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Tampa Bay needs to spend infrastructure money wisely | Editorial
The key will be separating what the region needs from the what the region wants.
The nation's entire electrical infrastructure needs upgrading and hardening against global warming, a project that will be partially funded by the new infrastructure bill.
The nation's entire electrical infrastructure needs upgrading and hardening against global warming, a project that will be partially funded by the new infrastructure bill. [ AL SEIB | Los Angeles Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 17, 2021

The ink hasn’t dried on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed Monday, but already, state and local lawmakers have big ideas for the money, including those in Florida and the Tampa Bay area. Florida needs to spend the money wisely; these big chunks of federal infrastructure money don’t come along too often, and the task now is to invest strategically to grow and improve the state and the region.

While more details are still to come, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 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 the White House. Florida stands to receive $245 million for bridge replacement, and is in line to compete for another $12.5 billion in funding nationwide for additional bridge repairs. The bill provides $1.6 billion over five years to improve water systems in Florida, and approximately $1.2 billion for airport improvement projects. That’s all in addition to hundreds of millions of dollars that would go for everything from building electric vehicle stations to expanding high-speed internet and upgrading defenses against cyberattacks.

Of course, there’s no shortage of ideas for spending this windfall. But Hillsborough County’s unmet road needs are $2 billion alone. So the trick will be separating what officials want from what taxpayers and residents truly need.

In Hillsborough, for example, that means distinguishing between worthy projects, such as expanding Tampa’s streetcar, and big-ticket outlays that offer little bang, like operating a ferry between Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force Base. In St. Petersburg, addressing the city’s sewer system should be a priority, along with mitigating the immediate impacts of rising seas. And across the region, inter-city transit needs improving. After years of false starts and weak planning, the prospect of federal dollars should help put viable, regional transit on the table.

There are plenty of projects that should draw broad public support. Replacing the half-century old control tower at Tampa International Airport will serve a growing region, just as laying miles of new sidewalks will improve safety in one of the deadliest places in the country for pedestrians. There certainly will be competition between spending on traditional infrastructure — sewer and water plants — and investing in resiliency projects to harden the region against climate-related impacts.

But state and local governments will need to make choices. The federal money won’t cover the entire wish list, and officials need to think about essential investments in core public works. What projects would improve the area’s quality of life? Where are the biggest holes in the capital budgets? What improvements are necessary to keep the region competitive? How can the state and local governments leverage these federal dollars with other public and private resources?

Anybody can throw somebody else’s money at their own pet projects. The challenge here is to make smart investments that build on one another, that lay the groundwork for future growth and that serve the broadest public interests for decades to come.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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