Northeast Florida Builders Association Executive Officer Bill Garrison leaves for work at 5:30 a.m. to beat the traffic on his commute to Duval County from Clay.

Stuck in traffic again? What's behind the mess

Who is responsible for clogging Duval’s roads? Many are commuters from the surrounding counties.
By: 
Aug. 16, 2018

Drivers who travel along Jacksonville’s main highways during the morning and afternoon rush hours know the struggle.

Whether it’s via Interstate 95, 295, 10 or another major thoroughfare, vehicles often crawl at a few miles per hour rather than travel at or above the posted speed limits, creating what looks like lengthy parking lots.

The executive officer of the Northeast Florida Builders Association gets up before the sun rises and is on the road by 5:30 a.m. every weekday to avoid the peak congestion hours.

“If I wait and leave, I'm stuck on I-10 with tens of thousands of people sitting bumper-to-bumper,” Bill Garrison said.

Which raises the question: Why is traffic so congested in Northeast Florida, particularly Duval County?

One likely explanation could be the significant population living in a metropolitan region.

But a recently released report shows it has more to do with the commute of drivers from adjoining counties to jobs in Jacksonville, including some who travel significant distances.

Heading to Duval

The 2017 North Florida Household Travel Survey shows that one-quarter of working residents from Nassau and at least one-third of workers from Baker, Clay and St. Johns counties travel to Duval for work.

The statistics verify the frustration of some that outsiders clog Duval's roads, such as the Jacksonville City Council member who represents the Mandarin area and sees cars using San Jose Boulevard, which also is Florida 13, to commute.

“(They're) screwing up my roads,” said Matt Schellenberg. “All those people moving to St. Johns County are using my roads, using our services and using up public safety.”

Schellenberg’s district sits at the southern end of Duval, with the San Jose Boulevard bridge connecting Duval with St. Johns County.

The North Florida Transportation Planning Organization conducted a study that found Clay County has the highest proportion – 39 percent – of workers commuting to jobs in Duval.

Baker County was second at 37 percent, St. Johns was third at 33 percent and Nassau was fourth at 24 percent.

Only 7 percent of Putnam County working residents commute to Duval County.

However, nearly 70 percent of Duval workers stay in Duval for their job.

The study was conducted over several weeks in late 2017 by mailed surveys. More than 376,000 households were invited to participate and 3,874 completed the survey.

It found that 15 percent of workers from the six counties work from home.

And 14 percent have a workplace that varies, such as a contractor or taxi driver.

Where the money is

One of the primary reasons for the commute into Duval is that’s where the highest pay is.

“Ideally, we would all work in the same county,” said Denise Bunnewith, a planning director with the North Florida TPO. “Our journeys to work would be short. But most high-paying jobs are in Duval.”

Garrison is an example of an employee who drives into Duval from an adjoining county.

His daily commute is about 40 miles each way from his home in Clay to the organization's Jacksonville offices on Century 21 Drive in Arlington.

“I don't spend two hours in my car every day because I like it,” he said. “I live where I want to live because I like it there. And I have to go to Jacksonville because that's where the money is.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics as of September, the average weekly wages in Northeast Florida were:

■ Duval, $951.

■ St. Johns, $830.

■ Nassau, $727

■ Clay, $705.

■ Baker, $629.

Florida’s average weekly wage was $896, ranking 29th in the country.

Commuters also leave money in Duval.

Garrison said many of those who come from other counties are buying fuel at gas stations in Duval, lunch at restaurants and shopping at the area's retail stores.

No quick solution

One potential solution to reduce commuting is for economic developers, such as chambers of commerce, to recruit or encourage more high-paying jobs in Duval's neighboring counties, Bunnewith said.

“I think the chambers are working to that end, but that doesn't happen overnight,” she said.

Also contributing to the road congestion is the number of solo commuters.

The survey showed that 85 percent of commuters use their own household vehicle and that 90 percent drive alone.

But commuters help to generate the need to build and maintain more roads and raise questions about how to pay for those.

Schellenberg said toll roads aren't the solution and that there's little money that can be collected from those who use the roads and other services in Duval.

Northeast Florida Builders Association Executive Officer Bill Garrison commutes 80 miles round-trip a day from Clay to Duval County. “I have to go to Jacksonville because that’s where the money is,” he says.

Collecting taxes

Every time a driver gases up their vehicle, federal, state and county governments collect a portion via fuel taxes. In 2018, the federal tax rate is set at 18.4 cents per gallon and the state rate is 13.7 cents.

County governments are allowed to collect up to 12 cents per gallon in three separate taxes. Duval and St. Johns counties set the rate at 6 cents per gallon, while Baker and Nassau take 7 cents and Clay collects 12 cents.

A Florida Department of Transportation report shows that the majority of federal gas taxes collected fund road and bridge projects, while 15 percent of the state fuel sales tax is dedicated for public transportation.

The remainder can be used for any “legitimate state transportation purpose.”

The local option, or county, fuel taxes can be used for “any legitimate county or municipal transportation purpose” and small counties may also use funds for other infrastructure needs.

Hampton Ray, a public information officer with FDOT, said that state leaders have placed an emphasis on improving infrastructure and mobility across Florida.

He said FDOT funding comes from a variety of sources, including the state gas tax and federal grants.

“The priorities of local agencies and local governments are sent to the local district of the Florida Department of Transportation. The funds are allocated for these projects using a mix of state and federal dollars. As projects enter the five-year work program, the State Legislature allocates and approves the funds for FDOT to carry out the work,” he said in an email.

One controversial option is a mileage-based fee instead of the gas taxes, said Bunnewith. That is being studied in a few states.

“Transportation funding is really in trouble because vehicles are getting more efficient,” she said. And those that don’t use gas don’t pay gas taxes.

That and the possibility of more hybrid and electric cars hitting the streets over the next several years means something has to be done soon, she said, adding that the federal government is reluctant to establish a mileage-based tax.

“So it may have to be done state-by-state,” she said, adding that if that ever happens in Florida, the gas taxes would be eliminated.

Using the data

The survey data will be used by transportation agencies throughout the region and state, such as the state Department of Transportation, to determine which road projects require funding.

The report says the survey provides planners with comprehensive travel behavior information, “allowing them to make informed planning and policy decisions.”

Bunnewith said transportation planners use such data to “validate and calibrate” their travel demand models, which give them rough estimates of where growth is happening and where additional roads are needed to handle the impact.

“Once we have a base year established, the models project out growth in population, employment and school enrollment,” she said. “That is how we predict the future because we don't have a crystal ball.”

The agency is completing long-range plans that provide suggestions on road projects through 2040, and the next plan will go through 2045.

In the end, Bunnewith said the North Florida TPO is “fiscally restrained” by a limited budget, so it can only include projects it can afford in its recommendations to the FDOT.

“So we have to prioritize and get the most bang for the buck,” she said. “And the list of needs is long.”

Ray said that FDOT understands drivers’ complaints about traffic congestion.

“Our responsibility is to be good stewards of tax dollars while we try to maximize mobility and eliminate as much congestion as possible,” he said.

“We understand people's frustration,” he said. “We drive these roads too.”