Where and how could Florida benefit from President-elect Donald Trump's campaign promise to rebuild highways, tunnels, bridges and airports? To find out how such a public-works program would fit in the Sunshine State, the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board sought out the expertise of Ananth Prasad, who was secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation from April 2011 until January 2015. Prasad is now the senior vice president at HNTB as national market sector leader, DOT. The full transcript can be found at OrlandoSentinel.com/Opinion
Q: President-elect Donald Trump has proposed a plan that would finance up to $1 trillion in infrastructure nationwide. If Congress goes along, what projects in Central Florida belong at the top of the list?
A: As a transportation professional, it is exciting to hear President-elect Trump's focus on investments in infrastructure. As you know, significant investments have already being made in Central Florida. However, there is much more to be done along Interstate 4 corridor from Volusia County to Hillsborough County. On a micro level, connectivity between Polk and Osceola counties needs to be addressed, building upon the success of the Poinciana Parkway. There could be opportunities to expand SunRail service east to Volusia and potentially connect to Orlando International Airport.
Q: What about infrastructure projects elsewhere in the state of Florida?
A: From a highway perspective, the interstate system in Tampa Bay (I-4 and Interstate 275) and completion of First Coast Expressway around Jacksonville (including a new bridge crossing across St. Johns River) jumps out. I-75 through Central Florida needs immediate attention by either widening the existing highway from Wildwood north to Gainesville, or advancing the work on a reliever route. As you may know, one out of eight days, there is an incident along this stretch that brings traffic to a standstill. We also need to start looking at "future corridors" to eventually connect parts of the state in a more efficient manner rather than a circuitous way.
While we make improvement to the highway network, we should also look at providing light rail-alternatives in Miami-Dade County, specifically connecting the western portions of the county to the airport, downtown and to the beaches, and providing north-south alternatives to I-95 and the Turnpike. We need to look at similar options in Tampa Bay. Having said that, our current model of delivering light-rail projects is not yielding the desired results. I recommend that public investments on such projects should be limited to right-of-way, track, signals and stations, while looking to long-term private concessions to operate the trains, and assume the risks of ridership and operations and maintenance.
Q: What are the potential benefits to Florida from Trump's plan?
A: Florida is one of the fastest-growing states and offers many opportunities for investments that will provide a good return. Florida is way ahead of other states when it comes to enabling legislation as it relates to public-private partnerships and other alternative-delivery techniques. So with that in place, Florida is able and ready to leverage any infrastructure plan by the new administration.
Q: Are there any pitfalls in President-elect Trump's approach?
A: There are a lot of overarching policy issues that would need to be reconciled at the federal level such as taking on additional debt, rural-versus-urban projects, transit considerations, etc. On a much bigger sense, I hope these discussions result in transforming the way we currently pay for our infrastructure, specifically highways and bridges, because it would require more than an one-time infusion of capital to make our infrastructure the best in the world.
Q: Conservatives generally opposed President Obama's proposals to invest in infrastructure. Why should they go along with Trump's plan?
A: The country deserves these investment regardless who the president is. Unfortunately, all good intentions get bogged down in details, the biggest of which is the continual (and worsening) imbalance between needs and the revenues needed to address them. Putting Band-Aids on the current system will not yield the result that we all want. It needs a transformation change, a change that should also address the roles of federal, state and local governments play in delivering infrastructure improvements.
Q: Florida has more miles of toll road than any other state. Why welcome a plan that would add to that mileage?
A: A toll is a user fee, and the users pay for the use of such facilities. Gasoline taxes and sales taxes attributed to transportation have served us well to improve the transportation infrastructure on a foundational basis. As we build upon that foundation, a user-pay facility such as a toll road provides for a more equitable way for funding infrastructure, especially new corridors, rather than burdening every taxpayer.
Q: How will Florida's transportation network be different 50 years from now?
A: It will be a multimodal system, predominantly centered around highways but with transit (commuter rail and light rail) playing a vital role in providing choices in the urban and the greater metropolitan areas. Technology will transform us from being mode-centric to mobility-centric, allowing commuters to make decisions based on real-time data and a mix of modes that provide them with the shortest commute.