Mark R. Howard
With the $1-trillion federal infrastructure package now law, Florida may receive, over the next five years, about $13 billion in federal funds to spend on highways and $2.6 billion to improve public transportation.
Ignore for a minute several things: First, whether the federal government was wise to give a $1-trillion jolt to an economy that already had begun reviving at a pretty healthy clip. Second, the question of where the workers will come from to do all the infrastructure work — it’s not as if hordes of construction workers are sitting around idle these days. Third, the fact that high-tax states will likely get more money than others like Florida that have taxed and spent more responsibly.
Fourth, the fact that Florida’s infrastructure, as Florida Trend has reported, is actually in decent shape. Daily media mindlessly repeat the “crumbling infrastructure” mantra and focus on the “C” the Florida Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave to the state’s infrastructure. But in the ASCE’s grading system, “C” is above average. And the report notes that Florida’s “surface transportation sectors — including roads, bridges, aviation, ports and transit — comprise one of the highest-performing infrastructure networks in the nation.”
All those caveats aside, the infrastructure law may have a bright spot or two.
One involves rail. The state’s traditional approach to fast-train infrastructure has been to seek federal funding to build high-speed rail lines, with the assumption that the state would take on the expense of operating the line once it was built. This was always a bad idea: Given the way government-run enterprises function (see Amtrak), it would likely have created a financial black hole for the state. Govs. Jeb Bush and Rick Scott took a lot of heat when their administrations rejected federal funding for a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, but they made the right call.
In addition, federal regulations make true high-speed rail — trains traveling more than 125 mph — prohibitively expensive in most places in Florida because the regs prohibit grade crossings on the parts of the lines where the trains exceed 125 mph. Draw straight lines from Tampa toward Miami just about anywhere you’d like and it’s impossible to find routes that don’t involve crossing a lot of state highways or surface streets — meaning that most of any high-speed route would have to be elevated, aqueduct-style, at enormous cost. (See the ongoing high-speed rail boondoggle in California.)
Then there is the inconvenient fact that Amtrak already operates a train between Tampa and Miami. That train — with falling ridership and terrible on-time performance — could almost compete with driving if Amtrak’s managers asserted their legal primacy to existing rail lines, which they don’t.
But the biggest reason why federally financed rail in Florida is a bad idea is Brightline — the privately financed, privately operated train that runs between Miami and West Palm and has become a gem in Florida’s infrastructure crown.
An extension of the line from West Palm to the Orlando airport is more than 70% complete, and Brightline expects to have trains running to Orlando (at 125 mph) early in 2023. Meanwhile, it’s working on adding a leg to Disney and on to Tampa that could handle trains at 150 mph. Michael Reininger, CEO of Brightline Holdings, says his line is negotiating with the Central Florida Expressway Authority and the state over rights-of-way issues and is working on selecting a site for a station in downtown Tampa.
Brightline trains are clean, comfortable and operate at speeds (around 80 mph on its existing corridor) that make them competitive with driving while remaining economical to construct and operate. Ridership was improving each month before the pandemic, and growth has resumed in recent months. Brightline also has added a “lastmile” service to get passengers from its stations to destinations within five miles via electric vehicles.
Back to the infrastructure law, which includes several competitive grant programs to encourage government agencies to collaborate with private-sector groups like Brightline in seeking funding for transit and rail projects. According to the Bipartisan Policy Center, the feds will view “Innovative project delivery techniques, innovative financing and collaboration with other public or private entities” favorably when awarding grants. The public, Reininger says, will be able to invest financially at a minority level while leaving the risks associated with construction and operation in private-sector hands.
Reininger says Brightline already is in discussions with public transit systems in Miami-Dade County about allowing their systems to use its rail corridor. It could have similar discussions with SunRail, Orlando’s commuter rail system, and other transit systems. “Given our willingness to integrate with other transportation systems, with some clever thinking you can utilize those public dollars” in the infrastructure bill to serve the interests of both private firms like Brightline and the publicly operated systems, he says. The bill, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center, includes technical assistance for communities to develop those public-private partnerships.
P3s, as the partnerships are called, have shown their value, again and again, in advancing worthy goals. Governments in Florida should take advantage of the infrastructure bill’s provisions to speed the development of high-speed rail and other transit options while minimizing the cost and risk to taxpayers.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor