The transportation budget that Gov. Rick Scott proposed last week will help ease congestion in some areas and create much-needed construction jobs. But the plan does nothing to break the state from its costly reliance on roads as the primary means of travel, and it does little to inspire communities to improve mass transit. Florida cannot afford or compete with a transportation strategy rooted in the last century. State legislators should rebalance the governor's priorities.
The governor's plan says as much about his transit priorities as his jobs agenda in the run-up to his re-election campaign. The state would increase transportation spending next year by $917 million, to $9 billion total, an 11 percent jump. Scott said the increase would create an estimated half-million jobs — jobs that would be in the pipeline as the governor ramps up his 2014 campaign. The measure also reasonably increases the investment in the state's deepwater ports as Florida lays a foundation for new trade opportunities spawned by the expansion of the Panama Canal.
The state would spend billions of dollars in the coming years on interstates, highways and toll roads. Much of that work would help ease congestion in the major urban centers of Tampa Bay, Orlando and South Florida. In this region alone, the state would spend more than $650 million to improve the interstate systems, expand the Veterans Expressway in north Hillsborough County and add lanes around the intersection of Interstate 275 and State Road 60. The state would spend roughly $250 million in the next five years on road projects in mid Pinellas, including $138 million to build an elevated expressway along 118th Avenue that will stretch from U.S. 19 to Roosevelt Boulevard. Another $25.6 million would be spent in Citrus County over the next five years to acquire land to extend the Suncoast Parkway.
Those projects are badly needed, but the preoccupation with roads in general is a throwback compared with states and regions that are diversifying their transit options with express bus service, light rail and other forms of public transportation. Scott's budget includes only $400 million in direct spending on transit, less than 5 percent of next year's transportation budget. Indeed, the big winners next year are the state's seaports: Florida would spend more than double next year, or $247 million, on seaport grants. The Port of Tampa stands to gain tens of millions of dollars in the coming years.
Scott has used the seaport money as a political diversion ever since he rejected billions in federal dollars soon after taking office that would have paid for a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando. That system would have improved traffic along Interstate 4 and caused feeder bus service to explode throughout the region. But instead of investing in a modern transportation system that will need to serve some 26 million people by 2040, Scott is looking to expand toll roads and build new expressways across rural areas of the state. That is a recipe for sprawl and future gridlock.
The Legislature should insist on a balanced, cost-efficient strategy for meeting the state's transportation needs. Rail, bus, high-occupancy lanes and other transit options must have a place in the planning process and a funding source for getting these systems off the drawing board. The state cannot pave its way out of traffic congestion.