Obama's Miami Visit Highlights Funding Gap for Ports
President Obama’s March 29 visit to PortMiami—the site of a $1-billion tunnel project financed partly by private funding—gave him the opportunity to promote ways of increasing both public and private funding for infrastructure. Noting the locale of Obama’s infrastructure push, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) criticized the president for federal inaction on funding for a high-priority dredging project at the Miami port.
During his Miami speech, Obama emphasized the importance of infrastructure investment.
"There are few more important things that we can do to create jobs right now and strengthen our economy over the long haul than rebuilding the infrastructure that powers our businesses and our economy—our roads, our bridges, our schools and our ports just like this one," the president said.
Last July, as part of the administration’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, Obama signed an executive order expediting federal permitting for seven projects at five U.S. ports, including the deepening of PortMiami’s navigation channel from 42 ft to 50 ft. But that action didn’t provide funding.
“We could not wait for the federal government to come to the table with their share of this (Miami) project,” the governor stated a day before the president’s visit. As a result of that lack of federal funding, in 2011 Scott directed the Florida Dept. of Transportation to allocate $77 million to fund the federal government’s portion of the project to get work started.
The Army Corps of Engineers' Jacksonville District expects to award a dredging contract in May.
Scott has been an advocate for port investments since coming to office in 2011. Earlier this year, with the state now expecting a budget surplus, Scott proposed an 11% increase in 2013 spending for FDOT, including $288 million dedicated to ports, say FDOT officials.
That figure included $42.1 million to widen the entrance to Port Canaveral in Brevard County; $36 million to correct navigational problems at Jacksonville’s port; and $34.5 million to add seaport capacity at Port Everglades.
Meanwhile, on the national level, help for ports could be coming. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee unanimously approved on March 20 a new water-resources bill, one provision of which is of particular interest to ports: It would require Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund annual spending on dredging work to equal the fees that flow into the fund. In recent years, spending has fallen far short of the fund's income. If enacted, the provision would spark increased spending on dredging.
In Miami, Obama did not mention the Senate bill or Scott's criticism about dredging funding. Instead, the president focused on infrastructure proposals, many of which he outlined in his State of the Union speech or earlier.
He emphasized ideas to encourage private spending on such projects and called for an infrastructure bank, new "America Fast Forward" bonds and an expanded TIFIA transportation loan program.
In addition, Obama is seeking changes in tax-exempt private-activity bonds, including eliminating the volume cap on such bonds used for water infrastructure and boosting the limit for bonds that finance highways or freight-transfer facilities. Obama also wants to exempt foreign investors, such as pension funds, from being taxed on gains they reap from investments in U.S. infrastructure.
Drawing more private infrastructure dollars "is something that we have consistently supported," says Sean O'Neill, Associated General Contractors of America congressional relations director for infrastructure advancement. "The more money that's in the construction marketplace, the better off that we are as an industry."
Portions of this story were originally reported on ENR.com.