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Ananth Prasad

Transportation Nation

Toll Lanes Touted as Congestion Fix for Central Florida's I-4

Friday, March 08, 2013

Artist's impression of the I-4 Ultimate project through Orlando (Image courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation)

"We love Orlando, we love Mickey Mouse, we love Walt Disney, Universal, the Church Street Facilities, that great mall -- Millenia Mall, but dadgum that I-4, that's a headache," Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told journalists in Orlando this week.

"We're going to fix that headache."

The Florida DOT is moving ahead with plans for the I-4 Ultimate project- a $2.1 billion dollar fix for I-4. The state's prescription includes adding toll lanes to a 21-mile stretch of the interstate running through the heart of Orlando. The department aims to begin construction in 2015 and complete it by 202o.

Prasad said four so-called "managed lanes" would be added to the interstate, leaving six lanes toll free. Tolls would be higher during heavy congestion periods and lower when traffic is light.

“We use tolls to only keep a certain number of people in the managed lanes so we can keep them going at 50 miles an hour," he said. "Say if I-4's ‘general purpose’ lanes – the toll-free lanes – are congested and you only charge a quarter, everybody’s going to be on it, and now you got another two lanes of gridlock. So what you do is you use tolls as a way to manage capacity coming in to the express lane.”

Prasad conceded there is a downside to building the extra lanes.

"There's going to be inconvenience- you're talking about $2 billion worth of work in a very constrained corridor- albeit a long corridor- getting done over five years. It's a lot of work."

However, Prasad said a similar $1.3 billion expansion project is successfully underway on South Florida's I-595. He said travel times along that stretch of road-- roughly 10 miles -- have only increased by an average of five minutes because of construction.

The state is putting up about half the $2.1 billion dollar cost of the I-4 Ultimate project and courting private investment to foot the remainder of the bill. Under a public-private partnership agreement with the state, private firms would also maintain and operate the toll lanes for a fixed length of time.

Prasad said the public private partnership allows Florida to take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs.

"What the state gets is delivering a project 20 years in advance," he said.

"If we were to do this project on a regular pay-go mechanism, we would be building it for the next 20 or 25 years and chasing congestion like we always do."

Gregg Logan, a managing director at the real estate advisory firm RCLCO's Orlando office, says the I-4 upgrade will help the local economy.

"You don’t want businesses that are here already and thinking about expanding saying, 'Gee, do I want to stay here and deal with this gridlock'- or companies that might be thinking about coming and bringing jobs. We want them to be looking at [Orlando] as a good place to invest because we have our act together."

And he says Florida has to look for new ways to fund infrastructure - with a combination of local government funding, private investment and user fees- because federal government dollars are limited.

"Like it or not that seems to be a collective decision we’ve made as a society for that’s how we’re going to fund infrastructure," says Logan, who adds he's worried the US is falling behind other countries in transportation infrastructure.

"When you look around the world right now and you look at where big rail projects and transit projects are being done, you find that’s in China Brazil, the Middle East," says Logan.

"We’ve sort of forgotten that part of what has made us great and enabled us to have the growing economy we have is that we made these investments in infrastructure. Now we’ve taken that for granted."

The Florida DOT is promoting I-4's managed toll lanes as one part of a multi-modal transport system that could also include bus rapid transit to complement Central Florida's SunRail commuter train. SunRail is slated to begin service in 2014, while private rail companies are also talking about an Orlando to Miami service and a maglev rail linking Orlando International Airport with the Orange County Convention Center.

Eric Dumbaugh, the director of Florida Atlantic University's School of Urban and Regional Planning, supports the addition of managed lanes to I-4. The challenge for Florida, he says, is to develop viable alternatives to driving.

"Our transit system is inadequate in all of our metropolitan areas: it doesn’t take us where we need to go, our development doesn’t link up to it as well as it should, so we’re trapped in our cars."

But Dumbaugh says he's optimistic about Florida's ability to develop a truly comprehensive transportation system, because a new generation is now demanding alternatives to the car.

"You survey millennials- they don’t want to drive," says Dumbaugh, who highlights the efforts of a group of Florida Atlantic University students to set up a transit themed installation in Miami this weekend.

 

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Transportation Nation

Top Transpo Congressman, John Mica, Mulls Next Move

Friday, November 09, 2012

Shovel Ready: Congressman John Mica talks to reporters at the groundbreaking ceremony for a new intermodal rail terminal in Winter Haven, Florida (Photo by Matthew Peddie)

(Orlando, Fla. -- WMFE) John Mica, the chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, joined with Florida Governor Rick Scott and other business leaders and elected officials near Winter Haven Thursday, for the symbolic groundbreaking of a new intermodal rail terminal.

Before grabbing one of the gold painted shovels, Mica, a republican from Winter Park, Fla. praised the governor for his business savvy and leadership in supporting the project, which will serve as a distribution hub for trains and trucks delivering cargo throughout Florida. The project came about after rail company CSX reroute freight traffic from 62 miles of track to accommodate the SunRail commuter train.

"We are very fortunate to have Governor Scott with his business background at this time and his vision for transportation and infrastructure," said Mica.

"You cannot build this state or this community or projects like this without people like Governor Scott."

Florida Governor Rick Scott, CSX Chief Executive Michael Ward and US House Transportation Comittee Chair John Mica (photo by Matthew Peddie)

Mica and Scott have not always seen eye to eye on big transportation projects in Florida, notably on the failed high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, which the Governor nixed early in 2011 by rejecting $2.4 billion dollars in Federal stimulus money. At the time Mica panned the Governor's decision, labeling it a setback for the state's transportation, economic development and tourism.

While the high-speed rail plans collapsed, there's evidence to suggest Mica may have -indirectly- helped Central Florida's SunRail Commuter train avoid a similar fate during his tenure as chair of the house transportation and infrastructure committee.

Mica lists the two year Highway Transportation bill and the FAA bill as  accomplishments during his chairmanship, but he says those came about in spite of the Obama administration.

Looking ahead to a second Obama administration, Mica said he hopes the president will work better with Congress on transportation issues this time around. "They've been absent without leave," said Mica. "I’m hoping that their second time around they’ll be more cooperative."

Advocates for increased transportation and infrastructure spending have lauded President Obama's stimulus plan and his advocacy of a national rail network.

Mica, who comfortably staved off a Democratic challenger to retain his seat in Florida's U.S. House District 7 Tuesday, is due to be termed out of his role as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. However he says he'd like to hang onto the position if possible.

“Oh we’ll see," he said. "It depends on whether they grant waivers or not, and that’s yet to be decided.”

"I’ve been honored to chair for the last 2 years, ranking for four years, chaired a sub committee for six years, and I intend to be a leader in whatever capacity my colleagues choose,” said Mica, who's also in line for other potential committee chairmanships.

"But I’m not moving from transportation even if I took another slot,” said Mica, who added he intends to be in a key position to make decisions on transportation policy.

Republican Congressman Bill Shuster of Penn. has already expressed an interest in the committee chair position.

Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad was also pondering the implications of the second Obama term. Prasad said it's important that there's leadership at the Federal level and that members of congress can work together to craft a long term highway transportation bill.

"I just hope we can get to a deal," said Prasad.

"The last deal was only two years, and partly because I think folks in congress wanted to get past this election... Now that the election's over, let’s not wait another two years to get another two year bill, let’s work next year and have a long term bill that creates a transportation vision for the country.”

Historically transportation funding bills were non-partisan bills approved for six years at a time to facilitate planning of longer term projects. For more on how that changed this Congress, read our previous coverage.

 

 

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Transportation Nation

BREAKING: Governor Rick Scott Approves SunRail

Friday, July 01, 2011

Sunrail is coming to CSX rail lines like these

(Orlando-WMFE)  UPDATED WITH COMMENTS FROM JOHN MICA

Florida Governor Rick Scott has approved SunRail.

His transportation secretary, Ananth Prasad, made the announcement today in Tallahassee.

Scott's decision puts an end to more than six months of waiting for the communities and cities along the route of the 61-mile, $1.2 billion commuter rail line.

Rick Scott had raised concerns about the lack of a dedicated funding source for the rail project, and earlier this year killed a high-speed rail line which many observers believed to be less risky financially. But after meeting this week with local government officials, Prasad told the governor that partner communities understood the financial risks.

If SunRail fails to support itself financially, Florida officials will dip into state funds for local transportation projects -- a threat which Prasad emphasized during his public hearings this week.

Florida Congressman John Mica, a longtime champion of the project, said the Governor made the right decision.

"I think the governor did what a smart business person does," Mica said. "Look at the bottom line and the bottom line is jobs, it’s the economy, it’s a cost effective transportation system for the future."

Mica indicated he's also on board with Governor Scott's efforts to expand the capacity of the Port of Miami to handle new larger ships out of the Panama Canal.

Back in April, Mica hinted that if Scott did not approve SunRail, partial funding for Miami's dredging project could be held up in the US House Transportation Committee, which the Congressman chairs.

SunRail is anticipated to be running by early 2014.

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Transportation Nation

FL DOT Head: Transit Projects Like SunRail Could Hurt "Traditional" Transportation

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

FL DOT secretary Ananth Prasad (second from left) at the Volusia County SunRail meeting. (Photo from the Florida DOT Facebook page)


(Orlando, Florida -- WMFE) Florida's transportation secretary says cities like Orlando might have to tap into state funding for road widening and other transportation projects to operate the proposed SunRail commuter rail line.

Secretary Ananth Prasad spent Tuesday in Central Florida as part of a whirlwind tour of the planned rail line. He held six public meetings, starting in Volusia County and ending in Osceola.

Prasad said other badly needed transportation projects in Central Florida will be hurt if local governments have to pay for SunRail’s operating deficits.

"I just want to make sure the local governments, the mayors and commissioners understand that, and the local citizens understand, that they are making a choice," he warned. "They are making a choice to go towards mass transit at the expense of other traditional transportation projects."

But Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said his city needed the rail line. "If we want to grow in a fashion that will allow us to maintain the quality of life that we have come to expect in Central Florida, and have transportation alternatives and have jobs that will be stimulated by transit oriented development, then it's a must that we get SunRail."

The partners in SunRail are ready to start building. Governor Rick Scott is expected to decide by the end of the week whether to approve the commuter rail line.

You can listen to the whole story here.

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Transportation Nation

SunRail Showdown: Opponents and Supporters Prepare for Public Hearings

Thursday, June 23, 2011

(Orlando -- WMFE) Supporters and opponents of Central Florida’s proposed SunRail train are ramping up for what could be a boisterous set of public hearings next week.

The SunRail project -- a 61-mile commuter rail project that will be centered in Orlando and run through four counties -- has been in the works for years. It looked to be running forward smoothly -- until the Governor put major contracts related to the commuter train on hold in January pending his approval.

Florida’s Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad is scheduled to appear in Volusia, Seminole, Orange and Osceola counties, as well as holding a separate meeting with Orlando officials.

Prasad is slated to explain to local communities that taxpayers will have to come through with payments for the $1.2 billion project.  He’ll also explain there is no planned bailout if the commuter line fails to make money.

Already the West Orlando Tea Party is planning to rally on the steps of Orlando’s City Hall to protest the project on Tuesday afternoon.  Spokesman Clyde Fabretti says  SunRail “exposes the taxpayers to unnecessary risk.”  He also says members of the Tampa branch of the Tea Party are expected to attend the rally.

Meanwhile, commuter rail advocates in Seminole County are urging supporters to show up at the public forum between Commissioners and the Florida DOT secretary. An email circulating among planning circles says “it is anticipated that the opposition will be out in force.”

The meetings are set for only a few days before Governor Rick Scott’s long anticipated decision on whether or not he’ll approve SunRail by a self-imposed July 1st deadline.

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