Warning: Post-ARRA Depression Ahead
The more than $5-billion infusion of federal stimulus dollars jump-started many transportation projects in the Southeast, but with those lettings winding down and some projects finishing, state transportation departments are now facing smaller budgets and fewer new starts.
“Post-stimulus, for all states, is not a pretty picture,” says Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Dept. of Transportation in Atlanta. “What we have is a continuation of a transportation bill that has expired on a national level, and that is problematic.”
Congress granted an extension of the funding level under the current Federal Highway Program, but has not enacted a long-term solution.
“What happens with the (next) federal highway bill is the big unknown,” adds Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association in Tallahassee. “Everyone agrees we need a bigger bill than what we are working under, but nobody wants to talk about how we pay for it.”
Burleson says an increase in the gas tax would help, yet politicians fear voting in favor of more taxes.
Sammy Hendrix, director of Carolinas AGC’s South Carolina Highway-Heavy Division in Columbia, suggests it may be time to come up with an alternative calculation, such as a system that taxes according to miles driven.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act brought $1.3 billion in new highway dollars to Florida, plus $316 million for transit projects. The state also received $1.25 billion in ARRA funds to create a new high-speed rail corridor between Tampa and Orlando.
The Florida Dept. of Transportation is planning a $1.8-billion road and bridge program for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. That total will dip to about $1.5 billion the following year, says Brian Blanchard, chief engineer at FDOT.
Actually, that $1.5-billion total (for FY 2011-2012) is about half of what FDOT had budgeted for the most recently completed fiscal year ending in June 30, when the department let $2.3 billion, even though it had budgeted $3 billion.
“Because of the economy, the bids were coming in 20% to 25% below our estimates,” Blanchard says. The prior two years, the department let about $2.7 billion.
“This is going to be our worst year,” Burleson says. “Volume-wise, it will be the lowest year we have had in a long time.”
FDOT has several public-private partnerships underway, including the Port of Miami Tunnel and the Interstate 595 widening in Broward County.
On the Gulf Coast, ACCI/API is finishing Florida’s first design-build-finance transportation project early. Thirty miles of Interstate 75 opened to six-lane traffic one year ahead of schedule. Reconstruction of the Immokalee Road interchange is substantially completed, with only final striping remaining to do.
ACCI/API is a joint venture of Anderson Columbia Co. of Lake City, Fla., and Ajax Paving Industries of Nokomis, Fla.
The department also plans to partner with a private entity to build and operate the high-speed rail line. FDOT expects to let early packages early next year.
“The early-works project is an attempt to get people to work and build part of the project as quickly as possible,” Blanchard says.