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Process and Problem Solving in Pinellas County

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
July 6, 2018

Past columns in this series looked at county government’s capacity to solve problems by utilization strategic planning, based on the assumption that local government is the solution, not the problem. Pinellas County, Florida, part of a highly-urbanized region, was selected for evaluation based on its ability to solve a major problem that emerged from a recent citizen’s survey; “traffic congestion.” Its busiest, most utilized roadway, US. Highway 19, was the focus of the assessment.

Source: David Hamilton

Waiting in Traffic on US 19

The number of recent studies emphasizes the importance of this roadway. On their web site, Pinellas County lists five separate studies that have been prepared in a collaborative effort with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and Forward Pinellas. In combination, they form their long-range plans for traffic improvements and safety along US. 19 that include”

  • FDOT: US 19 New Interchange from north of SR 580
  • FDOT US 19 (SR 55) Project Development/Environmental (PD&E) Study: SR   694 to SR 595 Pinellas and Pasco Counties
  • FDOT US 19 PD&E Study SR 580 to CR 95
  • Forward Pinellas US 19 SPOTlight Emphasis Area
  • US 19 Pedestrian and Bicycle Safe Access to  Transit Corridor Study

Pinellas County does not suffer from a paucity of plans. Unlike many county governments, their embrace of planning and public engagement is laudable. But are these plans in combination with their strategic plan solving the problem of “traffic congestion?”

To approach this question, a number of facets must be considered. First, a clear understanding of Strategic Planning is important. Strategic Planning is a collaborative effort that engages the organization’s direction for a period of time. The outcome is a written strategic plan that focuses on agreed goals and steers the organization to remain focused as goals are accomplished. It contains a vision, mission, values, goals and objectives that are summarized into an action plan. According to Thompson and Strickland, “Strategic plans combine all organizational plans into a focused effort to achieve their mission. Together, they specify where the organization is heading and how management intends to achieve targeted results.”

The web site provides a map of five congested at-grade intersections noting that “plans include elevating the mainline highway at major intersections and providing interchanges and frontage roads for local access.” In the interest of public participation, they note that “community involvement will be an important part of the development of a Specific Area Plan.” But at a recently held US 19 Vision Workshop, the opportunity for meaningful discussion was constrained by the format and the size of the audience. Ironically, the public process itself was congested so many left in frustration, unable to understand what the options were, who was in charge and what to expect.

But aside from this cumbersome format, there was a telling flaw in the priorities listed by Forward Pinellas. The first priority on the agenda listed “Land Use and Economic Analysis” as their primary objective. The other four items dealt with public transit issues and the broader category of the region. There was no direct acknowledgement of the problem of “traffic congestion” although in fairness, many of their priorities were related to it.

Another handout revealed a more troubling approach. Those in attendance were asked to rate seven “strategies to growth and development of the US 19 Corridor.” Five of the seven strategies were directly related to the type of growth including “concentrate large scale mixed use projects (e.g. Residential/retail, retail/office) at major intersections,” precisely the type of development that has created the existing congestion.

The actual Pinellas County Strategic Plan mirrors this dichotomist approach. Of the five major components of their strategic plan, transportation and infrastructure investment form only a part of one five key priorities to “foster continual economic growth and vitality.” But with an increasing population of 970,637, according to the US Census, augmented by thousands of seasonal residents and tourists, strategies that encourage and enhance additional growth will only add to their existing problem of “traffic congestion” unless sustained and advanced strategies are implemented to address the existing problem. Even if, or when, an action plan is completed, its implementation will take years to complete. The concern was best summarized by one county resident.

“Pinellas County uses a Band-Aid approach to infrastructure. The roads were developed with little foresight in advance to match the growth. Highway 19 is a death trap and they are still pouring millions of dollars into it. When it’s finished it will be a good improvement but unfortunately it is way after the changes were needed.”

In conclusion, there is nothing wrong with planning. Although their process is frustratingly cumbersome, Pinellas County is making a concerted effort to engage the public and plan for the future. But by prioritizing growth ahead of their priority problem of traffic congestion, they will never resolve the issue. A tellingly, humorous footnote recently appeared in the Suncoast News. “The regularly scheduled Pinellas County Local Planning Agency meeting was cancelled after the chairperson got stuck in traffic, leaving too few members for the official quorum.” Frustrated citizens were turned away that had come to object to another major, roadside development!

Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas.  He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [email protected]

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