South Florida expects windfall from $1.2T infrastructure bill

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill Congress passed is expected to jump-start major construction projects in South Florida, bringing a significant number of jobs and opportunities for local contractors.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign in the coming days, includes multiple areas of infrastructure that will be bolstered nationwide.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said her administration has been preparing to partner with the federal government to invest whatever money comes its way into “hundreds of shovel-ready resilience projects that also create good-paying local jobs.”

“We’re ready to put these funds to work to create new opportunities for thousands of Miami-Dade residents and businesses as we build back our economy stronger than ever,” she said in a statement.

Levine Cava’s office highlighted numerous projects it expects will be near the front of the line for federal stimulus, such as converting septic systems to sewers; allowing ships at PortMiami to hook up to shore power instead of burning fuel; building more electric vehicle chargers; and climate resilience projects such as roadway improvements, floodwater mitigation and the protection of wastewater treatment plants to guard against climate change. The county’s SMART Plan for mass transit will also be a priority. Its mass transit corridors include bus rapid transit routes from Dadeland to Florida City and the Miami Intermodal Center near Miami International Airport to Tamiami, and a commuter train on the FEC Railway from Miami through Aventura.

Lisa Colon, a construction attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr in Miami, said the bill will create many jobs in highways and bridge construction, as well as public transportation and climate infrastructure. Miami-Dade was under pressure from regulators to reduce pollution from its wastewater system, so this bill should provide funding to help it modernize its system, she said. The county has been considering working with private companies to fund the repairs to the Rickenbacker Causeway, which leads to Key Biscayne, but the bill may provide enough funding to start the project, Colon said.

The infrastructure bill also has a 10% target for small businesses participating in these construction projects, and includes outreach and training funds for small businesses and disadvantaged businesses, which generally includes minority- and women-owned contractors, she said.

Colon said to make sure to register with the SBA as a small disadvantaged business “because they will favor these programs toward them.”

Dan Lindblade, CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, said the influx of federal money could bring 700 to 2,000 new jobs to Broward County.

“The reason it’s important for us is bridges, roads, subterranean infrastructure,” he said. “This is a real godsend for South Florida – and for the United States, for that matter.”

Broward Mayor Steve Geller said his county has substantial needs when it comes to making itself more resilient to sea level rise and climate change.

“We are currently 2 inches from overtopping the … flood control structures,” he said. “I am truly worried that we are going to be flooded in South Florida.”

The federal money will also be a huge help for Broward’s efforts to improve its transportation system, including roads, buses, highways, rail, Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

Gretchen Cassini, Broward’s Mobility Advancement Program administrator, said the county will be able leverage its recently passed sales tax for matching grant funds from the federal government. In March 2018, Broward voters approved an additional 1% sales tax for transportation and mobility improvements. It is expected to bring the county $16 billion over 30 years.

“The importance of the surtax is that we have become more competitive for all of these various grant programs because we have a local dedicated source of revenue,” she said.

Federal funding may also be tapped for one particularly important and huge project: creating a new way for passenger trains to travel over the New River in Fort Lauderdale. Grupo México-owned Florida East Coast Railway freight trains and Brightline passenger trains, owned by Tokyo-based SoftBank Group Corp., use the Florida East Coast Railway Bridge, a drawbridge that is only 4 feet above the water. Whenever the bridge goes down, boat traffic is interrupted, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes. That happened 34 times a day prior to the pandemic, much to the frustration of the local marine industry.

Additionally, Tri-Rail Coastal Link, a proposed commuter train service operated by the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, won’t be able to operate north of the the New River since Grupo México, which also owns the train tracks, capped the number of trains traveling over the bridge at 36 trips a day. The commuter service, which is still not fully funded and depends on cooperation from Brightline and the FEC, is envisioned to have 81 stops between downtown Miami and Jupiter.

Proposals for a new passenger rail connector include building a bridge at least 25 feet above the water and a tunnel under the river. Those proposals, which cost from $216 million to $2.5 billion, will be discussed at a Nov. 18 meeting in Fort Lauderdale.

Neil Schiller, an attorney and lobbyist affiliated with Boca Raton-based Government Law Group, said Palm Beach County officials are likely “salivating” over the prospect of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure improvements. He noted that the county has already aggressively invested taxpayer money toward improving and upgrading roadways and bridge. Now, with federal money earmarked for such purposes, Schiller said local tax money might be diverted for other purposes, “things like homeless workforce housing and affordable housing.”

Donald Burgess, CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches, said he’d like to see the money used to improve drainage in coastal cities and road connections between the eastern and western parts of the county.

“We are fine with the north-south flow of traffic,” he said, “but when it comes to the east-west, that has always been a challenge.”

As for the economic impact, Burgess said it’s too early to tell.

“It is a big deal, but right now, in terms of the business community, it is very hard to say what the impact is going to be,” he said. “Yes, it has been approved, but we are not sure as yet of the details of what the state will get, what counties will get, what the cities will get.”

Link: South Florida expects windfall from $1.2T infrastructure bill
Auther: Brian Bandell and Erik Bojnansky