Link from port to I-4 is an ideal stimulus
June 23, 2009
The economy continues to lose jobs even as federal dollars begin to flow into stimulus projects in every state.
One of the biggest local projects is an expressway connecting the Port of Tampa to Interstate 4. It is a model of what an effective stimulus project should be.
Construction will begin soon, putting thousands of people to work or preventing them from being laid off. Benefits from the completed bridge will be felt throughout the urban area.
In addition to the indirect economic impact, tolls from the bridge will provide a revenue stream for future expressway projects.
The federal money, $105 million, will enable the Florida Department of Transportation to begin the project three years earlier than otherwise would be possible, said Don Skelton, in charge of this transportation district.
Even with the special federal assistance, the state is forced to use creative financing to get the work started. The state's Turnpike Enterprise is investing $80 million, which must be repaid from tolls collected. It's a good deal for motorists and truckers because gasoline taxes alone are insufficient to cover the costs, and the time saved will be well worth a small toll.
In addition to the Turnpike help, the state is asking the winning bidder to agree to a deferred payment schedule.
That's also a fair deal because the builder gets much-needed work and the state will probably save money by bidding the project in a recession. Construction may cost less than the $446 million budgeted.
Skelton said economists estimate the four-to-five-year project will create 14,000 jobs, both direct and indirect.
That's a jaw-dropping number. It may be an optimistic number, considering that it's more jobs than in Hillsborough County government, MacDill Air Force Base or the University of South Florida.
If all the stimulus projects are as efficient job-making engines as this one is supposed to be, President Obama could promise a near-zero unemployment rate before Christmas.
But it won't happen. Nationally, the spending program that was billed as making or saving 3.5 million jobs is so far credited with saving or making only 150,000 jobs. Fewer people are being laid off than earlier in the year, but more jobs continue to be lost than gained.
Florida's unemployment rate increased to 10.2 percent last month, representing about 942,000 people looking for work. However many jobs are created by the connector, the local economy will feel it.
And what's more, the workers will be building a stronger economy for the future.
Access will improve to the airport and the port. Some 10,000 trucks a day will be taken out of Ybor City, which will open exciting opportunities to convert 21st and 22nd streets into pedestrian-friendly streets that are good for business. The connector bridge will speed hurricane evacuations and give traffic on I-4 and the Selmon Expressway a way to detour around major wrecks.
The need for a fast, safe route from the crosstown expressway to the interstate has long been apparent. A Hillsborough Expressway Authority official told us in 1993, "It should have been done a long time ago."
It's certainly no make-work project. The completed bridge will have 32 separate ramps that minimize the merging challenge for truckers, tourists and commuters.
Considering its value to the local economy, the connector may be the nation's best stimulus project.
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