Are you experiencing climate anxiety, too?
I don’t know about everyone else, but climate anxiety and even climate grief have been hitting me hard recently. We’ve seen some intense natural disasters this year, like monumental flooding in Pakistan and the devastating Hurricane Ian. In 2021, we saw disasters like the Colorado Marshall Fire, during which dried-up vegetation, high winds, and increasingly warmer seasons created the perfect conditions for a wildfire to tear through unprepared residential areas.
The most upsetting aspect, for me, is not the events themselves but the certainty that more devastating events will occur in the future if we do stop our climate-catalyzing activities. Realizing that Florida and other coastal environments worldwide could eventually be swallowed by rising sea levels, and that increased flooding will force mass migrations of people, and create more and more climate refugees. I’m still a teenager, and thinking about the impact that climate change will have on my health, my family and community’s wellbeing, the place I call home, and my prospects for the future? It’s a lot.
Is there a solution?
Wherever you are with your own climate anxiety, whether that’s total doomsday, or just mild (but increasing) concern, is valid. It’s okay to be scared by these frightful prospects, but after you acknowledge your fears you must pivot and ask the question, “What can I do to help?” The responsibility placed on each of us to reduce our carbon footprint, our waste, our consumption, and more can be incredibly daunting. It’s easy to feel discouraged when operating with the mindset that you’ll only make a tiny dent in these large and growing issues by taking action yourself. However, taking action is an essential step to changing your mindset and protecting your peace. By engaging in the issue, you fortify yourself with a community of likeminded, concerned citizens, and the knowledge that you are trying, in your own small corner of the world, to be a force for hope and good.
Truthfully, there is no silver bullet to pierce the heart of environmental destruction. If there’s one thing I learned in college so far, it’s that no easy solution exists when dealing with human nature and the beautifully entangled ecological web in which we all live. Furthermore, the climate situation has already gone too far, and there is certain suffering ahead for various groups of people, perhaps not soon but inevitably at some point, in our own communities. Of course, this is not what we want to hear, and the massive responsibility feels heavy on the heart at times.
While there isn’t one solution to make this catastrophe go away, there are many ways to immediately plug in and begin generating the change that you want to see, if just in your community. Local, after all, is powerful, and localized solutions can be scaled up and enacted around the world if they are successful piloted. When thinking about enacting change at the local level, it is impossible to ignore the machine of government, which has the power to guide us into a future of climate readiness. Local government infrastructure initiatives on the ballot this year in the general election are crucial to greenifying our cities.
Specifically, I’m going to cover the Orange County Transportation Tax initiative. In addition to breaking down the components of the tax, I’m going to explain how it has a lot of potential to reduce emissions, and why you should care.
To begin, I’ll break this initiative down into a series of specific questions that address its different components.
How much money will this tax generate, and where will it come from?
Anyone who pays sales tax in Orange County will be contributing to this transportation tax. The transportation tax doesn’t apply to essential items like bread, milk, or other foods items that aren’t currently taxed. Utilities and prescription drugs are also exempt. The tax applies only to the first $5,000 per single purchase of retail goods and services. The extra charge for the added sales tax is capped at $50, no matter the purchase (Frequently Asked Questions).
On the bright side, over 51% of the funds generated by this transportation tax are expected to be paid by tourists and visitors outside of Orange County. In total, it’s estimated that this sales tax will generate nearly $600 million/year to meet both short and long-term transportation needs.
What kind of projects are being funded?
Overall, there are 3 major categories of transportation projects outlined in the executive summary of the Transportation Initiative Report. These categories were derived from top transportation challenges and priorities identified through community feedback. They were obtained during various community meetings held by Mayor Jerry Demings and his staff, and from the 2019 and 2022 Transportation Survey results.
Category 1: Orange County Transportation Improvements
The first category of projects is general Orange County Transportation Improvements, which contains 3 subcategories.
Subcategory 1: Safety improvements
Projects in this subcategory are intended to make Orange County more accessible to people with disabilities, and to improve general safety for bikers and pedestrians. The safety improvements subcategory includes corridor improvement projects guided by the county’s Pedestrian Bike Safety program, along with the construction of four pedestrian bridges. It also includes projects that are part of the county’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Transition Plan for Public Rights-of-Way. The pedestrian/bike safety action plans and the barrier mitigation program for Americans with disabilities aim to add more sidewalks & curb ramps, and to remove common obstacles and hazards.
An Orlando Business Journal article provides more information about the proposed infrastructure upgrades of the ADA Transition Plan. Some key issues the plan intends to address include:
- 16,813 ft of gaps in city sidewalks (out of 936.6 miles of sidewalk)
- 638 locations where the existing sidewalk meets the road without a ramp (out of 16,136 curb ramps)
- Replacing or relocating pedestrian signals that are hard to reach, and moving hazards like poles or benches that partially block sidewalks
The city estimates an overall cost of $34.9 million to mitigate the accessibility issues identified. Currently, there is no plan for funding for the ADA transition plan, through a tax or otherwise. However the city is already working on some of the mitigation projects proposed by the plan.
Other projects intended to improve biker and pedestrian safety include those that focus on improving intersections and roads identified by the county as high-crash locations. Building bike/pedestrian bridges in these areas can majorly improve safety. One example is the Complete Streets and Intersection Projects, which use the “Complete Streets” design approach to address crash mitigation, which entails retrofitting roads and intersections for “equal accessibility for all modes of transportation” (Soderstrom).
Finally, the last set of major safety projects included in this subcategory are projects that will improve the county’s lighting, technology, and traffic operations programs. Lighting improvements include adding more lighting to 166 miles of major roads, and 231 miles of local roads. Technology and Traffic Operation projects include:
- Passive Pedestrian Detection
- Adaptive Signal Control
- Smart Work Zones
- Fiber Optic Installation/Expansion
- Signal Upgrades/Prioritization (better signal detection and coordination)
Subcategory 2: Major Roadway Improvements
This subcategory comprises projects that will expand existing roadways, add new roadways, and replace bridges that have reached their 50 year lifespan. Improvement projects in this category (as defined by the Transportation Initiative Report) represent “154 miles of new and reconstructed roadways” and 45 bridges that will need to be replaced over the next 20 years.
Subcategory 3: Operations and Maintenance
This subcategory addresses the maintenance needs of Orange County’s existing roads, bridges, and landscaping. An additional 79 miles/year of roadways are projected to be added to the system within the next 20 years. Maintenance projects will address 2,700 miles of roadways, and increase the frequency of road resurfacing. It will also enhance pond drainage and maintenance to prevent flooding, as well as bridge repair and landscaping needs.
Category 2: Public Transit Upgrades
The second category of transportation projects is the transit category, which will include projects to upgrade and expand the service of Central Florida’s LYNX and SunRail systems.
The overall goal of these projects, covered in another Orlando Business Journal article, will be to expand the frequency, hours of operation, and stops that these mass transit services provide. Essentially, the revenue provided from the tax initiative would be enough to double the size of the LYNX bus fleet: from 244 buses in Orange County to 485, and to add an additional 44 para-transit vehicles. The tax money would also go towards an additional 12 transfer centers (dedicated bus lanes to speed up service) for the following 6 corridors:
- State Road 436
- State Road 50
- Kirkman Road
- Oak Ridge Road
- U.S 441 South
- International Drive
Another 4 corridors: Silver Star Road, Orange Avenue South, U.S 17-92 North, and U.S 441 North would get a non-dedicated lane bus rapid transit system.
Additional funding would be provided for SunRail to add up to 7 stations as part of an expansion effort to both Orlando International Airport and Apopka, according to officials during a March 22nd Orange County Commissioner meeting. Besides a connection to the Orlando airport, and expanded service on weekends and in general (service would run later and more often), the transit plan includes proposed SunRail stations on a line called the Orange Blossom Expressway. Which would connect with the Lynx Central Station location, and include potential stops at:
- Amelia Street
- Princeton St.
- State Road 429
Currently, SunRail and Lynx are controlled by the Florida Department of Transportation, but are set to be transferred to full local government control in 2024. Tax revenue would then be put towards operation and maintenance of the system.
Category 3: Municipalities
The third and final category for spending is individual transportation projects for municipalities. Basically, all of the cities and towns within Orange County would be appropriated a share of the tax revenue. It is proportioned based on population in order to address local transportation needs by highest need.
Now that we know what types of projects will be funded with the tax revenue, I’ll break down how much those projects will cost, and where the money will be distributed.
How Much Will This Cost?
The Transportation Initiative Report Executive Summary below breaks down the projected spending costs.
**The Funded category represents the money provided by the Current Orange County 5-year Capital Improvement Program. The Unfunded category represents the gap filled by the tax initiative revenue.
Note that while county transportation initiatives already have some funding for high-need projects, there isn’t enough to fund all the projects deemed necessary in that category, let alone to fund upgrades to the transit system as well as municipal plans to address local transportation needs. Those existing funds are traditionally only applied to capital improvements or specific types of projects, but the new revenue from the proposed transportation tax could be applied to O & M costs in addition to the other types listed.
The point of this tax is not only to fill in the funding gaps that exist for all these projects, but also to create a separate dedicated revenue source to meet transportation funding needs. It’s important to have this dedicated funding source, especially when trying to be a competitive applicant for federal grants, for example, those made available by the Investment and Infrastructure Jobs Act. According to the Transportation FAQ webpage, Orange County would be required to provide some degree of local matching funds when applying for federal grants. Those funds would have to come from a dedicated funding source.
These costs are further broken down in the following graphics, which can also be found in the Transportation Initiative Report Executive Summary.
Finally, I’m going to cover who’ll oversee the spending of this money.
The Transportation Initiative Report Executive Summary has one last graphic that summarizes the different oversight structures, and their respective functions.
How will this tax benefit you?
Aside from the clear environmental benefits, investment in infrastructure will affect your daily life. Everyone can benefit from improvements in safety and accessibility, as well as the expansion of public transit.
- Public transit, for current and future users, will become more reliable and convenient. More frequent run times for Lynx and Sunrail will decrease waiting times, as will more buses on the road. In addition, expansion of the existing routes means these services can take you further, and may actually reduce your need for a car. Taking public transit is more important now than it has ever been, and these systems need to not only be accessible for Orange County, but also convenient for citizens if they are to truly be consistently utilized.
- These upgrades will make travel safer for pedestrians, bike-users, and citizens with disabilities as they move around Orange County. Last year, the nonprofit Smart Growth America ranked Orlando as the most dangerous area for pedestrians, with 740 pedestrian deaths from 2010-2019. Per National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data, Florida ranks as the deadliest state for cyclists. Through this tax money, Orlando may be able to address “thousands of feet of missing sidewalk and hundreds of missing curb ramps throughout the city.” (Soderstrom).
- Usually, there’s dedicated funding for transit, rail or highway improvements. Unfortunately, there is hardly the same level of investment at any level of government for non-motorized modes of transportation. This money could be invested in safety enforcement and education as well as safety infrastructure.
- This tax benefits drivers, too. By improving public transit and pedestrian/biker safety, citizens will be less inclined to rely on their cars for transportation. More public transport means less cars on the road and thereby less transportation congestion.
We’ve discussed what the tax initiative does and how it will affect people on an individual level. Now, let’s identify how these changes are important from an environmental standpoint.
Environmental Reality: Why we need better public transit ASAP
Transportation is one of the biggest contributors of carbon to the atmosphere. As we know, the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases (mainly carbon dioxide and methane) are the primary forces accelerating global warming. Global warming is driving the changes we see in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms in Florida. Global warming also threatens to raise sea level and directly threaten the survival of our coastal communities. Global warming is both warming and acidifying oceans, and threatening the stability of marine ecosystems worldwide. Extinctions are at an all-time high, and species are struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing climate and to degraded or even lost habitats.
Another aspect to consider is the economic losses driven by a changing climate, such as immense property damage and the loss of tax revenue if people are forced to leave certain areas due to safety concerns. Climate migration is going to put additional stress on cities and inland locations which are already struggling with near-term effects of climate change. Depending on where individuals go, they could be facing wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, and dangerous levels of heat and humidity (read this article on “wet-bulb” temperatures). Unless action is taken, that stress will increase, and make adaptation more difficult and more dangerous.
According to a (2020 EPA report), the largest source of greenhouse gas emission from human activities in the U.S is from the burning of fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation. Transportation alone contributes 27% of the total greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector, and for Orange County in particular, transportation makes up 36% of total carbon emissions (Frequently Asked Questions).
Where do these emissions come from?
When considering where emissions come from, look at the production of building materials, for example cement and concrete. Additionally, investigate the emissions produced by the construction process overall. Also, consider the transportation of materials and workers as well as the heavy cost of destroying living ecosystems by paving them over with concrete roads. The loss of local biodiversity is tragic for several reasons. Of course, the inherent suffering of wildlife in this development process is difficult to bear.
However, it is also dismal to think that through develop, we destroy the very ecosystems and organisms which can help us reverse climate change. After all, forests are “carbon sinks,” absorbing harmful greenhouse gases from the atmosphere! Ecosystems consume carbon in order to function healthfully. Each organism in an ecosystem needs carbon to survive, and so they take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The more of these ecosystems we destroy, the less capacity they have to perform carbon reuptake. Our ecosystems not only deserve protection, but their superpowers are sorely needed in these warming years.
If not now, when?
If we don’t begin investing in our public transit to make it affordable, comfortable, and convenient for people to use every day, then when will we do it? Right now, Orange County’s jobs, services, and crucial areas aren’t as accessible by public transit as they need to be. At this time, it is dangerous to be a pedestrian or a biker in Orlando, and owning a car is an unfortunate necessity in certain areas.
All in all, your vote on this initiative, and how you leverage your voting power as a citizen matters.
So, mark the date on your calendar, do your research, stay informed and stay hopeful. Know that your vote gives you the power to shape the environment that you and your neighbors live in. Investing in that environment is one of the most important steps you can take on an individual level to help guide change.
Thank you for your time, and your willingness to learn. It’s not easy staying up to date on what’s happening, and it’s not always easy to do something about the environmental issuers that plague our lives. I appreciate you being here and I encourage you to continue to try and learn as much as you can, and to talk about it as much as you can with your community. It will take all of us working together to create the kind of change we need to see, and there is no time to waste.
Written by Isabel Pych. Edited by Leah Bishop and Katie De Bari.
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Lynch, Ryan. “SunRail to Expand to Apopka, Provide Daily Service If Proposed Sales Tax Hike Is Approved.” Orlando Business Journal, 22 Mar. 2022, https://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/news/2022/03/22/sunrail-could-expand-to-apopka-sales-tax-orlando.html#:~:text=The%20proposed%20tax%20collections%20also,three%20locomotives%20and%20six%20cabs. Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.
Orange County Florida, Orange County Transportation Department. Transportation Initiative Report Executive Summary. Orange County Transportation Department, 2022.
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Soderstrom, Alex. “Orange County Transportation Sales Tax Would Make Orlando More Accessible for People with Disabilities.” Orlando Business Journal, 1 July 2022, https://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/news/2022/07/01/orange-county-transportation-sales-tax-sidewalks.html?utm_source=st&utm_medium=en&utm_campaign=ae&utm_content=or&ana=e_or_ae&j=28246600&senddate=2022-07-01. Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.