TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Among changes brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, reduced roadway use was common across the country, but while the pandemic continued, there was an opportunity for improvement of Florida’s roads, according to a state report.

The pandemic forced residents indoors and shifted workforce habits, including a temporary pause to many workers’ daily commutes. The change of habit reportedly reduced traffic on the state’s 44,976 miles of roads or lanes.

According to the Florida Department of Transportation, there are 7,044 bridges, including 89 which are movable, and 32 urban public transit systems. The state also has 674 active aviation facilities, 20 of which offer commercial service, and 2,746 miles of railways.

The Federal Highway Administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, says Florida has 408 bridges in poor condition, of 12,592 in the state. Of those, 7,044 are part of the State Highway System.

(Source: FHWA)

A state with coastline all around, Florida has 15 deep-water ports and five spaceport territories such as Cape Canaveral. Two facilities are FAA licensed spaceports.

FDOT provides yearly reports on state roadway health and safety, as well as construction and repair goals for improving roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. The latest report acknowledges that the state saw “extensive” revenue reductions for transportation as a result of losses from gas tax and toll collections dropping as drivers stayed home.

Still, the report says not everything was negative as a result of drivers staying home as the workforce shifted to remote operations. The FY19-20 yearly report says the COVID-19 pandemic provided a rare opportunity to kickstart construction with fewer drivers on the road.

“…Governor DeSantis and the Department recognized and took advantage of an enormous opportunity: Reduced traffic on Florida’s roadways offered the chance to accelerate the construction of numerous active projects, many of which were completed well ahead of schedule,” according to the “Performance and Production Review of the Florida Department of Transportation” report.

While Floridians spent their time inside, FDOT says 496 construction contracts were executed.

Together, they totaled $3.36 billion in roadwork. Eighty-four of the projects were bridge repairs and 25 were bridge replacement projects; 314 of the projects were finished within 20% of their original contract time, and 90.1% were completed within 10% of their time, according to the Department.

While Florida saw a quick turnaround in construction projects finishing up, the state still has to address how driver habits have changed, and continue preparing for increased road usage as more people move to Florida from around the country to find work or settle down after retiring.

The population influx led to a shift in the U.S. House of Representatives following the 2020 Census, where reapportionment led to Florida gaining a seat in Congress, keeping it a battleground state in the ever-increasing partisan politics sweeping the country.

As the country’s two main political parties continue to work on their own plans for addressing America’s infrastructure issues and still don’t fully agree on what counts as infrastructure, President Joe Biden released new details of a plan to repair thousands of bridges across the U.S.

USDOT data from 2019 shows travel in cities is higher on average than travel in rural areas each year. More current data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, part of USDOT, is not yet available.

In April, the White House released a series of report cards on each state’s infrastructure. None scored above a C+.

Florida, which earned a “C” on its report card, had more than 400 bridges and over 3,500 miles of highway in poor condition.

ROADS AND BRIDGES: In Florida there are 408 bridges and over 3,564 miles of highway in poor
condition. Since 2011, commute times have increased by 11.6% in Florida and on average, each driver pays $425 per year in costs due to driving on roads in need of repair. The American Jobs Plan will devote more than $600 billion to transform our nations’ transportation infrastructure and make it more resilient, including $115 billion repairing roads and bridges.

From the American Jobs Plan infrastructure report card for Florida.

While no state earned a high enough grade to get put on an infrastructure honor roll, the difference between the federal report card scores and state’s own data comes down to more than pure numbers.

Urban annual vehicle miles are traveled 25,242 in millions of miles and rural travel is less than half of that at only 9,339. The average daily traffic shows a similar difference, with urban coming in at 52,919 in millions and rural at 15,296.

The concentrations of where Americans drive shouldn’t come as a surprise, with urban areas seeing more job opportunities, more development, and simply more tightly packed roadways.

Data provided by FDOT shows that there are more roads in city spaces than in rural communities.

(Source: FDOT)

When analyzing the quality of the road and bridge systems, both President Biden and the Florida Department of Transportation rely not just on their own data, but analyses from trade organizations like the American Society of Civil Engineers and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

In response to previous requests about how the Biden administration arrived at their “C” grade for Florida, a White House representative said the data used came from a variety of sources. Still, the president’s grade was a “C” for Florida, while the ASCE’s was a “C-” for overall infrastructure.

The ARTBA analysis of Florida’s said 3.2% of the state’s bridges are structurally deficient. In a statement, FDOT refers to the ARTBA analysis and says:

“Florida is the 5th best nationally on overall bridge conditions and tied for 1st when looking specifically at bridge deck conditions. With more than 12,500 bridges and more than 123,000 centerline miles of roadway throughout the state, it’s important to keep statistics in perspective and note that more than 97 percent of Florida bridges statewide and 87.5 percent of lane miles on the state highway system meet or exceed standards.”

Florida Dept. of Transportation statement to 8 On Your Side Investigative Reporter Mahsa Saeidi on bridge structural deficiency

In an expanded response to 8 On Your Side Investigative Reporter Mahsa Saeidi, state officials said that additional funding “could assist local and federal partners as they seek to maximize the funds and improve the condition of non-FDOT facilities.”

In Hillsborough County, a proposed transportation sales tax led to protests about how to refund over $500 million in transportation taxes after a previous collection was made invalid more than two years ago.

The challenge for improving infrastructure is not just funding construction or deciding how to use the funds for structural needs, but how far to take the repairs. The FDOT Performance Report says that keeping every road and bridge in the state in a “like new” condition isn’t economically feasible.

Even if Biden’s American Jobs Plan is approved without any changes or compromises, aiming the billions of dollars intended for roads and bridges will be an undertaking of its own, before any work actually starts.

Negotiations between the two political parties continue, and are sure to be a focus in the upcoming 2022 midterm elections. Still, Biden and his surrogates have continued to tout compromise as the answer to solving infrastructure disagreements.

“The President looks forward to working with his Cabinet and Congress in continuing to write, pass, and enact legislation that improves the lives of Florida’s working families – including the far-too-high number of families struggling to afford housing and access broadband,” Ike Hajinazarian, the White House Regional Communications Director told 8 On Your Side in earlier conversations.

For now, the debates continue in Congress and between party leaders, even as America’s infrastructure needs remain.

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