South Florida's 3-seaport corridor should flex its muscle, trade advocates say
By Frank Norton
South Florida's Atlantic Corridor is the driving thrust behind the state's trade, tourism and financial service industries, yet the 90-mile artery has never made the federal government's list of 44 "high priority" regions that qualify for special funding.
Former state Rep. Carlos Valdes would like to change that. As president of the Trade & Transport Council, an advocacy group for Florida's shipping interests, Mr. Valdes is spearheading a campaign to designate Southeast Florida's so-called Atlantic Commerce Corridor as one of national significance under the Federal Transportation Equity Act, or TEA-21.
The designation would let planners tap a $140 million federal fund for multi-modal improvements for the area. Although the amount available is small, Mr. Valdes said, designating the corridor is crucial to winning federal recognition of its economic impact on the region and nation.
With three major deep-water seaports, three international airports and a road and rail system carrying passengers and freight, the corridor serves two-thirds of the state's $74 billion in annual international trade, according to a council report on the urgency of designating the corridor.
"The bottom line is that we should have lobbied harder all along to ensure our commercial corridors are part of the national picture," said Mr. Valdes, who also chaired the Florida Legislature's Economic Development Council. "We keep saying we're the gateway to the Americas but we're not even considered a corridor of national significance."
According to Dave Lee, an administrator for statewide policy and planning with the Florida Department of Transportation, TEA-21 dollars are not only few but oddly distributed.
"I've never seen the logic of how other corridors around the nation got designated," he said, referring to Midwestern trucking hubs with fewer modes and less traffic.
"They got their act together just like we need to do in Florida," Mr. Valdes said.
Currently less than 1% of Florida Department of Transportation's budget is earmarked for inter-modal development.
"Part of the problem is that trade and freight is not a sexy issue. It doesn't vote. If you're a politician you'll make a better press conference putting up a new traffic light than doing something on freight," the former elected official said. "It has no constituency because most people have no idea of the size of the economic impact behind the ports, which should be helping everybody by bringing goods to market better, faster, cheaper. They affect everybody."
According to Miami-Dade County statistics, the Port of Miami adds $8 billion and 45,000 jobs to the local economy. Cargo accounts for 51% of the port's revenue.
Congress is to decide early next year which national corridors to recognize and fund for inter-modal development.
"If we're not organized with a plan by January, we'll have to wait another six years. The money will flow to whoever has a plan," Mr. Valdes said.
The Trade & Transport Council is a consortium whose membership includes the Florida Ports Council, CSX Intermodal, Seaboard Marine, Florida East Coast Industries, Tropicana and Florida Truckers Association.
According to the council's report, trade proponents must garner support from local officials and business leaders, draft legislation to include the corridor in the reauthorization bill and win support among the federal delegation and Congressional transportation and appropriations committees.
"South Florida must make a more concerted effort to coordinate air and sea ports to move freight unimpeded by traffic," said Dennis Newjahr, director of planning & capital projects for the Tri-Rail Authority,
"Politically we have not pushed hard enough," he said. He said multi-modal planners must think holistically, combining port, transportation and land-use interests.