New federal transportation bill boosts road, transit funding in Tampa Bay area

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Tampa, December 9, 2015 | comments
The $305 billion transportation bill approved by Congress last week could prove beneficial locally in highway improvements and by providing more funding and planning capabilities for Port Tampa Bay and the regional bus system.
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By Yvette Hammett, published by the Tampa Tribune on Dec. 9, 2015

The $305 billion transportation bill approved by Congress last week could prove beneficial locally in highway improvements and by providing more funding and planning capabilities for Port Tampa Bay and the regional bus system.

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act boosts highway and transit spending and assures states that federal help will be available for major projects over the next five years.

For the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which provides bus service in the county, the first transportation bill approved in nearly a decade likely will mean new buses sooner and could help pay for a new maintenance facility to serve a growing fleet.

For Port Tampa Bay, road improvements mean a better and more reliable travel path for trucks carrying goods to and from the seaport, port officials said.

“We’re very excited about bus and bus discretionary funding in the bill,” said HART CEO Katharine Eagan. It gives HART an opportunity to grow, she said. Right now, HART is on a 15-year bus replacement schedule. New federal funding could enable bus replacement every 12 years, she said.

At least as important, Eagan said, is the need for a new maintenance facility. Right now, HART has 189 buses and plans to expand the fleet as funding becomes available, she said. To do that, it will need more maintenance capacity.

HART’s maintenance facility in East Tampa used to be considered large and spacious, but as the fleet grows it is not large enough to support it, which can lead to maintenance backups, Eagan said.

HART plans to conduct an infrastructure study next year to determine its needs and where to place such a new facility before it seeks federal funding. The new location likely would be in east or south Hillsborough County, which would shorten the distance drivers would have to travel to get back to their routes, Eagan said.

“We will be very aggressive in going after this,” Eagan said. “We will have some ability to compete for funds.”

HART will also get better planning capability as a result of the bill’s passage, said its board chairman, Mike Suarez. “We need to expand maintenance in order to expand the fleet.”

For the state’s ports, additional funding for the transportation network is key, said Doug Wheeler, president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council. “Over the past 10 years, the Florida Ports Council has actively fought for a multimodal approach to federal transportation funding. Goods come in and go out through our seaports, but they must move over an efficient network to reach their destination.

The FAST Act recognizes that it is the transportation system and the stability of long-term project funding that are critical to our nation’s future.”

Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson called the FAST Act’s passage “a pivotal moment in the freight moving industry where not only ports, but the entire domestic freight transportation system will benefit, be improved,” giving the U.S. a stronger edge as a global trade leader.

Port Tampa Bay doesn’t have any specific projects in the queue for federal funding from the FAST Act, but an example of how this kind of funding can benefit the port is the Interstate 4 connector that allows trucks to reach the port faster, said Ed Miyagishima, Anderson’s senior adviser.

“The I-4 connector is a great example of federal, state and local working together and helping us get product to market faster,” he said.

The $420 million toll connector between I-4 and the Selmon Expressway saves truckers time, which gives them the ability to make more trips to haul cargo to or from the port.

For years, Congress has implemented only stopgap measures to keep transportation funding afloat, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said. The FAST Act will invest $281 billion in local communities across the country over the next five years, boosting Florida’s share of the federal highway funding by more than $890 million, she said.

“We need construction jobs, investments and a transportation system worthy of our growing and dynamic community,” the Tampa Democrat said. “The FAST Act provides a surface transportation authorization with the greatest funding increase for federal road, bridge and transit programs since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.”

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