Water and roads for Florida, the Sunshine State calls for investments

From water infrastructure to road maintenance, Florida put to the test by major projects

Florida owes much to its sandy beaches, with their long stretches of silky white sand. A coastal strip of 825 miles (1,327 kilometres) kissed by the Atlantic Ocean to the north, by the Caribbean to the south around Miami, and – from the Keys to Pensacola – by the Gulf of Mexico, which in those parts is simply “The Gulf.”

The peninsula which creates the southernmost tip of the United States measures an area of 65,000 square miles (170,000 square kilometres), making it just the 22nd American state by total land area. But it is the third-largest by population after California and Texas, and is growing rapidly. The Sunshine State’s economy depends heavily on water, which is simultaneously its fortune and its undoing. This year’s big rainy season began with Tropical Storm Elsa and will continue through the summer, putting strain on the network of “invisible” coastal infrastructure that protects residents and their homes from storms and hurricanes.

Water infrastructure, Florida's weak spot

Nearly 61% of Florida’s sandy beaches are eroding, according to 2016 estimates by ASCE, the American Society of Civil Engineers. Reducing risk exposure in coastal areas and protecting, for example, power plants adjacent to the coast requires investment. But over the past 10 years, the average difference between funds requested and funds allocated by the state has exceeded $40 million (€33 million) per year, ASCE said. ASCE gave the coastal areas segment a D+ grade for 2021, pointing out how water is as a weak point in Florida’s entire infrastructure complex, including roads, bridges, and airports, which on average earned a C+, just above the national average thanks to that “+.”

Florida’s containment systems primarily capture excess stormwater and transport it for cleanup or release, with drainage pipes, detention ponds, and runoff treatment devices. There are some crucial areas in the Floridian ecosystem, one of which is considered the green lung of the United States, the Everglades, located inland near Miami. The state has invested over $2.3 billion (€1.9 billion), to which another $1 billion (€842 million) in federal funding has been added, for series of restoration projects to protect this natural treasure, the most important of which has been entrusted to the Webuild Group with its U.S. subsidiary Lane Construction.

The project involves the construction of a two-cell reservoir in the Caloosahatchee Estuary on Florida’s southwest coast, buttressed by a sand embankment dam with a 26.2-kilometre (16.7-mile) perimeter and a 4.5-kilometre (2.8-mile) separator dam between the two portions of the reservoir. In total, the reservoir will cover approximately 40.5 square kilometres (10.1 square miles) and hold 210 million cubic feet (5.9 million cubic metres) of water. During periods of rainfall, the reservoir will contain contaminated water from residential and agricultural land in the area and, during dry periods, will provide the necessary water supply to maintain optimal salinity levels.

Responding to increased water demand

Currently, according to ASCE data, there are more than 3,700 wastewater treatment plants in operation, making Florida a national leader in the use of reclaimed water, and 5,275 public and private drinking water treatment systems supplying the more than 21 million residents. According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP), Florida’s average daily demand for fresh water (which includes drinking water) will increase by 20% over the next two decades, enough to require $21.9 billion (€17.6 billion) in investment. 

With an unstoppable increase in resident population, aging infrastructure, and sensitive ecological environments, water represents one of the areas where the state will continue to invest and attract federal funds, along with road and highway construction, with bridges and viaducts, before Florida’s transportation system goes into a tailspin.

Everglades, Florida

New roads for the state's continued economic development

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) manages a state highway network of more than 12,000 miles, or 10% of the state’s total road miles. However, these are strategic arteries, where more than half of all traffic travels. In the last 40 years the network’s number of miles has increased by 25%, while the daily miles driven have almost doubled. This is increasingly leading to an imbalance in demand for roads that FDOT aims to address with new construction or resurfacing of older or undersized ones.

Key infrastructure, such as Florida’s Turnpike “beltway,” used by three million travelers every day, is being constantly upgraded to provide access to major arterials connecting Miami and the rest of the state. These are major junction widening projects, such as the one in Orange County, south of Orlando, entrusted to Lane Construction, with the construction of three new ramps, the renovation of some viaducts and the doubling to eight lanes, including two express lanes, to provide enhanced (mobility around the area, reducing congestion and increasing safety.

As of late May 2021, already three new ramps have been opened to traffic to allow the Turnpike to work at full capacity, six months ahead of the project schedule, which is expected to be completed by summer. Lane has nearly $500 million (€421 million) in other active highway projects in Florida: the Poinciana Parkway Phase 2 project in Osceola County; the Suncoast Parkway 2 project in Hernando and Citrus counties; and Section 8 of Wekiva Parkway in Seminole County.

Three of these works were just awarded by the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association (FTBA). The Turnpike, Wekiva Parkway and Suncoast Parkway projects were awarded the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) Utilization Achievement Award, while the Turnpike project won the Best in Construction 2021 award.

The cost of Florida’s aging infrastructure

The Department of Transportation manages 12,046 structures categorised as bridges, about 15% of which are at least 50 years old. The White House, in accompanying its American Jobs Plan to modernise the country’s infrastructure, included a chapter devoted to the Sunshine State, titled “The Need for Action in Florida,” where it deemed 408 bridges and 3,564 miles of highway to be in poor condition. Since 2011, according to the Biden Administration’s document, commute time has increased 11.6% and, on average, each motorist bears a cost of $425 (€358) per year for driving on roads in need of repair.

Over the past decade, according to “The Need for Action in Florida,” the state has faced 22 extreme weather situations, with at least $100 billion (€84.2 billion) in damage. In September 2017 when Hurricane Irma passed through, more than 6 million people in Florida were left without electricity, phone or internet connections, which were restored after several days of disruption, and roads in Miami, Naples and Jacksonville turned into rivers. Damage was contained, compared to forecasts, thanks to the hurricane’s last-minute detour and the infrastructure put in place to defend the territory.

Florida’s growth, with more than 1 million new residents a year, calls for continued investment in infrastructure improvements to increase the resilience of municipal drinking water systems, strengthen the electrical grid, increase the capacity of stormwater drainage systems, and make roads and highways safer and less congested.