States across the nation are grappling with how to keep up with lagging transportation infrastructure – and Florida is no exception. On the release of his $9.92-billion infrastructure plan earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis tweeted, “Our transportation infrastructure is not keeping up with demand.”
In March, the Florida House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee, of which I am vice-chair, gave the green light to study a proposal to create three new transportation corridors in western Florida. The project would connect rural areas, reduce traffic and help with hurricane evacuation by expanding three existing toll roads – for example, extending the Suncoast Parkway from the Hernando-Citrus county line all the way to Georgia.
Policymakers at all levels of government understand the economic imperative of healthy infrastructure. It is the foundation for the economy, supporting freight movement and enabling Florida’s ports and businesses to reach the entire nation.
One of the centerpieces of this infrastructure system is our freight rail network. I’m headed to Washington, D.C., this week to discuss freight rail and infrastructure with our policymakers on Capitol Hill. Freight railroads are different due to the impressive state of their infrastructure and how this infrastructure is funded.
As private companies, rail carriers like Jacksonville-based CSX spend billions of private dollars on their network every year, receiving little help from taxpayers. And like all infrastructure, the rail network requires nearly nonstop spending.
The deepwater Port of Jacksonville, which is directly connected to Tallahassee by a CSX line, recently announced a $238 million project to expand one of its container facilities to help accommodate traffic from an expanded Panama Canal.
This could be good news for Tallahassee-area economic developers, including the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce, which has prioritized logistics and transportation as industrial opportunities. With increased demand a certainty, trains will continue to be critical partners in alleviating congestion, taking about 4.8 million trucks off of Florida roads annually.
Rail’s private spending model has built the most productive, efficient and safe freight rail network in the world. Volume is up 84% in the last several decades, while at the same time, shippers today pay about half of what they paid in the same time frame. Consistent spending also helps railroads push the boundaries of innovation, so a train today can move a ton of freight 479 miles on a single gallon of diesel.
Trains are especially crucial in Florida, where our port system is an economic powerhouse connected to the rest of the country by two Class I railroads and several regional lines, like the Florida East Coast Railway.
Policymakers need to maintain the smart policies that allow freight railroads to spend at high levels. There are proposals pending at the federal level that would add new regulations to the industry, undermining its ability to invest. Policymakers should oppose such efforts.
Second, it seems likely Congress will consider infrastructure policy, one of just a few areas with bipartisan traction, in the near-term. The challenging part is agreeing on how we’ll pay for the necessary updates and expansions to roads, bridges and elsewhere.
Given its ability to demonstrate creative finance solutions, freight rail will become the leader for what can be accomplished when we commit to building an infrastructure system to meet the demands of tomorrow.
*Brad Drake represents District 5 in the Florida House of Representatives,US.