Reporter

With a 1 percent sales tax increase earmarked for transportation projects on a May 21 ballot referendum, some Osceola County residents are questioning how much money will actually go to fixing congested local roads.

Rising cost of road work

Traffic is infamous in Kissimmee and St. Cloud – two of the fastest growing cities in Central Florida.

But skyrocketing construction costs make it nearly impossible to keep up with demand, according to government officials, who say it costs about $10 million to build one lane mile of roadway.

Long range estimates for the top five eligible projects listed on the county’s website total more than $68.93 million.

Add another $118.81 million for the next five projects.

There’s a total of 60 on the list.

Osceola County Transportation Director Tawny Olore said it will cost about $1.1 billion just to widen all currently approved two-lane roads to four lanes, with the proposed tax expected to generate $60 million a year.

The tax increase would capture more than $2 billion over its 30-year lifespan, according to county officials, since annual revenues will increase as more people move to Osceola County.

How much goes to roads?

But the new proposed sales tax doesn’t specify revenue will only fund this expensive work.

Instead, it can be used for any transportation project, including sidewalks, nature trails, bike paths, Lynx, SunRail and streamlining intersections.

Olore also noted the importance of exploring autonomous vehicle transit options for the future.

Some long-time residents, like former County Commissioner Michael Bast, are worried. Bast remembers when commissioners voted to increase the county’s local option gas tax by 5 cents per gallon in 2015 on top of the 6 cents already imposed. That extra revenue was also earmarked for general transportation costs.

Bast said he was under the impression most of that money was going to roads.

The gas tax increase is expected to generate about $8.5 million this year, according to the county, with just over $7.6 million going to Lynx and public transit improvements – or roughly 89 percent.

Although many are in favor of better public transportation, Bast is concerned not enough money will go to roads.

He and other residents have requested to see what percentage of proposed surtax revenue goes to each category, like SunRail, roads or sidewalks. But, Olore and other officials said they cannot do this because it may jeopardize future state and federal funding.

“If that’s true, they need to show us how that’s correct,” Bast said. “Otherwise, it feels like the county is saying, ‘Give us a big pot of money and we’ll determine where it goes.’”

Willing to chip in for less traffic

But other residents, like Valentin Ramos, are more optimistic about the tax proposal.

Ramos said he’s sick of traffic in Osceola and is willing to chip in if it helps ease congestion.  

Ramos has lived in Poinciana nearly 30 years and has seen small roadways turn into brick walls of gridlock as the region’s population exploded.

“It’s a nightmare now,” he said. “It’s an all-day situation. It’s not just at rush hour anymore.”

Paying a few more cents here and there on purchases doesn’t seem as bad to Ramos as paying hundreds more on property taxes, the homeowner said. Plus, everyone would have to contribute – tourists, out-of-county visitors and non-homeowners.

“Which seems fair, since we all use the roads,” Ramos said. “No one likes for taxes to go up. But we can’t expect services like roads to get better if we’re not willing to pay money to make them better.”

Ramos’ dreaded thoroughfare along Poinciana Boulevard from Pleasant Hill Road to Crescent Lakes Way is 13th on the county’s eligible projects list.

Residents will decide where they stand on the proposed tax increase during a special election May 21.