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How will Florida spend the billions Congress approved for infrastructure?

Tampa Bay counties and cities say they’re eager for money to help address longstanding needs and are awaiting further details.
Heavy traffic is seen along the southbound lanes of I-275 on the Howard Frankland bridge Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019 in Clearwater.
Heavy traffic is seen along the southbound lanes of I-275 on the Howard Frankland bridge Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019 in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times (2019) ]
Published Nov. 8

The $1 trillion infrastructure plan now on President Joe Biden’s desk could bring billions of dollars to Florida for roads, bridges, public transportation, clean water and more. But the specifics on how that money will get distributed across the state has local governments, including those in Tampa Bay, still unclear.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which passed the U.S. House on Friday, could bring about $13 billion in federal funds to improve Florida’s aging highways and $2.6 billion over five years to improve the state’s public transportation options, according to a fact sheet previously released by the White House.

Expected to be signed into law later this month, the historic bill would also put money toward cybersecurity, broadband internet access, electric vehicles and more.

While the bill got votes from both Democrat and Republican House members, no Republicans from Florida voted for it. All Democratic House members from Florida voted for the bill. U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio both voted against it when it passed out of the Senate in August.

Several state governors on both sides of the aisle have applauded the bill’s passage, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican and the chairperson of the National Governors Association.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been largely silent about the bill, which was held up for months amid bipartisan negotiations.

When asked about it Monday, DeSantis said it seemed like “a lot of pork barrel spending.”

He then criticized a portion of the bill that would create a voluntary pilot program that would study the viability of a per-mile user fee to improve roads and maintain the Highway Trust Fund.

“They say the gas tax doesn’t get enough money, so they want to monitor the mileage that you’re driving on your car, and then tax you per the mile,” DeSantis said. “They open the door for that in that bill. That will never fly in the state of Florida. We are not going to allow that to happen.”

Such an idea has been floated as an alternative to a gas tax as the auto industry moves more toward electric cars, according to Politifact. But the bill would not mandate such a per-mile tax; volunteers in the pilot program would be reimbursed.

Tampa Bay counties and cities say they’re eager for money to help address longstanding needs and are awaiting further details.

Related: What's in the infrastructure bill? Roads, transit, internet and more

“We have lists of unfunded priorities that are needed in every single category, road improvement being the biggest one, but certainly the need for some sort of transit solution to give people choices,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen.

Hillsborough County unveiled in September that it has a 10-year, $2.2 billion shortfall in roads, intersections, sidewalks and trails.

Cohen, who chairs the Transportation Planning Organization and also sits on the Tampa Port Authority, said he was not concerned by DeSantis’ comments Monday, saying he didn’t think the state would hold up distributing money that Floridians need.

“That would not be putting the needs of Floridians first in any way,” Cohen said.

Hillsborough Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp said a $100 million operations and maintenance center for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority would be her top priority, followed by expanded Cross Bay Ferry service between southern Hillsborough and the MacDill Air Force Base.

She also advocated for increased Amtrak service between Tampa and downtown Orlando, better electric infrastructure and continuing the county’s septic tank conversion program.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor’s office is still waiting for details on federal infrastructure money headed to her district, said spokesperson Rikki Miller.

A “huge priority” for the Tampa congressional representative is replacing the nearly 50-year-old control tower at Tampa International Airport. Castor has pushed for a new tower since at least 2015 and has communicated recently “multiple times” with Biden administration officials about including a new tower in the $25 billion set aside for airport fixes, Miller said.

That priority was echoed by Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who also ticked off suggestions for the federal money that included repairs to the Brorein Street Bridge, building safer streets and sidewalks, extending the HART street car to Tampa Heights and installing electric vehicle charging stations.

Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey has long advocated for investing in a system of rapid buses traveling on dedicated highway lanes from Wesley Chapel to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

Starkey represents Pasco on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority. Earlier this year, noting the likelihood of forthcoming federal infrastructure dollars, she suggested the agency pick the costliest alternative, projected then at $207 million, for its preferred route.

“I say, ‘Let’s swing for the fences,’” she said.

Whether the project qualifies is not yet known.

A spokesperson for St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman highlighted the city’s water needs, pointing to a 2019 report that identified priorities such as replacing sewage infrastructure, managing sewer overflow, dealing with climate change and sea level rise, creating more sustainability and improving recreational water quality — items that are estimated to cost $3 billion over the next 20 years.

Florida could get an estimated $1.6 billion over five years to improve water systems under the infrastructure bill, according to the White House fact sheet.

That same fact sheet said the bill could provide about $245 million for bridge replacement and repairs over five years, noting that Florida has 408 bridges and over 3,564 miles of highway in poor condition.

Florida could also get an estimated $198 million over five years to support the expansion of an electric vehicle charging network in the state, $26 million to protect against wildfires and $29 million for cybersecurity measures, as well as an estimated $1.2 billion for infrastructure development for airports, according to the White House.

Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said there is no shortage of projects the funding could support, but that the specifics of what gets done will depend on the rules set for seeking funds once the bill is signed and goes into effect.

“The money will go to different federal agencies, so we’ll have to keep an eye on all of those because they’ll all have their own processes (for awarding money),” Burton said.

Burton listed improvements to water and sewer systems, bridges and the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport as potential priorities. Additionally, he said he’s looking for money that can go toward resiliency projects to help protect the county against sea level rise and the threat of storms.

“Being a coastal community, there’s a lot of things we could do to be resilient,” Burton said.

Pinellas Commission Chair Dave Eggers agreed.

“We have major utility issues all over the region that we have to address. Aging water plants, aging sewer plants,” Eggers said. “If you stick to funding basic infrastructure projects you really can’t go wrong.”

Eggers said that an influx in federal money over the last year has helped the county make progress on addressing infrastructure demands. The most recent allotment of funds came from the American Rescue Plan Act, which allotted $189 million to Pinellas County to be spent by 2026.

“Infrastructure might not seem like a very fun area to put money into, but committing to infrastructure is just so important,” Eggers said.

Tampa Bay Times reporters C.T. Bowen, Romy Ellenbogen, Charlie Frago, Lauren Peace and Colleen Wright contributed to this report.