We in Florida are fortunate to have one of the fastest growing economies in the United States and to live in one of just seven states to experience GDP growth of at least 3.1 percent in 2015. Population in our state rose by 1.8 percent the same year — the fourth-highest total in the country.
This growth is great news, but continued expansion will require smart investments in Florida’s transportation infrastructure. With tight budgets at all levels of government, funding these needed investments will be challenging. Freight railroads provide two important lessons in this regard: Large-scale investment has a colossal economic impact; and smart regulation can encourage private investment while also boosting safety and benefiting the public.
Nationwide, railroads have invested more than $630 billion into the rail network since 1980, correlating with a 45 percent drop in shipping costs and a 79 percent drop in the train accident rate. A recent study found that in 2014, the freight rail industry generated almost $274 billion in economic activity across the country.
In Florida, Jacksonville-based CSX Transportation, for example, invested almost $200 million in 2015 alone to improve its Florida network, which spans 2,900 miles of track and connects 12 ports in the state with markets all over the country. These investments also mean fewer trucks on the roads and less wear and tear and congestion on highways.
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Thirty-seven years ago, the federal government virtually ran the rail industry in the United States under a system of economic and service regulations and tight bureaucratic controls. It didn’t work. With the government stifling innovation, rail companies could not earn enough profit to reinvest in a crumbling rail network. Manufacturers, businesses, farms and mines in Florida and all across the nation suffered as a result. A crumbling rail network meant bad rail service and escalating rail rates.
Congress faced a choice: Nationalize the railroads or implement reforms allowing them to operate in the free market like other businesses. Fortunately, Congress chose the latter path. To put it in perspective, a balanced regulatory system has enabled railroads to invest more in their track, equipment, technology and the overall rail network than many states invest in their highways and bridges.
Numerous Florida leaders at all levels of government have demonstrated an understanding of the way sound government policies have enabled continued strong private investment in the rail network. This includes U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. In this role he has been a steady advocate for infrastructure investment in Florida and nationally, as well as balanced policies that recognize freight rail’s outsize role in our economy.
Alongside Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, Nelson was recognized recently for his commitment to freight rail infrastructure with a Railroad Achievement Award from GoRail, a grassroots advocacy group, and the Association of American Railroads.
“Communities all across America reap the benefits delivered by an innovative freight rail industry that invests more than 40 cents of every revenue dollar back into the nation’s rail network,” said GoRail President Russell McGurk.
If we expect to grow our economy, we have to invest in infrastructure. As members of Congress prepare to tackle this challenge, I urge them to look to the freight rail example as a model of how private sector commitment and innovation can be leveraged to produce remarkable public benefits.
Chip LaMarca represents District 4 on the Broward County Commission.