Whereas many states had difficulty with the requirement by the federal transportation stimulus program in 2009 that projects be “shovel ready,” the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) was able to commit almost $600 million to 15 projects for Florida’s major regions within the tight deadline. These investments will play a significant role in addressing existing traffic congestion and the lack of connectivity while increasing travel options and helping those regions accommodate the significant growth expected. Three of these projects will leverage federal funds with ongoing state and private sector project funding for an additional $1 billion.
This result contrasts with the experience of other states, where most projects funded through the stimulus program paid for short-term improvements, highway repairs, and bus purchases rather than long-term investments. This was a consequence of the federal program’s obligation deadlines—requiring that at least half the federal funds be obligated within four months of the grant— which prohibited other, potentially higher-priority projects from being selected for funding.
How was Florida able to accomplish this? A culture of maintenance helped, which allowed stimulus funding to go directly to new projects, and the Florida DOT has kept a backlog of priority projects that, though unfunded, had completed the planning and project development cycle. Projects involving new transit additions—rather than highways and roads—were not as well positioned because of the longer federal review cycle, more decentralized planning, and second thoughts by one locality and a new governor.
Of the $1.7 billion received by Florida through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) transportation stimulus package, $1.1 billion was for spending in Florida’s largest metropolitan regions—south Florida, Tampa Bay, central Florida, and Jacksonville.
Projects were divided among the FDOT, local transit operators, and the state’s regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs). FDOT oversaw $592 million in stimulus spending while local transit agencies oversaw $266 million, and the MPOs were responsible for selecting $223 million in projects.
FDOT’s 15 projects in 13 counties of these major regions consisted of road widenings, two new roads, the addition of electronic tolling to Florida’s Turnpike, and conversion of Interstate 95 carpool lanes to managed lanes that accommodate expanded transit, carpools, and solo drivers willing to pay a toll.
Culture of Maintenance
Florida’s culture of maintenance ensures that the first transportation dollars are spent on keeping infrastructure in a state of good repair. “We have no bridges falling down,” says Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. Florida is required by statute to maintain its bridges and roads in top condition. Two-thirds of the interstate highway system in Florida is rated by the Federal Highway Administration to be in the best condition, compared with only one-third of the nation’s interstates as a whole, and the percentage of bridges rated deficient in Florida is half the national average. States that have been less diligent typically prefer to use additional funding for repairs and deferred maintenance. In Florida, new money could go for new projects.
Keeping Projects on the Front Burner
Florida’s capability to handle new investments quickly was abetted by a backlog of shovel-ready projects. Like most states, Florida is strapped for revenues: Florida’s transportation fund depends primarily on gasoline taxes, which are capped by a legislature unwilling to raise rates. With rapid growth in Florida’s economy expected to follow a U.S. recovery, FDOT continued planning for needed projects, even without any prospects for immediate funding.
James Bennett, the urban transportation development manager for FDOT District 2, which includes Jacksonville, says that despite being perennially strapped for funding, his district, like others, “took steps in advance for right-of-way, environmental permits, and land acquisition, and took steps to have designers update ‘on-the-shelf plans’ and apply for permits.” Such planning in the face of financial difficulties gave FDOT a list of major projects expanding capacity that were able to meet the shovel-ready requirements of the federal stimulus funding program, whereas most other states were forced to resort to prosaic road-resurfacing projects.
Research for a study titled Stimulus Spending on Infrastructure in Florida: An Examination of More Than $1 Billion in Transportation Expenditures and the Lessons Learned, completed in 2011 for the Collins Center for Public Policy in Miami, examined the rationale for these expenditures and the lessons that can be drawn from the spending, with a special focus on regional development goals and disadvantaged communities.
For the large Florida regions studied, 30 percent of the project funding was assigned to projects by the regional MPOs, and the remaining 70 percent went to FDOT, which selected projects with input from the MPOs. Although this approach requires more time to put in place, prompting criticism of slow implementation, it creates greater long-term value for the projects. Criteria used for selecting projects included congestion relief, promotion of economic development, and service of regional growth while protecting the economy and minority communities. However, the short-term commitments of the stimulus program allowed little flexibility in projects that had not been vetted already. The FDOT’s 15 major projects included at least one in each of the major counties in the large regions, and regional planners as well as business leaders agreed that these projects addressed the most critical needs.
Mixed Signals for Transit
Federal stimulus spending for local transit projects in these major regions amounted to $266 million, about half as much as what was spent on FDOT’s major road projects, with almost two-thirds—$170 million—spent in south Florida. Almost one-third of transportation stimulus dollars in the central and south Florida regions went for transit, a surprisingly large share compared with transit’s share of travel in these regions—3.5 percent in central Florida and under 2 percent in south Florida. In contrast with the low number of major highway projects targeted—which were highly centralized “off-the-shelf projects” carefully focused on major capacity additions—for transit, decisions were highly decentralized among agencies and funding widely dispersed among many short-term rehabilitation and maintenance projects.
Major transit projects must run a gauntlet of approval steps by the Federal Transit Administration, and no Florida projects were sufficiently advanced to be considered shovel ready. An initiative in Tampa to construct a light-rail line, which would have connected to the proposed Florida high-speed rail, was defeated at the ballot box. (“Regional Transit: Regrouping in the Tampa Bay Area,” May/June, page 80.)
The high-speed rail project was selected for 100 percent capital funding in a related U.S. Department of Transportation rail stimulus program, but in February 2011, Florida’s incoming governor killed the project, citing concerns over operating cost overruns that would be Florida’s responsibility. As a result, Florida’s transit stimulus, administered by a dozen different transit agencies serving these regions, was spent on near-term operational improvements, such as buses, garages, and technical upgrades rather than longer-term investments.
The study points out that in many Florida regions, “the metropolitan planning organizations divide, rather than unite, regions,” and that in these situations “the Florida DOT has the only truly regional perspective.” In Florida’s two most populous regions, Tampa Bay and south Florida, MPOs are generally county based, whereas the FDOT districts incorporate virtually the entire regions, along with surrounding counties. Each FDOT district has its own staff and secretary and is increasingly sensitive to local growth and development issues (though they have no direct involvement in the local land use planning decisions that affect transportation/transit infrastructure needs). In contrast, the four-county Tampa–St. Petersburg metro region contains four MPOs and four transit agencies.
Lessons for Other States
Additional stimulus programs seem unlikely in the national political climate, although there is always the possibility of individual states embarking on significant short-term investments. What lessons can be learned from Florida’s experience?
Fix it first. This is a principle recognized among transportation practitioners as good practice, but a difficult sell in the political arena, which rewards ribbon cuttings over facilities maintenance.
Continue project development even when funding is scarce. This requires plans and project development, including obtaining necessary permits and land acquisition.
Keep a short list of priorities. FDOT worked closely with the regional agencies so that when it came time for putting a short list of projects together, all parties were in agreement.
This does not address the broader question of sustainable funding, an issue over which the U.S. Congress and most states are still conflicted. When and if there are breakthroughs on funding, however, it will be equally important to have effective plans and priorities in place to meet the transportation needs of the future. UL