the plan. “There’s no reason why other countries can build high-speed rail and we can’t,” he said to applause. “And that’s what’s about to happen right here in Tampa.”

Except it wasn’t. That November, Republican Rick Scott, a Tea Party darling, was elected Florida’s new governor. It took him one month in office to extinguish Obama’s vision. “Put simply,” Scott wrote in a February 2011 letter to Ray LaHood, the transportation secretary, “the proposed high-speed rail line is far too uncertain and offers far too little long-term benefit for me to consider moving forward.”

Ideology was at the core of his decision. For years, mainstream Republicans have rebuked high-speed rail as socialist folly. (They are hardly kinder to Amtrak, a quasi-public, nominally for-profit entity.) Scott was the latest in a long line of Republican governors—including John Kasich in Ohio and Scott Walker in Wisconsin—to reject Obama’s money on the grounds that high-speed rail was too much of a burden on taxpayers.

But a few years ago, a more palatable solution was presented to Florida’s Republicans. The proposed train, called Brightline, wouldn’t quite be “high speed,” which by international standards generally means running on dedicated tracks at speeds over 150 miles per hour, often approaching 200. Brightline trains would run on upgraded tracks laid in the nineteenth century, passing through the centers of many small towns and traversing hundreds of grade crossings, where track and roadway (or track and track) meet. As a result, they would top out at 125 miles per hour. But what really animated Republicans was Brightline’s solution to funding: it would be a for-profit operation funded through private investment. This train wasn’t socialism; it was American free enterprise at work. 

Yet Brightline, which started running between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach this past January and extended services to Miami in May, has been controversial. While Scott has praised the project for being “100 percent private,” the project is under siege from a broad coalition of Floridians—including many Republicans—who complain that a high-speed passenger train will disrupt their tranquil communities, and who object to the generous subsidies handed out to private investors in the form of what are known as private activity bonds, or PABs—tax-exempt bonds created by Congress and authorized by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Florida’s state Democrats, for the most part, have been quietly supportive of Brightline. 

So many other countries have unveiled state-of-the-art high-speed rail systems in recent years (Uzbekistan, anyone?) that it’s become almost a cliché to wonder why America hasn’t been able to build tracks of its own. Yet the question of what to do about the impasse—along with America’s degenerating infrastructure more broadly—remains perilously unanswered. Brightline, with its supposed combination of public benefit and private enterprise, offers itself as a panacea to the partisan gridlock. But can a for-profit transportation project adequately provide what has traditionally been a publicly subsidized service? Or will the sleek new trains become an advertisement for the limitations of bipartisan compromise?

President Obama wasn’t the first Democrat to make sweeping promises about how high-speed rail would transform Florida. In 1982, the wildly popular Democratic Governor Bob Graham returned from a vacation in Japan convinced that bullet trains were the future. He created the Florida High Speed Rail Commission, a nonpartisan group tasked with determining whether the technology was feasible for Florida. They concluded that it was, and by 1996, it looked as though the project would actually happen. The Florida Department of Transportation agreed to commit $70 million per year for thirty years to build a line between Orlando and Tampa. Companies like Amtrak and the makers of France’s TGV started meeting with the committee to bid for the commission. One consortium even proposed a magnetic levitation train that would travel at 300 miles an hour.

“They spent an hour convincing me how they were the best engineers,” said C. C. Dockery, a wealthy, civic-minded businessman who served on the committee, recalling one such meeting. “Finally, I had a chance to cut in and say, ‘If you think this is an engineering job, you’re definitely wrong. This is a political job.’”

By that time, debates over high-speed rail were percolating nationwide. Conservatives objected that it would be an expensive boondoggle leading to bigger government. If countries like Japan and France were surpassing the U.S. in train technology, it was just a sign of their socialist inefficiency. Besides, they argued, we have cars.

Democrats, by contrast, were drawn to the broad social benefits of high-speed rail: the millions of construction jobs they believed it could create, the broader economic development it could stimulate, and, perhaps idealistically, the connections it might encourage between disparate communities. In 1992, then candidate Bill Clinton proposed creating “a high-speed rail network between our nation’s major cities.” Once in office, he wound up prioritizing deficit reduction over his campaign promises for infrastructure investment, but he still managed to put in place a plan to create federal-state partnerships devoted to alternative means of transportation. Florida was first in line to receive the benefits. 

But, in 1999, newly elected Governor Jeb Bush killed a $6.3 billion project to build a bullet train linking Miami, Orlando, and Tampa. Billions of public dollars were at stake, he said; who knew whether tourists and auto-loving Floridians would even use it. (Florida would have put up $2 billion, with the rest coming from federal loans and private investment.)

A group of private citizens fought back, led by Dockery. In 2000, following a campaign to which Dockery contributed $3 million of his own money, Florida voted in favor of making high-speed rail a state constitutional mandate. It seemed like Dockery had finally won: construction for a train from Tampa to Orlando was to begin in 2003. But Bush—who later boasted that his nickname was “Veto” Corleone—swooped in to lead an effort to repeal the amendment in 2004. “This little choo-choo could cost us a lot of money,” Bush argued on his way to winning the repeal vote. It seemed clear by that point that Florida’s Republicans would not budge: high-speed rail was all but out of commission. 

And then Brightline came along. 

When I flew into Fort Lauderdale in July, I had to rent a car. Florida’s southeast corridor is designed for the automobile, with disjointed trenches of soggy swampland and gated communities joined by an epic sprawl of asphalt and traffic. With the exception of Miami, the cities that run along the southeast coast feel more like a disparate string of small neighborhoods, linked by roads with names like Green River Parkway and South Military Trail that ultimately feed into larger highways like Interstate 95.

The Brightline station, built on the outskirts of Fort Lauderdale’s sleepy downtown, stood in stark contrast to its surroundings—a fiercely lit, modern white-winged building spitting out a pair of railway tracks that divide the city. To the east was a mix of fast-rising real estate developments and gentrifying older neighborhoods; to the west, low-income housing. Surrounding the station, on all sides, were streets and highways. Every day, sixteen trains run in each direction between West Palm Beach and Miami, offering a high-end, hospitable alternative to I-95, which runs parallel to the train. 

“Nifty,” a man disembarking Brightline said as I stepped past him onto a fluorescently painted train that had slid into the station exactly on time. “Very nifty.”

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of summer, and nearly every other row of seats was empty. The interior glowed in an opalescent sheen, smelling of a fresh grapefruit musk (a scent that Brightline is turning into candles to sell). The plush leather seats reclined to face screens displaying color-coded maps and declaring, “We’re proud to be American-made.” Inscribed on every headrest, in elegant cursive, was the word “Brightline.”

We all but glided up the coast, passing backyard barbecues, empty lots, and low-income communities where, as one man later put it to me by way of explaining the poverty, “People bike.” It was a sharp contrast to the scene inside the train, which seemed built to serve mostly businesspeople and tourists. Smiling stewardesses in matching violet uniforms offered riders in the “Select” class unlimited free beverages. One stewardess, whose hospitality recalled the long-lost days of Pan Am, explained to a middle-aged blond woman who was sipping a vodka with lime that she could even blow-dry her hair on Brightline on her way to work. “It pays to relax!” she said with a laugh, continuing down the aisle.

“I’ll take a Stella Artois,” said a young man playing Sim-City on his computer. He paused, looking up. “Wait—is it cold?”

The stewardess nodded.

“I mean, is it Florida cold?”

It was indeed. This, Brightline seemed to be saying, was no Amtrak ride. 

To its boosters, Brightline is a testament to what free enterprise can accomplish—running on privately owned tracks that simultaneously run fleets of money-making freight trains. But the reality is that hauling people has been a money loser since the 1960s, and Brightline wouldn’t exist without some form of government backing.  

The project was the brainchild of Wes Edens, the cofounder of Fortress, one of Wall Street’s most powerful private equity firms, which bought Florida East Coast Industries for $3.5 billion in 2007. Eight years later, the company came up with a plan to make passenger trains profitable again. The trick was to get approval from the Florida government and the U.S. Department of Transportation to allow Brightline to float more than $1.7 billion in private activity bonds. 

PABs, originally designed to attract investment to private projects with public benefits (like, say, a new hospital), are appealing to investors because the interest they pay is exempt from federal income taxes. For Brightline, they provided a way to finance private infrastructure using public tax subsidies. Although Brightline’s holding company is responsible for paying back the debt created by these bonds, the tax exemption is a pure public expenditure.

In 2000, Florida voted in favor of making high-speed rail a state constitutional mandate. But Governor Jeb Bush swooped in to lead an effort to repeal the amendment in 2004. “This little choo-choo could cost us a lot of money,” he argued.

To survive on PAB funding, Brightline needs to find a way to churn a profit. As Brightline’s president Patrick Goddard explained to me, “Our goal is to provide mobility. And yes, we want to make money while doing so.” In turn, it is pricey. Current rates, which are expected to rise significantly, range from $15 to $30 to ride from Miami to Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach. Like airline flights or ride shares, prices fluctuate based on demand. (I paid $20 to ride for thirty minutes between Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach in the off-season.)

If all goes right, Brightline will create so much economic development in the communities it serves that it will more than make up for the cost of its tax subsidies. The taxpayers will in effect get a free passenger rail service. But if that sounds too good to be true, maybe it is. 

Aprivate, for-profit train seemed to be just the banner Florida’s corporate Republicans needed to pass high-speed rail, even if it was only made possible through the back-end subsidy of tax exemptions. “We changed the conversation,” Dennis Grady, the president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, told me when I met him at his office, a flat building on the edge of the water just ten minutes from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Grady, who has been running the Chamber for thirty-three years and likes to refer to the business community as “my people,” has been a leading advocate of Brightline, which is a Chamber member. “We removed the criticism of public dollars, and put in private dollars.”

The business community’s enthusiasm has been key to Brightline’s success. More surprising, though, has been the support of libertarians—erstwhile high-speed rail skeptics who became cheerleaders for Brightline. One of these supporters is Bob Poole, founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation and a member of Scott’s transition team in 2010. The Reason Foundation was instrumental in persuading the governor to reject Obama’s proposed project in 2011. When Scott announced that he was killing the project, he cited a Reason Foundation report as the basis for his decision. 

Private activity bonds are appealing to investors because the interest they pay is exempt from federal income taxes. For Brightline, they provided a way to finance private infrastructure using public tax subsidies.

I met Poole at his house, a late-1960s tract house fifteen minutes outside of Fort Lauderdale. The walls were lined with an eclectic book collection, with public policy tomes resting next to Ayn Rand fiction and Hippie Food. Poole told me that Obama’s high-speed rail plan was “just loony tunes.” High-speed rail made sense in Europe, or Japan, where cities were closer together and extensive rail systems already existed, he explained. But in America, preexisting freight tracks have been severely downsized, and trying to revive them doesn’t make sense. Brightline, however, was a different story. “The fact that this is privately funded, and no taxpayer money is at risk, makes this a no-brainer to support.”

Yet even if Brightline wins the praise of self-described market conservatives and Chamber of Commerce types, it’s having a harder time in some other Republican quarters. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, has become an outspoken critic. A few months after Brightline began operations, Rubio wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao questioning the legitimacy of its funding. He argued that the project doesn’t meet the standards outlined by the Department of Transportation, which provide that “high-speed rail” must run at a base speed of 150 miles per hour to qualify for funding. Other state Republicans chimed in with letters to Chao.

An unlikely team of allies—nine Democratic and Republican representatives—fired back, assuring Chao that they shared her “vision of identifying innovative approaches to meet our nation’s transportation challenges.” The group argued that Brightline was the “perfect example” of how private activity bonds should be spent, and that it would decongest Florida’s growing population by providing a new transportation alternative. They accused their opponents of “resisting change.”

Meanwhile, opposition is strong at the local level, including among the many Republican retirees who live along Brightline’s right-of-way. A month after the train began operating, a group calling itself Citizens Against Rail Expansion (CARE) filed a lawsuit complaining of crony capitalism. CARE’s suit challenges the legality of Brightline’s PABs while also raising environmental and safety concerns (in six months, for instance, Brightline trains ran over and killed nine people, though more than half may have been cases of suicide). The lawsuit is currently awaiting a court date. 

Governor Scott—who is running for Senate this fall—has not responded directly to any of the complaints, beyond repeatedly stressing that Brightline poses no risk to taxpayers. He may be forced to speak more on the topic soon. In August, the Miami Herald reported that Scott and his wife had invested at least $3 million in Fortress, the investment group that owns Brightline, and have earned more than $150,000 in profits from their investment. When I contacted Scott’s office, his spokesperson, Lauren Schenone, said that Scott’s investment was part of a fund “managed by an independent financial professional who decides what assets are bought, sold or changed,” and that Scott, a multimillionaire, has no control over it. “The Governor does not discuss the First Lady’s investments with her or with her financial advisors,” Schenone added.

In August, Brightline got the green light from the Florida Development Finance Corporation to act as the conduit issuer for almost $1.8 billion in PABs, enabling the company to go forward with what they are calling “Phase II”: trains from Miami to the Orlando airport. Construction has begun, with the upgraded track cutting through one of Florida’s most densely populated arteries—a predominantly Republican corridor where many residents are adamantly opposed to seeing fast trains running through their backyard. Ironically, it’s a “backyard” that likely wouldn’t exist if the railway hadn’t been built through it 124 years ago.

“We don’t want this train coming through our town—bottom line,” Brent Hanlon, one of four founding members of CARE, explained to me in his office in an exclusive country club in Hobe Sound. Hanlon, who has sandy blond hair, sun-spotted skin, and speaks with a boyish eagerness, had never been politically active until 2014, when he heard about Brightline. He immediately reached out to the surrounding forty towns to raise awareness about the train, and formed CARE. “We’re a very small town with a small-town feel, and we just think that having a train blow through our community would take away the charm of our downtown. When you see Confusion Corner, you’ll understand why.”

Hobe Sound, in Martin County, is part of a cluster of small communities that make up the “Treasure Coast,” a sprawling beach with silvery blue water where sea turtles nest and “downtown” is a single street with a theater, a café, a barber shop, and a restaurant. Inland, wild swampland wraps tightly around spruced-up golf courses, a parody of the eternal combat between chaos and order. 

I followed Hanlon by car to Confusion Corner, which turned out to be the local nickname for a congested roundabout in the middle of the small town of Stuart. Bisecting one edge of the clogged circle are the railway tracks Brightline proposes to use. As we stood there, a freight train passed by, and Hanlon pointed to every “confused” car that had to sit a little longer in traffic. I didn’t completely understand the hype. Trains had been running up and down the tracks for as long as Martin County had existed. While Brightline would add to that traffic, it didn’t seem like something Floridians—who appear to be culturally habituated to congestion—hadn’t seen before. 

“Is there anything Brightline could do to change your mind?” I asked Hanlon as we watched the freight chug past. 

“Yeah,” he said quickly. “They could, uh, not run.”

CARE has been repeatedly accused of being a classic case of NIMBYism. At a congressional hearing last April, Brightline’s president, Patrick Goddard, accused the group of being “a minority of narrow-minded residents . . . who are willing to support passenger rail everywhere, it seems, except in their own backyard.” When I spoke with Goddard on the phone more recently, he said he wished he’d handled the situation differently. “We’re married now,” he said, referring to the fact that Brightline is beginning to build through the Treasure Coast en route to Orlando. “We’re going to have to find a way to get along.” 

Naturally, Brightline opponents see the NIMBY label as a way of trivializing their objections. “We have really legitimate reasons for being concerned about safety, and to say that we’re just anti-progress is very shortsighted,” said Erin Grall, the state representative for Vero Beach, and a Republican. “The reality of these coastal communities is that they have been built up by a railway, but not one running at 110 miles per hour through our communities.” She argued that Brightline hadn’t put the proper safety features in place: the train would pass through 100 grade crossings, and the burden of maintaining them, according to Grall, would fall on local taxpayers. “This state’s been talking about high-speed rail for a really long time,” she said. “The conversation does change a little if it’s privately funded, but safety is still an issue and there isn’t really an entity on the state level that has stepped up to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to make sure our citizens will be safe.’”

CARE casts itself as the voice of the community—a bipartisan advocate for what it claims are the roughly ten million people who live in areas that could be affected by rail expansion. At the same time, CARE has powerful supporting players of its own. In the group’s short life-span, it has raised $2 million from private “crowdsourcing” (the community is mostly wealthy retirees). It is backed by the former CEO of American Airlines and employs a global PR firm and a legal team consisting of two county attorneys and two outside counsels.

Brightline is continuing to expand. In September, the company announced that it would be starting a high-speed passenger service connecting Southern California with Las Vegas. But it’s not clear how successful the Florida operation has been. When I spoke with Goddard, he said Brightline’s first-quarter numbers were “higher than expected.” The company generated $663,000 in ticket revenue, and carried close to 75,000 passengers, from January to March. But according to Brightline’s unaudited quarterly report, the company lost roughly $28 million in the same period. A Brightline spokeswoman, however, said those numbers only reflected ridership for Brightline’s introductory service, and added that ridership and revenue increased 35 percent from January to March. The project’s fate may depend on whether it can sell the more than $1.1 billion in remaining PABs by the end of January (an extension granted by the Department of Transportation in May). If Brightline fails, private investors will lose their money, with no responsibility on the government itself. But what may be lost, in that case, is the opportunity to have applied the PABs to a project that could have succeeded.

The larger question raised by Brightline is whether its mixture of private ownership and public subsidies, which the Trump administration proposed in its infrastructure bill in February, makes either political or economic sense. “Almost invariably, the issue is that when private capital is at risk, the arrangement is structured so that private returns are prioritized,” said Elliott Sclar, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “Either way, the public sector always bears the lion’s share of risk for the entire project.” 

“We don’t want this train coming through our town—bottom line,” said Brent Hanlon, a founding member of Citizens Against Rail Expansion. “Is there anything Brightline could do to change your mind?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said quickly. “They could, uh, not run.”

In a way, the combination of private financing for public railways is nothing new. From the beginning, rail infrastructure in the U.S. was privately owned, but largely financed through considerable grants of public land. Railroads, in turn, used a small part of the land for their rights-of-way, selling the rest at an enormous profit. The very track on which Brightline runs exists because back in the 1880s Florida gave Henry Flagler, one of John D. Rockefeller’s close friends, a grant of more than two million acres of land in return for his building the Florida East Coast Railway. 

This model has led to problems and contradictions over the years. Even before the coming of autos and planes, most passenger trains historically lost money, especially ones serving small towns on lightly traveled branch lines. The government had to force railroads to run those unprofitable trains, often pointing to the generous land grants and other subsidies the railroads received. But in the mid-twentieth century, a variety of forces made this harder to sustain. (Depending who you ask, it was Dwight Eisenhower’s interstate system, a cultural shift toward driving, the railroad unions, or all of the above.) The decline of passenger rail was slow, until suddenly, it happened all at once: October, 30, 1970, the day the government passed the Rail Passenger Service Act “to revitalize rail transportation service in the expectation that the rendering of such service along certain corridors can be made a profitable commercial undertaking.” Today, we know that act as “Amtrak.”

That system hasn’t worked out so well either. Outside of the corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C., and a few other routes, Amtrak trains run on tracks owned by private railroads. These railroads charge Amtrak rent for using their rails and often for the cost of maintaining their infrastructure, then routinely delay Amtrak trains for hours by making them cede priority to freight trains. Republicans in Congress keep insisting that Amtrak must nonetheless make a profit on each train, even if it means cutting service standards to the bone. Recently, under pressure to show a profit, Amtrak has cut dining car service on two of its long-distance trains and is rapidly cutting back the number of manned stations across the country. 

Maybe a model like Brightline’s is the best America can do. But it doesn’t solve the basic contradiction between expecting trains, or any other form of transportation, to turn a profit on every run while also expecting the system to serve the public’s broad needs for service.

Those who have supported and advocated for Brightline—from Rick Scott to the Chamber of Commerce to the company itself—embrace an ethos of efficiency, but it is an efficiency that, as so often happens when the state looks for private solutions to public problems, tends to achieve its effect by separating the few from the many. As the Chamber’s Dennis Grady told me, “My people want to get from A to B, and they aren’t anxious to stop a lot. That’s why Brightline is successful.”

Maybe, if it is necessary to get conservative buy-in for improved passenger rail service, a model like Brightline’s is the best America can do. But it doesn’t solve the basic contradiction between expecting trains, or any other form of transportation, to turn a profit on every run while also expecting the system to serve the public’s broad needs for service. “The paradox of public transport, quite simply, is that the better it does its job, the less ‘efficient’ it may be,” wrote the historian Tony Judt, a social democrat and a lifelong devotee of railways. “[W]hat of rail links to and from places where people take the train only occasionally? No single person is going to set aside sufficient funds to pay the economic cost of supporting such a service for the infrequent occasions when she uses it. Only the collectivity—the state, the government, the local authorities—can do this.” 

When I left Florida to return home to New York, I decided to take Amtrak. The ride from Tampa took twenty-five hours, traveling along tracks, congested with freight trains, that are owned by the CSX corporation—or, more exactly, by the hedge funds and other financial institutions that own CSX. The station in Tampa was true to Amtrak’s reputation—a decrepit and tired-looking gray. Water dripped on our heads as we waited for a man with a whistle to allow us to board. But every seat was full. Next to me, an elderly woman was traveling to visit her son, somewhere in Virginia. She couldn’t drive and depended on Amtrak to see her family. She asked what had brought me to Florida, and I explained that I was writing about Brightline, the new high-speed rail. “What is high-speed rail?” she asked, yawning.

For all its built-in handicaps and acute underfunding, Amtrak remains an essential public service—and a social good. As an eerie midnight blue set in, and everyone fell asleep, the train rocked forward, stopping deep into the night in the tiny hamlets of the south—the Villages, Waldo, Ocala, Wildwood—to carry passengers who look very different from those riding Brightline to the cities of the Mid-Atlantic. I woke up when the sky turned white and we were passing through someone’s backyard in rural South Carolina, a thick fog settling in over tangles of overgrown mossy fields. Only twelve hours had passed; thirteen, give or take a few, to go.  

Maddy Crowell

Maddy Crowell is a freelance journalist based in New York.

Feds Order Company to Stop Shuttling Florida Kids to School in Autonomous Bus

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered a transit operator in Florida to immediately stop shuttling kids to school in what the agency described as a “driverless” shuttle, and said the company’s use of the vehicle as a school bus is “unlawful.”

The letter, issued on Friday to Transdev North America, directed the transit operator to stop transporting kids in the Southwest Florida community of Babcock Ranch on the company’s EZ10 Generation II driverless shuttle. In a press release, NHTSA said the company had received permission to temporarily import the driverless shuttle for testing and demos.

Specifically, NHTSA said that Transdev requested permission to use the shuttle for a demo project, “not as a school bus.”

“Transdev failed to disclose or receive approval for this use. School buses are subject to rigorous Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that take into account their unique purpose of transporting children, a vulnerable population,” the agency said in a statement.

What’s strange is that Transdev certainly made its intention obvious to the public. In late August, the company and Babcock Ranch plainly stated that it would begin operating an autonomous school shuttle in the fall, “the first in the world.”

The 12-person shuttle picked up kids from a designated area and a safety attendant would always be on board, the statement says.

“Eventually, school shuttle service will be available to students and parents on demand, door to door, using an integrated app on their smartphones,” Transdev and the city said, making it clear as day that it would begin operating an autonomous school bus.

There’s a video accompanying the announcement:

And a news story:

 

Local newspaper coverage:

 

Autonomous vehicle definitions get confusing fast, and NHTSA describes this as a “driverless” shuttle. There’s a safety operator on board while students are riding to make sure everything’s running smoothly, but it’s probably a fair choice of words here. Transdev said in the release that the “route and operation will be fully autonomous.” The vehicle’s max speed is 8 mph.

Something about this strikes me as odd. If Transdev indeed failed to notify the agency about its plan to use this as a school shuttle, then why did NHTSA take nearly two months to act?

Nonetheless, NHTSA suggests Transdev copped to … something.

“Transdev has informed NHTSA that it will stop unapproved operations,” the agency said.

I asked Transdev for comment, and I’ll update the post if the company offers a response.

Will Hillsborough voters approve a new 1-cent sales tax for transportation this time around?

Since the end of the Great Recession, the Tampa Bay area has been among the leaders in Florida when it comes to job growth and the economy. But the region still suffers when it comes to adequately addressing its growing transportation needs.

In Hillsborough County, voters rejected a one-cent sales tax on transportation back in 2010, and it hasn’t been on the ballot again for years — until now.

“All for Transportation,” a group of citizens frustrated by the county government’s reluctance to spend more on transportation projects, generated the more than 77,000 signatures needed this summer to get a new one-cent transportation tax on the ballot in Hillsborough County on Nov. 6.

The group received generous funding from Tampa Bay Lightning owner and real-estate developer Jeff Vinik.

While much attention is garnered by statewide political races, such as who will become Florida’s next governor, regional issues are often compelling enough to grab voters’ attention.

“We have 700,000 people moving into Hillsborough County over the next 30 years,” All for Transportation member Christina Barker said on Friday while addressing a community gathering at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange.

“If we do not do something, this is the best it’s ever going to get,” she said, referring to the area’s increasing traffic congestion.

The one-cent cent tax over 30 years would raise $276 million annually, and would be used for everything from improving roads and bridges to expanding public transit options, fixing potholes, enhancing bus services, and making walking and biking safer.

Brian Willis, another member of All for Transportation, says that Hillsborough County has had plans for transportation that go back 30 years, but a lack of funding to pay for the projects.

“What we’re doing is providing a solution that funds the plans that are on the books and it fully funds them,” he said.  A quarter or half-cent tax proposal would not suffice, he added.

There’s no question that the county has underfunded its transportation needs. Hillsborough County is the fourth largest state in Florida, yet ranks 62nd out of the 67 counties in terms of transportation funding, according to FloridaTaxWatch.

The measure, if approved Nov. 6, would distribute 55 percent of the funds to Hillsborough County and its three cities (including Tampa); another 44 percent to HART, the region’s transit agency, and other mass transit projects, and 1 percent for planning and development.

The measure also calls for a citizen-led independent oversight committee that would produce annual audits to make sure that the money is spent as advertised.

The big question politically is whether residents outside of Tampa will back the measure – or at least not strongly oppose it.

Though the 2010 Hillsborough sales tax measure lost by a wide margin (58%-42%) it was actually successful in Tampa, the most urban part of the vast county.

But there are critics.

Sharon Calvert is with No Tax for Tracks, a political action committee created to oppose the measure. She says one of the problems with the measure is that too much of the funding would go directly to the city of Tampa “but it will be the unincorporated (part of Hillsborough County) that will be paying for it.”

Americans for Prosperity Florida, the Koch Brothers-funded group, is also actively campaigning against the measure. The group has run radio and television ads touting their opposition.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a strong supporter of the plan, as are several other elected Democrats in the county.

All for Transportation officials say that while they have heard plenty of registered Republicans express their support, no elected Republicans in the county have come forward with an endorsement of the plan.

No ‘fake news’: All For Transportation clears up myths

With less than a month remaining before the Nov. 6 election, the All For Transportationcampaign is trying to combat what it says is misinformation about the 1 percent sales tax referendum on the Hillsborough County ballot.

“With an existing backlog of $9 billion in transportation projects and an estimated 700,000 more people expected to move into Hillsborough County within the next 30 years, we can’t continue to ignore our transportation and transit problems,” said Tyler Hudson, All For Transportation chair.

“But a ‘Yes’ vote in November will be a decisive step toward reducing congestion, making our roads safer, and improving our overall quality of life.”

The group documented several misconceptions it has heard from voters.

Some think the All For Transportation plan is the same plan that was rejected in 2010. That referendum was similar in that it would have raised sales tax 1 percent, but its provisions were vastly different.

Moving Hillsborough Forward, the 2010 transit initiative, was mostly focused on transit enhancements. Of the money raised, 75 percent would have gone toward those projects and the plan lacked restrictions on how the money was spent.

This year’s transportation plan allocated 45 percent to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority with most of the rest going to cities and Hillsborough County to pay for roads and safety projects, among other non-transit needs.

That’s another misconception campaigners are hearing from residents worried the tax won’t ease congestion or pay for new lanes or roads.

The referendum would use about 20 percent of the $280 million raised each year to pay for all of the road widening and new road projects in the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s long-range plan that are currently backlogged and un-funded.

All For Transportation campaigners are also reminding voters that the county does not spend enough on transportation. There’s a $9 billion backlog in transportation projects and that number gets bigger every year as the county continues to fall short on keeping up with transportation needs.

The campaign is also pointing to a provision in the referendum that provides specific oversight responsibilities on how revenue is spent. The referendum — No. 2 on the Hillsborough ballot — requires an independent oversight committee with 13 members who ensure money is spent in accordance with the referendum by conducting annual audits.

The members cannot be elected officials or earn or otherwise receive direct or indirect compensation from any of the agencies allocating resources. That includes the three cities in Hillsborough County and the county as well as HART.

All For Transportation has widespread backing from bipartisan groups included the Greater Tampa, South Tampa and Upper Tampa Bay chambers of commerce, Visit Tampa Bay and the Tampa Bay Times.

But opposition is out there. The Florida chapter of Americans For Prosperity launched an ad last week that blasts the referendum as an unnecessary tax hike.

However, other than AFP, there is no local organized opposition to the transportation initiative.

No Tax For Tracks, the committee registered with the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections that fought the 2010 referendum, has not raised funds. Meanwhile, All For Transportation has raised more than $2 million.

Florida DOT reveals 94 percent of youngest passengers riding safely

BY CHRIS GALFORD  |   OCTOBER 2, 2018   |   NEWS

 

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) released a report last week highlighting the efforts of most drivers to keep their children safe.

© Shutterstock

The 2018 Child Restraint Survey showed that 94 percent of the state’s infant passengers were restrained properly, and 84 percent of children between 0 and 12 were so restrained. Aiding this has been an increased use of rear-facing, forward-facing, and booster car seats — safety functions which have been shown to reduce fatalities by as much as 71 percent among infants and 54 percent for toddlers.

“As a parent or caregiver, keeping your children safe is always a top priority,” FDOT Secretary Mike Dew said. “Using car seats that are age and size-appropriate is the best way to keep children safe and can reduce serious and fatal injuries by more than half. Make sure your child is always bucked in safely and correctly–every trip, every time.”

Florida law specifically required children to be restrained in separate carriers or integrated car seats until age three. Between ages four and five, children must also ride in a separate carrier, integrated child seat, child booster seat or with a safety belt. FDOT also recommends but does not enforce the notion that children under 12 should ride with seatbelts on in the back seat.

An urban future means growth for all cities, not just mega-cities

By Hania Zlotnik

This story is part of What Happens Next, our complete guide to understanding the future. Read more predictions about the Future of Cities.

The future is urban—but it does not lie exclusively in mega-cities.

About a decade ago, for the first time in history, the number of people living in urban areas surpassed that of those living in rural ones. But “urban” does not mean New York or Beijing or Rome. About half the urban population still lives in fairly small cities of fewer than 500,000 people (at least in developing countries) that may resemble rural areas more than mega-cities. Europe, for instance, has just two mega-cities and many smaller cities.

There are already 29 mega-cities with populations of 10 million or more—including Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Lagos and Kinshasa—but they make up just 12% of the global urban population. By 2035, we’re expected to have 50 mega-cities, but they would only account for 16% of all urban dwellers.

What’s more, urbanization has not advanced at the same pace in all regions. Europe and Northern America urbanized early, and their populations are already mostly urban (74.5% and 82% respectively). So are those of Latin America and the Caribbean, 81% of whose inhabitants live in urban areas. In sharp contrast, Africa’s population is still mostly rural (57%) and Asia’s has just become 50% urban.

Asia’s urbanization levels are largely determined by those of the two population giants, China and India. Until 1990, they were among the least urbanized countries in the world, with only 25% of their respective populations living in cities. Since then, China’s economic transformation has been accompanied by very rapid urbanization: China is expected to be three-quarters urban by 2038, up from 60% today. India, by contrast, still lags far behind with just about a third of its population living in cities, a proportion expected to rise to 45% by 2038.

High urbanization levels are associated with higher GDP. As the experience of China shows, rapid economic growth tends to accelerate urbanization. When high shares of the population make their living from agriculture, the productivity of that sector tends to be low. By contrast, during economic development, the most dynamic sectors of the economy tend to cluster in urban centers—or even give rise to them.

In China, for instance, the economic liberalization that began in 1978 promoted the development of enterprises in rural villages, which led to an economic boom in rural areas. The growth of rural enterprises spurred the development of new towns and cities by making villages become increasingly urban. As a consequence, the number of cities in China grew from 193 in 1978 to 655 in 2008, with the majority of new cities being small or medium-sized. The emergence of so many new cities—many located near the rural areas from which they derived their dynamism—helped reduce the impact of rural-to-urban migration on the large cities of China.

The movement of people from rural to urban areas is only one of the ways in which urban populations grow. Additions to the urban population also happen because births exceed deaths in urban areas, or because new cities emerge or existing cities expand, often encompassing former rural settlements. In some of the least developed countries, urban populations increase mainly because urban couples have many children who survive to be adults.

Rural-to-urban migration has not in general been the major contributor to urban population growth in developing countries.

 

For instance, in Niger, where the population is mostly rural (84%), the number of urban dwellers is doubling every 17 years because fertility is still a high seven children per women. Similarly, in much of Africa, high fertility is fueling rapid urban population growth, implying that increasing urbanization in the region is often not indicative of economic dynamism.

Demographers estimate that in most developing countries since the 1960s, the excess of births over deaths has accounted for well over half of the population increase in urban areas. Therefore, rural-to-urban migration, though significant over certain periods, has not in general been the major contributor to urban population growth in developing countries. Furthermore, in highly urbanized countries the majority of internal migrants already originate in cities and simply move to other cities, therefore having no impact on the overall size of the urban population. That is the case in the United States, in most European countries, and in highly urbanized developing countries, such as Brazil.

Urbanization is mostly positive. Evidence from developing countries shows that, on average, people living in urban areas are better off than rural dwellers. Because urbanites have better access to health care, they have better health and live longer than rural dwellers; their educational attainment is higher because educational institutions are better and more easily accessible in urban than in rural areas; and they benefit from a more diversified labor market than that typical of rural areas.  Nevertheless, cities in developing countries are not free from stresses: high levels of underemployment, the growth of slums, lack of adequate infrastructure, and costly services are problems that remain on the agenda of countless cities.

The expected expansion of cities in the developing world poses a number of challenges, including the necessity of generating decent jobs for their growing populations and providing them with adequate urban services in terms of housing, water and sanitation, transportation, electrification, nutrition, education, and health care. Furthermore, over the next few decades, cities will have to increase their resilience to the consequences of climate change, especially considering that many populous cities—such as Shanghai, Osaka, Mumbai, New York, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Alexandria, and Durban—are located in coastal areas that are very likely to be affected by rising sea levels. Though a few of the coastal cities are beginning to take measures to increase their resilience to floods and storm surges, if the average global temperature increases beyond 2° celsius, large tracts of urban land will be submerged and people will have to move elsewhere.

Technology and economies of scale may facilitate addressing some of these challenges. But in most countries, proactive planning for ensuring the resilience of urban centers is still the exception rather than the rule. Innovative approaches will be necessary to ensure that urban centers may continue to offer the best chances of enjoying long and productive lives. These approaches will require educating and nudging people to practice resource conservation, especially with regard to energy and water use. Technology may provide some solutions but it is ultimately the adoption and consistent use of appropriate technologies by each of us that will make a difference.

(Note: All statistics cited in this piece are derived from World Urbanization Prospects: The 2018 Revision, produced by the Population Division of the United Nations.)

Millennial workforce split on transit options

September 17, 2018 11:14 AM
Updated September 17, 2018 11:14 AM
This week’s question to South Florida CEOs who are on the Miami Herald CEO Roundtable: Statistics show millennials don’t want to own cars and prefer to use Uber and public transportation whenever possible. Have you seen this trend reflected in your workforce?

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While there are Community Care Plan employees who will use Uber or public transportation on an occasional basis, given that our office isn’t in a downtown urban location, I don’t believe that it has been a trend for our employees.

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We have quite a few millennials working for us, and they all enjoy their automobiles. The statistics which shows that many millennials prefer not to own cars are heavily influenced by cities that have had far better public transportation for many years than most major cities in Florida. The independence of owning our own cars is deeply entrenched in the minds of all Floridians, including millennials.

Armando Caceres, CEO, founder, All Florida Paper

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Many of our younger employees choose to live downtown and put off owning a car. I’m noticing the buses, trolleys and Metrorail are bustling with people and all of these services are becoming more reliable because of increased use. This is all great news for our city.

Kelly-Ann Cartwright, executive partner, Holland & Knight Miami chair of the firm’s Directors Committee

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Although I have not yet seen it in my workforce, I have seen it with millennial family members. There is something to be said about being able to shed the expenses and headaches that come with automobiles/commuting and instead, using that time and money for more fulfilling endeavors. I think millennials are on the right track with this trend.

Ralph De La Rosa, president, CEO, Imperial Freight

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None of our employees use public transportation, likely because we aren’t located near any major transit system. Uber has been a great addition to the market, but as a company, we don’t use it all that much.

Jalal Farooq, principal, Al-Farooq Corporation

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In the last several years, we have seen a steady decline in students bringing a car to campus. Students are using Uber and Lyft, Zip Cars, biking and bike-share, public transit, e-scooters, and other ways to get around. The university is encouraging carpooling, especially through app-based services, to further reduce traffic on and around campus. The University of Miami is working with community partners to make a variety of transit options more available and we strive to create a campus that is increasingly pedestrian-friendly.

Dr. Julio Frenk, president, University of Miami

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We haven’t seen that phenomenon with the millennials at our workplace. They all still enjoy owning their own cars.

Kaizad Hansotia, founder, CEO, Gurkha Cigars

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I can’t say that any of our employees have given up their cars completely. Miami is a big city and the truth is you need a car. That being said, I know that the employees based out of our Coral Gables office are constantly taking advantage of the Freebee cars and trolleys. They’re extremely convenient to get around Downtown Gables — particularly in these hot summer months. Uber and Lyft also are good options when you need to get to a meeting in Downtown or Brickell and want to avoid the inconvenience and high cost of parking.

Javier Holtz, chairman, CEO, Marquis Bank

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Yes, most millennials do not want the cost and commitment associated with owning, insuring and maintaining a vehicle and are used to shared concepts as opposed to private ownership. We are living in the Uber generation and developers need to consider this when planning future developments. For example, our upcoming Miami River Walk apartment development is a transit-oriented project, which will appeal to millennials due to its extensive amenity offering, close proximity to offices and entertainment options in Downtown and Brickell, and value price offering.

Camilo Miguel Jr., founder, CEO, Mast Capital

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We find most people are still driving to work. However, I have recently experienced upper level management using Uber for daytime meetings in order to maximize efficiency.

Noreen Sablotsky, founder, CEO, Imalac

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I have witnessed a few employees opting for Uber/Lyft service going to and from work. Though it only seems to make sense monetarily if they use the shared ride option, which cuts costs and lowers their carbon footprint. Otherwise, it can cost more than the expenses for a used car, depending on how often they are out and about, i.e., monthly note, gas, car insurance, parking.

Deborah Spiegelman, CEO, Miami Children’s Museum

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While there is an uptick in use of Uber and ride-share as options, many of our associates are millennials and they still drive to work daily. We haven’t yet seen an increase in the use of public transportation among the millennial demographic specifically.

Steve Upshaw, CEO, Cross Country Home Services

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Bob Knight: Public money wasted on unnecessary water projects

Posted Sep 11, 2018 at 2:00 AM

 

Nature’s water cycle is amazing and free. Solar energy lifts fresh water from the ocean as vapor, transports it over the land with wind currents and deposits precipitation on Florida at an average rate of about 150 billion gallons each day.

About 15 billion gallons of this rainfall daily recharges the state’s natural underground water storage and conveyance system. The remaining 90 percent evaporates or runs off in rivers to the ocean. This is like a natural Jacuzzi, bathing Florida’s environment in life-giving freshwater at no cost.

Fast forward to 2018. Humans have corralled and re-directed Florida’s natural water cycle to fulfill their own desires. Florida’s rivers and lakes are widely impaired due to poorly regulated pollutant discharges and excessive withdrawals. Increasingly, Floridians have turned to underground waters for supply, first for drinking water and then for nearly every other use, including landscape and crop irrigation that was traditionally supported by rain.

The consequence of this shift is the increasing depletion of Florida’s most precious and least plentiful fresh water supply — the groundwater in Florida’s aquifers. In north and central Florida, the resulting destruction of our natural springs and rivers that rely on groundwater inputs for dry-season baseflow is visible to all who care to look. Downstate in the absence of springs, aquifer depletion is harder to see.

Rather than facing this calamity head on by establishing a cap on groundwater pumping to reserve adequate water to protect natural environments, Florida’s leaders continue to kick the can down the road under cover of poor science and public apathy.

Some of us consume less than 30 gallons per day of groundwater for drinking, bathing and cleaning and are content to rely on rain to water our grass. But the average Floridan consumes closer to 100 gallons per day of groundwater. Just by cutting out unnecessary water uses, we could reduce the public’s 3 billion gallon per day groundwater habit to less than 1 billion gallons per day.

Fortunately, a few areas of the state are concerned enough about depleted aquifers to have already cut historic water uses in half. Unfortunately, the benefits realized by this growing Florida water ethic are undone by a much smaller group of water users — namely for-profit business owners who shamelessly drink for free at the public water trough. With no charge for using groundwater, the cunning few who control the water-permitting system easily gain permits to withdraw gigantic quantities of groundwater at no charge.

While water bottlers are a convenient target for public wrath about this corporate welfare, they are a drop in the bucket compared to phosphate mines, paper mills, industrial farms and others. More than 30,000 consumptive use permits allocate nearly half of all groundwater recharge in Florida’s Springs Region. Averaging more than 150,000 gallons per day each, these permits legalize groundwater extractions that are collectively killing our springs.

Despite compelling evidence that Florida’s springs are drying up, the state’s leaders continue to promote their costly charade justifying new water consumption permits based on obfuscation and flawed groundwater flow models. While restoring Florida’s springs is as easy and free as reducing permitted groundwater allocations, the water management districts would rather bilk taxpayers for the cost of their own water.

For example, St. Johns River Water Management District leaders seriously considered putting a pipe in the Ocklawaha River downstream from Silver Springs and pumping the water to a treatment and recharge system next to the spring at an estimated capital cost of more than $100 million and annual operating costs of nearly $1 million. District employees privately dubbed this ridiculous idea the “Jacuzzi Project.”

The same water district is implementing a $40 million scheme to pump water from Black Creek to restore water levels in the Keystone area lakes. Once again, the cost for this Ponzi scheme will be borne by taxpayers rather than by the businesses who continue to profit by depleting the aquifer.

A series of similar projects are in the planning stages in the Suwannee River Water Management District. Together these two water districts have projected a $300 million price tag to provide “alternative” water supplies to meet future demands.

How can these “public servants” continue to expend public money to implement these unnecessary water supply projects? The simple answer is that they are desperate enough to try anything to keep their jobs. If we don’t demand better of our leaders, you can bet we won’t get it.

Dr. Bob Knight is director of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute in High Springs.

Welcome to water world!

Updated

 

Welcome to water world!
The sunset from South Pointe Park in Miami Beach.

Head for the coast, and on a good weekend, thousands of people are at the shore, enjoying the sun, water and sugar-white sands.

Beaches are the original Florida — the lure that drew Northerners to a swampy peninsula decades before Walt Disney’s company decided to make the Sunshine State home.

Today, these original tourist attractions generate billions of dollars for the state economy and support nearly 400,000 jobs. Their salt-air allure is part of the foundation of modern Florida.

“If the beaches weren’t here, Disney would have thought twice about locating (its theme parks) in Florida,” said Kevin Murphy, professor and chair of the Hospitality Services Department at Rosen College of Hospitality Management at University of Central Florida.

“Our sun, sea and sand is the primary reason why people come here.”

Modern threats from toxic algae, erosion, rising sea levels and oil spills have failed to dim the public’s love of these natural wonders. If the weather’s good on a holiday like Labor Day, the sun-loving crowds prove it again and again.

But the numbers prove it, too.

The United States Lifesaving Association, which compiles data from public safety agencies on ocean rescues, estimates that more than 85.7 million people visited Florida beaches in 2017. That’s the highest attendance the organization recorded in the last 10 years.

It also represents more than a quarter of the more than 385 million people nationwide who visited beaches last year, the group said.

At least 43 of Florida’s state parks have beaches. Combined, they welcomed 14 million to 17 million visitors during each of the last five years, according to data from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the Florida Park Service.

That’s higher than the number of people who visited any one of Florida’s theme parks in 2017, except for Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

Florida’s most popular state park with a beach is Honeymoon Island State Park in Dunedin, near Clearwater. It drew more than 1.5 million visitors in each of the last two years, as many visitors as Universal Orlando’s newest theme park Volcano Bay in its first year of business.

And that’s just part of the story.

The more you look, the more it becomes clear that Florida is the nation’s undisputed beach king.

How Florida leads in beaches

Florida has a geographic advantage that favors its high beach attendance.

It has about 1,350 miles of coastline, more than any other state in the continental U.S, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Although the Sunshine State doesn’t come close to matching Alaska’s 6,640-mile coastline, it has at least 825 miles of coastline with beaches, according to the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association.

“Florida uniquely has beaches on two different U.S. coastlines, the Atlantic and the Gulf. This means different wave and water patterns, temperatures and culture,” said Derek Brockbank, executive director of the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association. “Florida also has beaches with different sand composition, ranging from sugary-white, to filled with tropical shells, to golden-hued.”

This diversity in beach landscapes offers different experiences that attract not only tourists, but also Villagers and other Florida residents.

“Our people love to swim,” said Sharon Jones, the Village of Hemingway resident who leads beach trips with The Villages Barefoot Beachcombers, one of at least five beach clubs in the community. “They’re not the kind of people that sit in a chair all day.”

Beyond the abundant coastline and three distinct beach regions to explore, Florida beaches have other significant advantages.

One selling point stands apart in the minds of many tourists planning their beach getaways: a mild climate for most of the year.

So when blizzards cover Nassau County, New York, with piles of snow, visitors can head south to bask in the sun in places like Amelia Island in Nassau County, Florida.

“If you look at some of the great tourist destinations in the world like New York and Paris, they’re not necessarily surrounded by beaches,” said Murphy, of UCF. “But when you look at millions of people coming to Central Florida, which encompasses two coasts, they often plan that visit around the beaches like Daytona Beach and Clearwater. To attract people to the coastal communities is paramount.”

Leading by acclaim

Florida doesn’t thrive as a beach tourism hotspot only by having beaches open all year.

It also has some of the best beaches in the nation, as ranked by several authoritative travel sources.

Florida beaches featured prominently on TripAdvisor’s annual list of the best beaches in the United States, including six in the top 10: Clearwater Beach at No. 1, Siesta Beach in Sarasota at No. 2, South Beach in Miami at No. 4, Fort Lauderdale Beach at No. 6, St. Pete Beach at No. 7 and Hollywood Beach at No. 8.

Those destinations also are favorites on the annual top 10 lists of Dr. Stephen Leatherman, a coastal ecologist at Florida International University. Although he’s one of the world’s top researchers on sea level rise and rip currents, Leatherman is perhaps best known by his nickname, “Dr. Beach.”

This year, he ranked Grayton Beach State Park in Santa Rosa Beach at No. 3 on his list, and Caladesi Island State Park in Dunedin at No. 7. In 2017, Siesta Beach — a frequent entrant on his annual lists — was No. 1.

Attendance to Siesta Beach that year likely received a boost from press coverage of its ranking on the Dr. Beach list that received more than 600 million audience impressions, he said, citing tourism officials in Sarasota.

Other Florida beaches that won his acclaim in prior years include Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys, St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe, and Fort DeSoto Park in St. Petersburg.

“Florida has clean beaches, clean water, clean sand and good access,” Leatherman said in an interview. “And (Florida beaches) are well-managed.”

To compile his lists, he grades beaches using a set of 50 criteria that includes the color and softness of sand, whether wildlife is present, and whether the beach has scenic vistas or is close to urban areas.

The most important qualities Leatherman looks for in a beach are the cleanliness of the water, public safety, and how well the beach is managed.

“If you don’t have clean water, you don’t have anything,” he said. “The Department of Health checks our water, and it’s excellent. There’s places where it’s not very good, but overall, our water quality is very good in Florida.”

Why beaches matter to Florida’s economy

Depending on where you go, the cost of a beach visit in Florida ranges from free to inexpensive.

Yet, they play a major role in Florida’s economy.

Tourism and recreation in the state’s coastal counties — not limited to, but including beaches — contributed more than $16 billion to Florida’s gross domestic product in 2011, 2012, and 2015, according to the most recent research available from the National Ocean Economics Program, which monitors the ocean economies of the U.S.

Florida and California, a state with $22 billion in GDP and more than 418,000 jobs tied to coastal tourism, together comprise one-third of the nation’s total employment and GDP tied to coastal tourism.

“The reason we don’t have state income taxes (in Florida) is because of the people coming to the beaches,” said Luke Cunningham, a charter boat captain in Clearwater. “It’s a critical part of our economy, that’s for sure.”

It’s certainly critical to Cunningham and many other people, since coastal tourism and recreation supported more than 397,000 jobs in 2015, according to the National Ocean Economics Program.

In its latest economic study on Florida beaches, also from 2015, the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research found beaches generate $5.40 for every dollar the state invests on beach management and restoration.

The study reviewed tourist spending related to beach travel compared with state leaders’ beach management and restoration investments during the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 fiscal years.

During that time, state leaders spent about $44 million in taxpayer dollars in beach management projects that improved and enhanced the quality of Florida beaches.

That work contributed to more than $764 million in beach spending from domestic and international visitors, the report showed.

Many out-of-state visitors identify Florida with beaches more than they do theme parks.

In fact, the state Economic and Demographic Research study found that 25.5 percent of visitors to Florida called beaches the most attractive feature of the state’s brand. Theme parks trailed slightly at 24.3 percent.

“It may be noted that, while beaches are the most attractive feature to visitors, they generally do not directly generate revenue,” the report stated. “Instead, they facilitate an array of expenditures that collectively comprise the cost of the tourism experience.”

The beach tends to be such a lucrative destination, tourists will pay big bucks to stay close to it.

About 63 percent of hotel and motel business in Florida comes from coastal areas, according to a recent economic impact analysis for Visit Florida, the state’s public-private tourism marketer.

STR, a company that tracks market data, found that visitors to Monroe, Collier, Nassau, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Walton counties this year paid an average of about or more than $200 per night for lodging.

Other statewide indicators highlight the significance of beach tourism to Florida.

Of the eight Florida counties that state leaders consider high-impact tourism areas — places where bed taxes raise at least $30 million a year — six of them are counties where beaches are a primary attraction: Duval, Volusia, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

The other two — Orange and Osceola — have no coastline, but plenty of theme parks to make up for it.

“When we’re reaching out to visitors outside the area, we always lead with the beach,” said Kate Holcomb, spokeswoman for the Daytona Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau in Volusia County. “We definitely know our iconic beach is our main asset.”

Wide appeal, lots of activities

Saying you’re going to the beach offers only a broad description of how to spend the day.

A trip offers many possibilities, as simple or as elaborate as a visitor wants to make it.

Families with young children, teenagers and young adults, and senior citizens alike pack the shores of Clearwater Beach on an average weekend, their paths meandering around colored umbrellas, chairs and blankets.

If the kids aren’t in the water, they study the sands with toy pails and shovels in tow as they scout out spots to build a perfect sand castle.

Some adults, inspired by the childhood pastime, enjoy sand sculpting — an art that involves building more elaborate objects using the sand, not limited to, but including castles.

Depending on the beach, people also may find anglers casting rods and reels from fishing piers, players lofting volleyballs across an oceanfront net, standup paddle boarders gliding along the ocean, or parasailers soaring above the surf.

Add in surfers, snorkelers and scuba divers, and the beach becomes a moving spectacle of outdoor activity.

Grayton Beach, halfway between Destin and Panama City in Florida’s Panhandle, is where people can view the Underwater Museum of Art, America’s first underwater museum. It’s a sculpture garden accessible only by scuba diving.

Despite debuting only three months ago, Time Magazine recently named the underwater museum one of its top 100 places in the world to visit. Only one other Florida landmark made the list, Pandora — The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Caladesi Island, a Dr. Beach favorite near Clearwater, attracts many paddleboaters because a canoe or kayak is the only other way besides a ferry to reach the beach.

Among those paddlers last year was a group of 12 members of The Villages Canoe and Kayak Club. Jim Zoschenko, who led that trip and now serves as the club’s vice president, said the paddle trail across Hurricane Pass from Honeymoon Island leads through tunnels of mangroves.

The Village of Pennecamp resident said the club organizes at least one coastal paddle every year. He’s planning a return visit to Caladesi Island for the club next spring.

More members enjoyed the paddle to the beach than the beach itself, Zoschenko said.

“It was interesting that on that trip very few of our club members got in the water,” he said, “which was bizarre since the conditions were idyllic.”

Michael Salerno is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.