TALLAHASSEE -- If you think there's too much road construction now, just wait.
The state plans to increase transportation spending by 11 percent in an effort to boost jobs, build more roads, and get the state's ports ready for the expansion of the Panama Canal. For motorists, that means navigating through more orange cones and thicker clouds of construction dust throughout the state.
Florida's proposed $9.1 billion budget was released Tuesday. On tap in Tampa Bay, $420 million of additional lanes on Interstate 75 in Pasco, Hernando and Sumter counties; $27 million for the expansion of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard; and $69 million to add lanes on the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County. In South Florida, new construction would include $112 million for new lanes on I-75 in Broward County; $154 million to add lanes and reconstruct the Homestead extension of the Florida Turnpike and $25 million to add lanes and reconstruct State Road 823.
An unprecedented flood of money is getting steered to ports in an attempt to get them primed for the Panama Canal expansion, which should be completed in the next two years. The proposed budget includes $30.6 million for the Port of Miami, $26.7 million for the Port of Tampa, $19.5 million for the Port of Manatee and close to $100 million across the rest of the state.
"We're leveraging what's going to happen with post-Panama Canal expansion," DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad recently told a House transportation committee. "Florida's truly going to be the gateway to the Americas."
Gov. Rick Scott was in Jacksonville Tuesday to tout the proposed budget as an economic tool. He estimates the $917 million increase in spending from this year will help create 500,000 jobs, one third related to highway construction -- employment opportunities that would be on line as he gets ready for re-election in 2014.
While Scott claimed credit for the budget, about two-thirds of it is the work of regional metropolitan planning organizations staffed with local elected officials, and port and airport authorities that he only partly controls through appointments. But the proposed transportation plan, which will be included in the larger $74 billion budget bill during the upcoming legislative session, reflects a consensus among lawmakers and local leaders that an increase in transportation spending will spark the economy.
"The construction industry was the most hurt by the recession," said the chair of the House transportation appropriations committee, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. "So the industry will only be helped by more spending."
In many ways, it's an approach that's a throwback to 20th century road politics, where highway construction was viewed as a job creator and a solution to gridlock. While other states have moved to road alternatives like transit and rail, Florida's spending includes only about $400 million in direct spending on transit, or less than 5 percent. Scott is still remembered for rejecting $2.4 billion in federal dollars that would have paid for a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.
"You can't construct enough highways to build our way out of congestion," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. "Tampa Bay is the only area of our size without mobility options, be it light rail, bus rapid transit or high occupancy vehicle lanes. This puts us at a competitive disadvantage."
Buckhorn said he and several other cities, such as St. Petersburg and Miami, will lobby the Legislature this year to get permission to ask voters for approval of light rail projects without having to appeal to county voters as well. In 2010, Hillsborough voters rejected a proposed light rail system in Tampa that city residents supported.
Scott sees roads as not just creating jobs, but accommodating growth for a state with a population of 19 million that's projected to grow past 26 million by 2040.
To the chagrin of environmental activists, Scott has resurrected a project of toll roads that former Gov. Jeb Bush supported but his predecessor, Gov. Charlie Crist, rejected. The toll roads would be built in rural areas and help bring development to landlocked parts of the state.
"Under Crist, transportation dollars were spent in areas where there already was congestion, not where they thought growth would go," said Charles Pattison, President of 1000 Friends of Florida.
"The interesting thing about this budget is that the governor has put about $1 billion more than he did last year, and it's going to one agency for roads. But are roads going to be the solution in 2040?"