With dump trucks beeping in the background, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood in the shadow of the towering Interstate 4/Selmon Expressway Connector on Friday and reminded Floridians about the power of a well-placed tax dollar.
"This project is the envy of the rest of the country," LaHood said of the elevated road that will link the Port of Tampa with I-4. "It will be a model of relieving congestion."
About a quarter of the $394.4 million roadway was paid for by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Barack Obama's often-criticized federal stimulus program.
The mile-long tollway is about half-finished. Contractors have a deadline of fall 2013. Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the span will be more than just a road.
"If you want to understand the value of federal investment in infrastructure, come be a mayor," Buckhorn said. "This is an economic development tool."
When the connector is finished, trucks leaving the Port of Tampa will skip the five traffic lights they now face on the way to I-4. Planners estimate 11,000 trucks a day will use the road.
"They will be able to get from the Port of Tampa to the state of Maine without hitting a traffic light," Buckhorn said.
That kind of efficiency could help Tampa lure some of the increased shipping traffic likely to transit a widened Panama Canal, said Rep. Kathy Castor, who also attended the event.
Meanwhile, the project has created 14,000 jobs, Buckhorn said.
In his State of the Union speech this week, the president called for creating more such jobs by pouring money once spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into America's transportation and communications networks. The president promised to sign an executive order easing regulations on public projects. He also included high-speed rail on his list of needed infrastructure upgrades.
Gov. Rick Scott derailed Florida's plans for a high-speed train linking Tampa, Orlando and Miami last year when he declined federal funding for the project. Scott had just taken office, riding a wave of anti-government, anti-deficit fervor. He said he didn't want the state to be on the hook for cost overruns and other expenses related to the project.
In a recent interview, Scott pointed a finger at LaHood for Florida's lost high-speed rail funding. Scott told Fortune magazine he had offered to take the money if LaHood agreed to spend federal money to deepen the ports of Jacksonville and Miami. LaHood refused, the governor said, so he did, too.
Asked about the governor's claim Friday, LaHood bristled.
"I've only met one person in Florida who didn't want high-speed rail," LaHood said.
The DOT this year gave the Jacksonville port a grant, LaHood said. That port got $10 million for a new container facility.
"The idea that the governor turned down high-speed rail money because of Ray LaHood is baloney," the secretary said.