Innovators in Action: FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad on Delivering Florida’s 21st Century Transportation System Through Tolling, Managed Lanes and Public-Private Partnerships

Like most states, Florida faces a significant challenge in delivering future transportation infrastructure, given the declining purchasing power of the federal gas tax, uncertain future revenues resulting from the increasing efficiency of automobiles, and other challenges that are making it increasingly difficult for most states to even maintain the infrastructure they already have, much less expand and modernize their transportation systems to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has been working to meet that challenge in recent years, increasingly embracing innovations in project finance, road pricing and other areas of transportation policy that allow them to better control costs, as well as deliver major projects to reduce congestion and improve mobility amid an uncertain transportation funding future.

In our latest interview in the Innovators in Action 2012 series, I sat down with Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) Secretary Ananth Prasad to discuss how his agency has embraced innovations like public-private partnerships, cutting-edge tolling projects, private highway maintenance and more.

Here’s a brief excerpt from the interview:

Leonard Gilroy, Reason Foundation: Florida has become one of the leading states in the U.S. with regard to embracing innovations like public-private partnerships, private infrastructure financing and cutting-edge tolling projects. What challenges prompted this shift? And can you explain why partnering with the private sector makes sense for FDOT?

Ananth Prasad, Secretary, Florida Department of Transportation: As you know, Florida is a very outsourced state, and we rely on the private sector to deliver a lot of our projects. As with most states, 100% of the construction is done by the private sector in Florida, but we’re also at upwards of 80% when it comes to planning, design, engineering, inspections and the like. So in our work, we rely a significant amount on the private sector to help us deliver.

When it comes to public-private partnerships (PPPs), I think it’s just another tool in the toolbox, trying to leverage what private investment is out there, what innovations may be there when it comes to a procurement or contract management or a delivery technique. That’s basically what prompted us going into PPPs.

At the outset, Design-Build was our first foray into trying to take a traditional design function that was done by a department—either in-house or by consultants—and combine it with a construction contractor and package it together. And that evolved into “OK, if you can do design and build together, why can’t you operate and maintain together?” And that morphed into “why can’t you finance it, if it’s a long-term, corridor-type project?” It’s a natural evolution of what various departments of transportation do, and we’re just trying to make sure that we utilize all of the tools in the toolbox to deliver infrastructure improvements.

When we look at unfunded transportation needs, we estimate Florida would need in excess of $131 billion for the state’s most critical assets between now and 2040. PPPs are not going to close that gap, but they can help us deliver long corridors today by leveraging private equity and financing, and then also bringing innovations through combining the design and the operations and maintenance into a contract so that we’re designing and building a project with a holistic view rather than just designing it or just building it or just operating and maintaining it.

When it comes to tolls, we obviously have a long track record with our toll road—the [Florida] Turnpike—and in the last few decades with the various expressway authorities. Tolling allows us to diversify the revenue stream to fund transportation. As you know, the gas tax is not keeping pace and while Florida’s gas tax is indexed [to inflation], the federal gas tax is not. And with fuel efficiency standards going up and with alternative fuel vehicles, people will be driving the same amount of miles but not contributing to the upkeep and future improvements to the infrastructure. Toll roads answer that question because if you use it, you pay for it.

The full interview is well worth a read and is available here. The topics discussed include the state’s current public-private partnership projects, the expansion of managed lanes in different regions, the use of “toll lanes within toll lanes,” the state’s efforts to capitalize on the expansion of the Panama Canal, and much more.

[Note to readers: In previous years, we have published Innovators in Action in an annual report format, the last edition having been released in early 2010. The publication was on a temporary hiatus in 2011, but we have resumed publication in a slightly different format. In order to deliver timely content to our readers on a more frequent schedule, we’re publishing one Innovators article per month on Other articles featured in the Innovators in Action 2012 series are available here.]