Sunday, April 22, 2018
Business

Trigaux: Tampa Bay needs to step up as Donald Trump follows in Obama's footsteps by prepping infrastructure package

Worried the troubled U.S. economy needed a serious kick-start, the new U.S. president and his team decided on a bold and expensive fiscal stimulus plan to invest quickly and heavily in the aging infrastructure of America.

The hope: that repaving roads and rebuilding bridges, ports and public transit would not only provide lots of good paying jobs but also spark private investment to accelerate and lift the entire economy.

That was the precise strategy pursued by newly inaugurated President Barack Obama in 2009 when an $800 billion stimulus package passed early that year amid an ongoing Wall Street collapse and a burst housing bubble.

Now in these early days after this November election, it looks likely President Donald Trump in early 2017 will unveil a similar plan to revive a sagging national infrastructure and, with luck, rev the engine of America's gross national product.

Trump's tentative plan would call for investing from $500 billion up to as much as $1 trillion over the next decade. His goal: to double economic growth, put millions back to work and, as he said in his victory speech this past Wednesday, make America's infrastructure "second to none."

We're past due. Last year the average age of the nation's infrastructure had reached 22.8 years, the oldest in data going back to 1925.

How might Florida — the nation's third most populated state whose 29 electoral votes went to Trump in the election — and the Tampa Bay area benefit from a national infrastructure stimulus?

It's time to get our act together.

When Obama pushed his infrastructure plan, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Tampa Bay's unemployment rate was a painful 8.1 percent and heading even higher.

Across Tampa Bay, political and economic development leaders scrambled to come up with a list of so-called "shovel ready" projects in the region that the federal stimulus package could help make happen. The Tampa Bay Partnership at the time tallied about 350 potential area projects costing $4.8 billion, and attempted to devise a pecking order of those that should take priority.

Some of those projects at the time included the I-4 Crosstown Connector Project aimed at rerouting truck traffic from Port Tampa Bay directly to nearby interstates, and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's desire to build a Bus Rapid Transit Line along Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

The Obama effort accomplished some things but suffered from political infighting in Congress and general bureaucracy. Those projects that did happen were ultimately credited with saving 2 million U.S. jobs amid the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Obama's stimulus package had also designated $8 billion for the development of a high-speed intercity passenger rail system. That would include a bullet train linking Tampa and Orlando — a project later shot down by Rick Scott, Florida's newly elected governor.

Seven years ago, Obama's infrastructure plan was up against a major financial collapse, soaring jobless rates, a housing market that in Florida would leave millions in foreclosure and a nation suffering deep doubts and low confidence.

What does Trump face by comparison?

The U.S. unemployment rate hovers near 5.1 percent, while the rate in Florida and Tampa Bay is even lower at 4.7 percent.

Housing prices are strong again and still rising while interest rates and inflation are extremely low.

One measure has changed little in Florida. Job quality still lags and area wages continue to trail the national average. But overall, these economic factors add up to a reasonably strong picture for the country and Florida.

Yet Trump won the presidential race because he sees the country's GNP as underperforming. He argues too many jobs are still lost to overseas markets. And some of the hardest hit, blue collar parts of the country are in need of fresh hope, new investment and a more equitable playing field with international competitors.

Hence Trump's call for a rapid adoption of a massive infrastructure renewal effort soon after he takes office in January.

With Republicans controlling both the House and Senate and — perhaps — a willingness to get off on the right foot with Trump after a rancorous campaign, a fiscal stimulus package may win quick approval.

It may not be a slam dunk. Already, more conservative groups are criticizing Trump's job-creation claims for such plans, just as they argued against the benefits of Obama's stimulus package.

Whether Florida or Tampa Bay will rank high on Trump's list of priority projects is anyone's guess at this point.

The fact that Gov. Scott loves to remind the world that Florida leads the nation in job growth could be a signal to a Trump administration that other parts of the country are in greater need of fiscal stimulus than the Sunshine State.

Still, here's a suggestion for Tampa Bay. Get a new list of "shovel ready" projects in order. Be very clear about which ones are most important. And above all, if Trump's team comes calling, speak with one regional voice.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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