March 17, 2011 11:29 am ET - by Kate Conway
Instead of spending no-strings-attached federal money on popular high-speed rail development, Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) decided to spend $77 million in state funds on deepening the port of Miami. A deeper port, he thinks, will create thousands of permanent jobs and draw increased trade for Florida once the Panama Canal is widened to accommodate larger ships. Plus it can be done in about three years.
At the time he rejected the rail money — to the chagrin of Florida Republicans and Democrats alike — Scott repeatedly cited a flawed libertarian study overseen by Robert Poole, who was also on Scott's economic transition team. Now, it turns out that even Poole is pretty dubious about the wisdom of Scott's Miami port investment. Why?
"The big ships don't change the size of the market," said Tampa Port Director Richard Wainio.
Right now, goods delivered to the Miami port largely supply South Florida. To grab a bigger share of the shipping business, Miami would have to increase its local demand, or move the goods farther north or south, experts say.
That may not happen for at least two reasons, said Wainio and Mark Vitner, a top economist who studies Florida for Wells Fargo Securities.
It's cheaper to keep the goods on the ship, Vitner said, and head north to other ports that have better access to the Southeast, such as Norfolk, Va. - where the port already is deep enough - Savannah, Ga., or Jacksonville, both of which are too shallow for mega-ships and do not have the permits to get deeper. Goods for southern trade could continue being offloaded at Caribbean ports as well, experts said.
More problematic for Miami, Poole said, is its road and rail network. There is no major rail spur in the Miami port and the roads already are clogged with traffic, he said.
That's right. According to the guy who helped kill Florida's rail development, part of what's barring Miami from becoming a larger shipping port is the state's lack of rail development.
Investment in high-speed rail is not the direct equivalent of freight rail; even if high-speed rail in Florida had proceeded through its second phase of development, which included a line extending to Miami, trains carrying goods would not have run on the high-speed tracks meant to transport people. However, high-speed rail development would still have increased the amount of goods rail networks could carry out of Miami by getting passenger trains onto their own tracks, thereby allowing freight trains to "inherit the almost exclusive use of the conventional rail system."
More to the point, though, is Rick Scott's hostility to sometimes costly large-scale development: he seems to be looking for the equivalent of a get-rich-quick scheme in job creation and infrastructure development. He'll throw a few million towards the port investment, but is inexplicably hostile toward longer-term development that will carry Florida forward as a desirable place to live and visit as well as viable place to do business. And without modern transportation — or beaches, or high school athletics — will Florida really be "the most exciting place to live, work and play"?
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