Florida: Tampa’s sustainable infrastructure boom

For at least the past five years, the city has been one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Sea, sky, land. No matter how you reach Tampa, you are confronted with a rapidly moving landscape. Everywhere there are cranes, large trucks transporting construction materials, new roads winding through existing ones, buildings that multiply, airport terminals, bridges and overpasses, new residential areas springing up out of nowhere, and a myriad of huge warehouses, gradually filling up with workers and goods, as Tampa responds to the unwinding of the global distribution and supply chain. These worksites are all in perfect order – safe and clean, or, if you will, run by people with a keen sense of sustainable development.

Tampa, with less than a half-million inhabitants, is certainly not one of the most populated cities in the United States. But for at least five years (despite the Covid-19 slowdown) it has been one of the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas thanks to its clean air, its sub-tropical climate with very mild winters and hot and humid summers, its strategic location vis-à-vis Central and South American markets, and, in no small part, a substantial tax incentive package for families and businesses. This Florida city overlooking the Gulf of Mexico can boast one of the lowest costs of living and doing business in all of North America.

Not surprisingly, the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council (EDC), which coordinates public and private sector investors, calls local development “unstoppable” in terms of community services and benefits. Plans for new road sections are being approved, and work continues on improving underground piping systems in several neighborhoods. The goal is to provide cleaner water, better fire protection and safer areas.

New infrastructure to support Tampa's growth

Work has begun in the Macfarlane Park and East Tampa neighborhoods, and will then will expand to Virginia Park and Forest Hills in the coming years, replacing more than 18 miles (28 kms) of old water distribution pipes, refurbishing 27 miles (43 kms) of wastewater mains and replacing battered manholes. “The work includes 25 miles of pipeline being lined,” Deputy City Infrastructure Administrator Brad Baird told television station Channel 10.

As the lightning frequency capital of North America, Tampa knows the power of Mother Nature. Afternoon thunderstorms during the summer draw incredible lightning shows in the sky, and result in a deluge of rain that floods roads and infrastructure. So far, the sun has done its part well, wiping out the effect of the rains in a short time, following a cyclical phenomenon familiar to anyone who lives in this part of Florida. But in the administration’s vocabulary, the word “resilience” has become increasingly common. The Tampa Bay Partnership, an influential coalition of regional business leaders, presented a report this year called “Making the Economic Case for Resilience,” which lists the economic challenges the city will inevitably face without investments.

“If no action is taken by 2070,” the study finds, “flooding from sea level rise could cost properties the loss of $16.9 billion in market value and result in an annual loss of $238 million in sales, tourism and property tax revenue.”  The alternative, according to the report, is to invest about $13.4 billion in climate adaptation projects over the next quarter century. According to the researchers, this will not only protect communities until 2070, but also create a benefit of $2.27 for every dollar spent.

Efficient transportation for the Tampa of the future

Transportation remains the biggest economic challenge for the city, which is credited by the Tampa Bay Partnership with an estimated 620,000 new residents by 2025. Tampa, according to real estate agency RedFin, ranks third among U.S. cities where families plan to move. And access routes to the city are increasingly congested.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has posted a detailed list of works under construction or still in the design phase on its website. The top U.S. and international builders are at work in every corner of the city. Lane Construction, the U.S. subsidiary of the Webuild Group, has been awarded the project to improve the safety and operations of the I-275/I-4 Downtown Interchange (DTI) in Tampa, a hub that serves 200,000 motorists every day, most of them trapped in rush-hour traffic. The $223 million project is in addition to Lane’s other work in Florida, worth more than $1 billion. Lane is also in the process of building a section along the I-275 corridor from the I-4/I-275 interchange north to Hillsborough Avenue.

Arriving by plane, you are greeted with a view of the construction for the widening of the Howard Frankland Bridge over Interstate 275 toward St. Petersburg to relieve another of Tampa’s traffic hubs. The airport itself has been an open-air construction site for more than three years, and just in early September, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority approved the construction of a new terminal, Airside D, worth $787.4 million. The project will add 16 gates, bringing the total to 72, with the capacity to accommodate 13 million more passengers by 2037, up from the current 23.4 million passengers per year.

Tampa’s geographic location as a perfect commercial “gateway” was confirmed by the late August visit of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who began the Building a Better America Tour by visiting the Port Tampa Bay and, more importantly, awarding the Port Authority a $12.6 million grant to build a new berth for large ships. “The Berth 301 project will have a generational impact on our community in terms of economic development and well-paying jobs,” Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson said during the visit.

The port is the largest in Florida, not in terms of traffic or maritime capacity, but in terms of area available for storage warehouses and cargo, which positions it as one of the most attractive logistics centers in North America. The new berth will increase capacity to accommodate non containerised industries in West and Central Florida, including cement, pearl sulfur, aggregates, steel, food and agriculture, wallboard and construction, among others.

The dream of a fast train between Tampa and Orlando

Tampa, which was ranked the top small technology market by CBRE in 2019, has invested in attracting the headquarters of high-tech companies from the East Coast of the United States. To facilitate access to the region’s major centers, it has looked at plans for a fast train to reach Orlando, which is an hour-and-a-half drive away (traffic permitting) via I-4. The high-speed train would have to be built on an elevated track right on the I-4. Over $2.3 billion of federal funds had already been put on the table, while the State of Florida was to add another $300 million. But the project never came to fruition because of the taxes Tampa and Orlando residents would have had to pay to support the state funding.

The idea of a train between the two cities has not disappeared entirely. The private company Brightline, which has been serving the Miami-West Palm Beach route since 2018 (running 65 miles on the other coast of Florida) is extending the line another 120 miles to Orlando International Airport. It plans to link it to Tampa (85 miles). The Tampa-Orlando connection could ease the load on I-4, considered one of the most dangerous arterial roads in the United States.

Sports also attract builders to Tampa, where a new 35,000-seat football stadium for the University of South Florida (USF) will be built, among other things. Sports fever has been fueled by the victory of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, or Bucs, in the 50th Super Bowl in 2021, bringing this area even more into the spotlight. Tampa sports teams have even won victories in ice hockey — surprising when you consider that the only place you can see frost in Tampa is the refrigerator. Or in Amalie Arena when the Tampa Bay Lightning team plays, which has been in the national championship finals for the past three years and won the Stanley Cup twice.