Forum: ‘Critical’ need for infrastructure investment
by Joe Wilhelm Jr., Staff Writer
January 6, 2012

Area business leaders and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell are emphasizing the need to invest in the transportation and public infrastructure of the U.S. and Jacksonville to stay competitive in the global marketplace.

“Jacksonville’s Infrastructure: A Local, State and Federal Perspective” was the topic of the forum co-hosted Thursday by the JAX Chamber and Building America’s Future Educational Fund, which Rendell co-chairs.

The former governor and local business leaders discussed the difficulty of finding funds for infrastructure and how the regulatory process slows projects.

“We invest to get a return on our investment. We invest to make us stronger, to build for the future,” said Rendell about the money spent on infrastructure in the U.S.

“If we don’t do it, the Chinese will, the Indians will, the Germans will, Europeans will, the Singaporeans will and we will be left behind. I don’t think that’s the type of America you want. I know it’s not the type of America I want,” he said.

Rendell joined former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to establish the Building America’s Future Educational Fund in 2008.

The organization’s goal is to educate the public on the importance and benefit of investing in the national infrastructure system and to mobilize elected officials and like-minded organizations to advocate for increasing the national investment and reforming national infrastructure policy.

The organization partnered with the JAX Chamber to host the forum attended by more than 300 guests at the Hyatt Downtown.

Area business leaders were given an opportunity to discuss local infrastructure issues during a panel discussion, which included Jacksonville Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson, JTA Executive Director/CEO Michael Blaylock, JAA Executive Director/CEO Steve Grossman and CSX Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing Clarence Gooden, who also is CSX chief commercial officer.

State Rep. Lake Ray moderated the discussion and first asked what needed to be done at any level of government to best use the dollars available and how private sector dollars can be used as well.

“Where we are now is we’ve got to make a determination if we are going to decide if we are going to go after this logistics center, making Jacksonville the logistics center of America. It’s going to take some hard choices and some decisions,” Blaylock said.

“As we have already heard, the federal government is only a partner, the state is only a partner, so we are all going to have to come together,” he said.

Anderson talked about finding more leaders like the people that were in the room.

“It’s going to take more people like Governor Ed Rendell, more people like Representative Lake Ray who have the guts, the fortitude and the common sense to be leaders in our country today. We don’t have that right now in Washington (D.C.),” said Anderson.

“It’s going to take groups like the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Building America’s Future, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Association of Port Authorities, (National Retail Federation), National Association of Manufacturers, (Association of American Railroads) banding together to become a powerful voice to end the stalemate,” said Anderson, referring to the U.S. Congress.

Anderson referred to his testimony Oct. 26 before the U.S. House of Representatives Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“We are using infrastructure that our grandparents built. We must build tomorrow’s infrastructure today. We are not doing that,” said Anderson.

He also saw public-private partnerships as a way of maximizing the limited dollars available from the different levels of government.

Grossman talked about mismanaged funding mechanisms that should be available for “bricks-and-mortar” projects.

“Over the last number of decades, governments at all levels have established mechanisms for transportation infrastructure, whether they be trust funds or tax increment districts,” said Grossman.

“In every level of government, the promises made with that money have been broken. The (Airport and Airway Trust Fund) was established to just build infrastructure. Today, less than a third of that money goes to build infrastructure,” he said.

“Most of it goes to fund the day-to-day operating expenses of the Federal Aviation Administration and, more importantly, over the last 10-15 years much of it has been frozen to cover the federal deficit,” he said.

Gooden represented the private sector on the panel and said he was glad to hear about the partnerships the authorities were seeking, but he didn’t have a solution for them.

“I like to see the way you guys started off with the private sector, but we’re broke,” said Gooden.

“I don’t see how Jacksonville, Savannah, Charleston, Wilmington, Norfolk, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, can all go to the United States government and expect to receive federal funds without some type of comprehensive plan. And why should I put the money in your place as opposed to somebody else’s because there is a finite amount of money there,” he said.

Gooden said he was pleased with what Jacksonville has to offer when applying for the limited government funding.

“You have to have a logical argument that makes our port better than anybody else’s port,” said Gooden.

“It seems to me that our logical argument is No. 1, we’ve got an opportunity to get a nuclear carrier here in Jacksonville. No. 2, in North Florida we have a natural advantage for the traffic from the Suez Canal. Third, we have to look at what the infrastructure is once you land the goods at the port. Can I get it in and can I get it out?”

Gooden was encouraged about the accessibility in Jacksonville to highways and railroad lines.

“What we have to do here in Jacksonville is sell the fact that our inland network transportation system is equipped,” said Gooden.