Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Growth sputters in the sunshine

We have all seen the sad stories. Rust Belt states where steel mills were shuttered, whole towns decimated in a single, fell swoop.

People packed up their belongings and moved to places like Florida, where the sun shines almost 365 days a year, the land used to be cheap and the taxes used to be low.

The times have changed. Land is no longer cheap, taxes are no longer low, and people are not packing up and moving to Florida as much as they used to do.

For more than a century, Florida has been a growth state, becoming the fourth most populated state in the U.S. with 16 million people in 2000.

The state's economy is reliant upon growth and tourism. The state's new housing starts peaked at double the national average.

A state where schools and other social services were taxed beyond capacity, Florida is now coming to grips with the fact that for the first time in more than a century, Florida is not growing. Between April of 2008 and April of 2009, Florida's population decreased by 58,000.

The loss of 58,000 people is not in itself a major issue, but is it the canary in the coal mine. Does 2008 signal a turning point?

Will Florida continue to lose population and the tax base that goes with it?

Transportation revenues are based primarily on gas tax revenues and if there are fewer people buying gas, coupled with more efficient vehicles, what will happen to transportation funding in the state?

Some states are exploring alternative methods of transportation funding, with the mileage-based system showing the most promise, according to a report from the Transportation Research Board.

Perhaps the end of a 100-year growth cycle will encourage Florida lawmakers to take a more serious look at the alternatives.

David Fierro is a transportation public affairs consultant. He is a former newspaper and magazine editor and worked for both the Florida and Virginia departments of transportation. He resides in Sanford, Florida.

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