April 11–HAINES CITY — Transportation and adaptation to a changing economy were the themes of the panel discussion during Tuesday’s Haines City Economic Summit.
Prior to a macroeconomics lesson from well-known banker Joseph Keating at the Lake Eva Events Center, three expert panelists took questions from Cyndi Jantomaso, executive director of the event-sponsoring Haines City Economic Development Council, and audience members.
“Infrastructure is a big part of what we work on as civil engineers,” said Joseph Viscuso, senior vice president and director of strategic growth for Pennoni. “There’s a lot of infrastructure needs here in the U.S., and in Florida, obviously. The cost of projects is going up and the funding is going down.”
Viscuso said entities needed to work to provide innovative ways to fund projects. One of those ways could be public-private partnerships, he said.
“Road projects take a long time,” said Keith Robbins, district freight coordinator for the Florida Department of Transportation. “The private sector has to be involved. Having them involved in your planning is key. The feedback is invaluable.”
Changing technology, Viscuso said, allows projects to move more quickly than in years past.
“In our business — up until the year 2000 — we were surveying the same way the Egyptians were surveying,” Viscuso said. “(Now) we’re using artificial intelligence to look at our roads and do analysis on our roads. We’re using robotics to do bridge testing. Through fiber networks, we already have traffic signals that are talking to one another.”
One issue, according to Viscuso, is the slow movement of government. Viscuso said that by the time some regulation is put in place to approve the technology, things have already changed.
“We have to find a way to bridge that gap,” he said. “By the time the procurement process is approved, the technology is outdated. It moves that fast.”
Alternative travel, shipping
Aubrey Brown, industrial development manager for CSX, said the railroad system was originally designed for shipping coal. Brown said coal is nowhere in CSX’s future plans.
“Railroads have had to rethink its place,” Brown said. “There is a shortage of about 140,000 truckers in this country. The railroad solution is to take more traffic off the road.”
Brown said the U.S. rail network consists of 140,000 miles of rail access. One gallon of diesel gas, he said, can carry freight for 436 miles and emits about 3.5 times less carbon than a tractor trailer.
“You have to have a really good rail user that justifies the cost,” Brown said. “We’re going to look at master planning, what we got and how we can maximize what we got. For places like Polk County, having a private loading and unloading dock would be a really good idea.”
Robbins said the state hasn’t done the best job in utilizing its seaports. Florida has 15 seaports, he said, but not all take shipping containers. Savannah, Georgia, does more with its one seaport than all of Florida combined, Robbins said.
“We have a lot of seaports in Florida,” he said. “Georgia has one; South Carolina has one; Virginia has one. The advantage we have is they’re coming from all spots and not just one vantage point.”
As far as shipping is concerned, Robbins said he didn’t see Sunrail making a big difference.
“Freight rail and passenger rail don’t really work well together,” he said. “I don’t see Sunrail really helping the shipping business all that much.”
Brown said Georgia invests heavily in its seaport and Florida should too, through collaboration. The same, he said, was true with the railroad.
“We need to do a better job coordinating within the state,” he said. “It’s almost like Pensacola is its own place, Jacksonville is its own place, South Florida is its only place. We have to serve the citizens of this state better.”
Viscuso said he thinks self-driving vehicles will play a major role in the shipping industry within the next decade.
“We really have to look at technology differently than we used to,” he said. “All the car manufacturers are looking into autonomous vehicles. The trucking companies are looking to autonomous vehicles.”
Brown said CSX has spent $2 billion over the last seven years complying with federal safety regulation. For entities that CSX does business with, Brown said, it has to stop at the agreed location. For businesses where stops are made, there is opportunity, he said.
“If we’re spotting 100 cars a month or five, we have to go there,” he said. “Anyone who has the ability to ship by rail has a leveraging opportunity over the trucking industry.”
Keating, chief investment officer with CenterState Bank, provided his insight on how things were shaping up nationally when it came to the economy. One of the highlights he addressed was President Donald Trump’s expressed desire to levy tariffs.
“Obviously, they’re aimed at China,” Keating said. “It’s easy to say that free trade is the best way to grow the global economy. What the president has made us do is not just focus on free trade, but fair trade.”
Keating said the U.S. market is the one that all other countries are trying to get into, but noted that America spends over four times as much buying products from China than China does from the U.S.
“Clearly, the president’s bluntness is unsettling to a lot of people,” Keating said. “We need to hope that the threat of tariffs is just a tactic for negotiations and not a policy.”
As far as taxes go, Keating called Trump’s recent reforms a “huge win” for the domestic economy.
“It’s primarily business tax reform that was passed,” he said. “It makes our country a competitive place to do business.”
Keating added that there could be a move upcoming to simplify the tax code. The election of Trump, he said, has increased business and consumer confidence. Keating said his Democratic challenger in the 2016 general election, Hillary Clinton, ran on increases in taxes and regulation.
“While the man polls rather poorly, he has increased a significant amount of confidence,” Keating said.
One of the negatives of the tax bill, Keating said, was it eliminated some incentives for homeownership. Keating said areas where home prices are high were hurt much more than places where they’re low. Those affected more, he said, tend to be states controlled by Democrats, while those hurt less have a Republican majority.
“It’s created winners and losers,” Keating said. “It’s hurt the coastal regions, but brought more people back to the heartland.”
Mike Ferguson can be reached at Mike.Ferguson@theledger.com or 863-401-6981. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.
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