by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
October 2, 2007
A MAN NAMED McCLASH STANDS UP TO BOSS TAR
BRADENTON, Fla., Oct. 2, 2007 - A lot of politicians would have accepted a "bribe" - a big, fat and legal campaign contribution - and let any outstanding issues of principle between them and a major developer slip away. Not Manatee County Commissioner-At-Large Joe McClash, who has taken the sometimes lonely and dangerous stance that the county's biggest developer, the owners of Lakewood Ranch, should use its own funds to expand the local highways its vast size and growing population may demand.
Naturally, the developers, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, Inc. (SMR), want the county to pay the freight, even though the legislation that created the 8,500-acre master-planned community permits it to float up to $4 billion in bonds to pay their own way. (As an aside, a local reporter who covered the issue didn't even know that, and when he found out, never reported it.) But as local governments around Florida start to run out of money for such
projects due to property tax reductions by the Republican legislature and the bite Big Oil is taking out of everyone's pocket, money for new roads doesn't get approved as automatically as it once was.
The Lakewood Ranch Website says it has up to 20,000 residents in peak season, and about 14,000 the rest of the year, and there are 11 schools and colleges there; it's a mixed-race community, with 1 percent Asian, 86 percent white, 7 percent black and 6 percent Hispanic. It's a clean and pretty place, but it's also a hungry one - hungry for new home sales, new projects within the master community, and for roads, roads, roads. Specifically, its Northwest Sector project, with 4,400 homes, condos and apartments and 305,000 feet of commercial and office space, would require the costly widening of two state roads from the present six to eight lanes each. A much smaller project last year cost the county $33 million, mostly due to Lakewood Ranch traffic, McClash says.
Until recently, when the good times cooled, no one ever noticed who paid the bills. Counties and cities believed that if they paid for the roads, developers would build homes and people would come buy them, local banks would prosper, the population would grow along with property and sales tax revenues, and both their own and the community's image would benefit.
But in much of Florida, people are moving out, not in, and homes go begging for buyers for months or years even at deep discounts. On one street near me, of about 30 homes, six are for sale; in my condominium building, part of a large, older development, six of the 32 units are for sale. For this small Gulf Coast county, an hour south of Tampa, the foreclosure rate is incredible; on Oct. 6, the Bradenton Herald published of 47 foreclosures filed at the ancient Manatee County Courthouse just in the past week.
It's a case of county planners, seeing its future writ large on the Broadway marquee of prosperity, allowing too much development too quickly, as though it would never stop. At one point, developments totaling 10,000 homes had been approved in less than two years, and more than 20,000 new homes were planned. That's why, in the Sarasota-Bradenton area, one of the two fastest-growing markets in the nation until the hurricanes of 2004, about 30,000 homes and condominium units are waiting to be sold or are in litigation. On Bradenton's waterfront, 70 small, affordable homes were boarded up to make way for a luxury high-rise building; now, squatters move into the affordable homes, for free, and hundreds of pricey units in the unbuilt luxury Riviera SouthShore project remain unsold; now Wells Fargo has foreclosed.
A condominium saleswoman known as the "Condo Queen" says that when she held a Sunday "open house" for six houses and apartments recently, no one - not even one person - came. The financial devastation that keeps threatening to wreck the world's stock markets is already real to localities here and throughout the United States. And it's not clear that anyone can afford new roads.
It's important, then, to understand that the mother's milk of modern metropolitan politics is not money, but asphalt and its vast number of associated industries. The people who pump the tar and pave the roads have tens of billions of dollars in dedicated highway funds to slurp up whenever they "recommend" it.
Counties and cities, supported by sales, gasoline and property taxes, usually pay at least half the cost of road work and are partly dependent on state funds - unless an Interstate or federally-owned highway is involved, when the $15.7 billion Highway Trust Fund may pay 80 percent or more of the cost. Now, though, according to hearings in Washington earlier this year, the Highway Trust Fund is going broke because it is being spent at double the rate of revenue increases, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says; since 2001, highway spending has exceeded its revenues by about $16 billion.
"If annual [bond] obligation limits are set at the levels authorized in 2005, CBO projects that the highway account of the Highway Trust Fund will become exhausted at some point during fiscal year 2009; the Administration also projects that the balances in the highway account will be exhausted that year," the CBO said. "CBO expects that the mass transit account will have sufficient revenues to cover its expenditures until 2012; the Administration estimates that the mass transit account will become exhausted in 2011," a 2007 summary of the CBO findings said.
And if higher fuel efficiency standards are met (thus reducing gas tax revenues), if the economy doesn't improve, if oil rises further, and if gasoline taxes don't rise to make up the difference, the CBO says the National Highway Trust Fund could run out of money in 2009.
The expense of building roads, of course, has jumped with the price of oil, the base material of asphalt and macadam, but fear not: no lobby is more stealthy or more powerful, and no lobbyists are more skilled in assuring themselves a big pot of gravy each year than those of Boss Tar. That's why road jobs go on in Miami for years and years and years, disrupting traffic and draining billions of man-hours from drivers. Manatee County has experienced the same thing on a smaller scale, frustrating drivers who can't understand why roads remain torn up while no work goes on. The frustration only helps Boss Tar by driving voters to their politicians, demanding what Boss Tar not-so-subtly tells them to demand.
Read part of the Page 1 account from this morning's Sarasota Herald Tribune of a crash that killed two men and caused an 11-car pileup very early this morning and you may understand how that can be so:
The hapless driver of the truck is facing a careless driving ticket from the Floriday Highway Patrol; the people who put up and took down the roadblocks and warning signs go free. At the trial of the driver, or maybe later, speaking of the injured and killed, and the damaged cars and trucks, someone will say that Manatee County needs to re-grade the overpass. "Even if it saves just one life," he or she will say, "it's worth the $100 million it will cost." And that will be the voice of Boss Tar.
Remember that Interstate bridge in Minneapolis that collapsed during rush hour a few months ago? Remember the collapse of Interstate 10 in the Northridge Earthquake, or the collapse of an elevated section of Interstate 5 that killed an LAPD officer the same day? Remember how Interstate 10 was washed away during Hurricane Rita in 2004? Remember the huge Sunshine Skyway bridge near Tampa that fell into the bay? Remember how Oakland's Bay Bridge collapsed on itself during the World Series Quake? All were occasions when Boss Tar got paid to build the same roads and bridges twice - and always for an awful lot more the second time.
Even in my hometown of Monroe, N.Y., my high school classmate, the student council president who became the Justice of the Peace and ran his father's paving machinery firm, went to jail for taking kickbacks. Between them, multiplied many times, you gave Boss Tar tens of billions of dollars - twice. And Boss Tar doesn't even have a face, does he? Who do you think of?
The roadbuilders and associated industries are also, of course, untouchable. No newspaper, magazine or investigative tv show will take them on. You need only raise a mild objection to anything the road-builders propose and they will flood you with complaints about traffic, potholes, rutted roads, flooded roads, and road hazards. They have an unending supply of supporters - thanks only to the knee-jerk indoctrination of the public with respect to roads - and this industry is more powerful than banks, insurance companies and utilities. They know where the money comes from.
So Boss Tar always gets his way, except in those rare cases when a community or someone like McClash is willing to stand up and fight for everything they're worth. Boston doesn't have people like that, so they got the "Big Dig" and its collapsing tunnels. Neither did L.A., so they got the shoddy construction of the (badly needed) Metro Rail subway. In the Greenwich Village area of New York City, however, in the late '50s and early '60s a group of upstarts - in politics, they are called "insurgents" - took over the corrupt local Democratic Party club, led by the immensely powerful Carmine DeSapio, and installed a new regime called the Village Independent Democrats.
They did so in the process of fighting the corruption that accompanied the planned construction of Robert Moses's proposed West Side Highway, which would have ripped the Colonial-era heart out of Greenwich Village. Once in power, the insurgents elected people like future Congressman and Mayor Ed Koch - and dozens of others - so they could stop the highway, and they did. It is the only instance I know of a community overcoming the asphalt business; the highway never got built, and still - 40 years later - isn't needed.