Mica: Manatee may become ‘mega-port’

SARASOTA — He took a public bus to the meeting, but it was ships that were on the mind of a high-ranking congressman who met with local officials Tuesday.

Rep. John Mica, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he expects Port Manatee to become a choice destination for “megaliners” going through a wider Panama Canal.

“My prediction (is), Manatee will become the mega-port of the entire Gulf coast,” Mica said, citing its position as the closest U.S. deepwater port to the canal. “I think you’re sitting on a huge opportunity.”

Port officials, anticipating increased business from container ships after the canal is widened in 2014, have embarked on a construction program that includes new berths, deeper channels and new equipment.

The port was among several transportation-related topics that Mica addressed while meeting with more than 40 local officials at the invitation of Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Sarasota Republican who also sits on the committee. Mica and Buchanan reached the meeting site via a Sarasota County Area Transit hybrid bus.

Mica, who represents central Florida, said his “number one priority” is passing a new, six-year transportation spending bill to succeed one that has been extended five times since expiring in September. The new bill likely will be in the $400 billion to $500 billion range, far short of the estimated $2.2 trillion needed to maintain the nation’s existing transportation system, he said.

“The funding mechanism is definitely in crisis,” Mica said, referring to the federal government’s reliance on fuel taxes to fund transportation projects. “One of the big hang-ups for the new transportation bill is funding,”

He predicted that drivers ultimately will pay fuel taxes based on how many miles they drive, with microchips tracking the vehicle’s mileage.

Mike Lasche, executive director of Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocates in Sarasota, said the new bill should set aside more federal money to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. Lasche said that figure, now at 1 percent of federal transportation spending, should be 13 percent to reflect the percentage of highway fatalities that are bicyclists or pedestrians.

“We need to do this to save lives in Florida,” Lasche said.

Mica sad he was committed to at least preserving bicycle/pedestrian safety money, but said there are “a lot of people who want to zero that out.”

He also criticized how the Obama administration is parceling out transportation money from the federal economic stimulus package.

Although Florida won $1.2 billion to develop high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, most of the rail money went to increase speeds on existing Amtrak lines. Mica, saying Amtrak “hijacked” the process, said he was considering seeking records on how the funding decisions were made.

He also called it “unthinkable” that no money from a $1.5 billion transportation grant program went to Florida, and questioned why a $15 billion jobs bill would send most of its transportation money to four states other than Florida.

“Florida got screwed in that legislation,” he said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.