The good-news item is FDOT's recent hiring of a team of Kansas City, Mo.-based HNTB Corp. and Wilbur Smith Associates of Columbia, S.C., as program managers for the state's high-speed rail program. The HNTB/WSA team will assist the Florida Rail Enterprise--FDOT's newly created agency--to oversee all HSR development in the state, including the future leg from Orlando to Miami.
Both firms have been working with FDOT for years as general consultants focused on future development of HSR, including studies, so it really was no surprise when FDOT made this announcement. Theoretically, this moves this project down the track a bit, so to speak, so I'll call that good news.
Now for the bad news. In a move that is reminiscent of what legislatures in other cash-strapped states are doing, Florida's House of Representatives has approved a budget that includes a $428-million raid on Florida's State Transportation Trust Fund (STTF).
Longtime Florida transportation advocate Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association in Tallahassee -- and whom you can find on Twitter at http://twitter.com/bobburlesonftba -- has been tweeting and blogging about the topic relentlessly, and rightly so. And despite his tenure, he's been somewhat shocked at how it's come about. In short, says Burleson, it's been the House Republicans lining up to hack the road fund, while the minority Dems have opposed such cuts.
Burleson's March 18 blog read: "I continue to be amazed at comments made by members of the Florida House of Representatives when talking about the Florida Dept. of Transportation and the State Transportation Trust Fund.... This Tuesday, the House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee listened as speaker after speaker spoke in opposition to the sweeping of the STTF. Amazingly, after two hours of public testimony, no one spoke in favor of the 'sweep.' The bill passed in a strict party-line vote with 10 Republicans voting for the sweep and five Democrats voting against it. Even the legislators who voted for the sweep could offer nothing more than comments such as 'I don’t want to do this...,' 'We know this impacts jobs' and others of a similar nature."
The move would strip funds on a one-time basis and would inevitably lead to project cancellations. But just as worrisome to Burleson, and surely the rest of Florida's transportation construction industry, is the long-term impact. This so-called "sweep" of FDOT's budget could limit the amount of federal matching funds the state could receive, further damaging the state's already significantly declining transportation program. (See Burleson's list of other reasons why this is a bad idea here.)
Burleson's right to note that during depressed economic times such as these, it's hard to ignore the job-creating benefits of this type of infrastructure investment. At the same time, it's sort of unseemly for legislators to gut transportation funding while FDOT is pleading with the federal government for an additional $1 billion or so to fund the rest of the high-speed rail project the state is trying to build. But hey, that's the Florida legislature for you.
Fortunately, this "sweep" may not become reality. Burleson says the state Senate is showing more sense, and the budget that it has approved contains "zero sweep" of the road fund. The two approved budgets go to conference next, so we'll see soon whether transportation loses or escapes intact.
What do you think?