Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce flight to Washington may bring funds back for high speed rail, Port of Miami dredge
Zachary S. Fagenson
Leaders of a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce fly-in to Washington last week say policymakers hope to soon dedicate more than $40 million to Port of Miami dredging and another $10 million for planning a high-speed rail line from Miami to Orlando.
A group of about 30, including representatives of the chamber's lobbying team, the county, the Florida International Bankers Association and Miami's Downtown Development Authority visited the capital last week to discuss everything — from a sustainable communities initiative to export promotions — with South Florida's congressional delegation and members of the administration.
On high-speed rail, attorney Bruce Jay Colan, immediate past chamber chair and a partner at Holland & Knight, said the state's transportation department is asking for an additional $1 billion for the Orlando-Tampa leg of the system while Miami-Dade is looking to some of the $30 million it needs to plan its own route.
The "US Department of Transportation is [asking for] an economic plan and forecast of investment grade quality from FDOT [the Florida Department of Transportation] so they can consider giving them another billion for that leg," he said.
Though the additional money wouldn't directly benefit Miami, it's been widely argued that the Miami-Orlando leg would be the profit-generating element that would draw the $1 billion in private financing needed to complete the project. And the closer the Orlando-Tampa route is to completion the more likely, some say, the Miami-Orlando route will be as well.
Meanwhile, the state's transportation department is looking for $8 million from the federal government to which it would add $2 million to kick off planning of that route.
Though the money is only a fraction of the amount needed for the study, Mr. Colan said the department would ask for more in coming years and that the initial sum allows the state to at least get the ball rolling.
"What we're looking for is probably a request for qualifications coming later this year into the fall and then requests for proposals" for the firms to conduct the study, he said. "And then in the first part of next year we'll start" the study.
The project, he added, has full support of the South Florida delegation but also Rep. James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Meanwhile, the delegation seems to have also taken strides to ensure the Port of Miami's South channel is dredged to a 50-foot depth in time for the 2014 opening of expanded Panama Canal.
While the port dredging is only one project amongst the Army Corps of Engineers' billions of dollars of unfunded projects, port Director Bill Johnson said his priorities, besides securing $75 million from the federal government for the project, is to relay the project's tight time schedule to policymakers.
"If it's not the Port of Miami in 2014 [dredged to] 50 feet, this new business is going to go offshore," he said referring to the massive post-Panamax class cargo ships that can dock only at ports with depths of 50 feet. "We're going to lose hundreds of millions of dollars of new wealth, thousands of new jobs, to ports outside the US."
South Florida Reps. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Kendrick Meek requested $37.5 million, half the funds sought from Washington, in the federal 2012 budget. Sen. Ben Nelson requested an added $5 million.
Due to upcoming elections, however, it's unlikely Congress will vote on that budget until after November.
And though the funding can be broken up over two years, it's costly.
The "Army Corps [of Engineers] prefers to get all the money at one time," Mr. Johnson said, so they can "award the contract in one piece and not in two phases."
Awarding contracts in two phases, he continued, could slow work, costing $4 million to $6 million.
Yet he said he had a private meeting with Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaii Democrat, and had the opportunity to speak with Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both of whom expressed support for the project, but he's not stopping there.
"I'm going to be asking the President to include the $75 million in his 2012 budget," Mr. Johnson said. "We're asking our business community to get that support to the White House so the President knows firsthand he's got a winner."