Florida DOT chief Ananth Prasad’s legacy

December 10, 2014

Florida Department of Transportation secretary Ananth Prasad will be leaving his office on January 2, announced Florida governor Rick Scott last week. “Secretary Prasad has been part of my administration since the very beginning, and he has been pivotal to making sure we could make a record investment of over $10 billion in our transportation system this year,” Scott said. The departure offers an opportunity to survey the secretary’s record on improving the state’s notoriously poor walkability, new port projects, highway building, and other transportation issues throughout Florida.

Bridge across Tampa Bay

Ananth Prasad’s tenure included a few megatransit projects, but more toll roads. From Apalapala.

Prasad, who has served as DOT chief since 2011 and had previously worked as the Assistant Secretary for Engineering and Operation during his 21-year- tenure with the FDOT, has received high praise from government officials and industry leaders: “I don’t use this term loosely, but he is the best Secretary of Transportation we have had, and I’ve been part of the process for over 25 years,” Bob Burleson, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, told Saint Petersblog.

Then there’s Ron Howse, chairman of the Florida Transportation Commission, who raved, “Under Secretary Prasad’s leadership, the department met all of the Commission’s performance and production objectives for the first time ever, while overseeing the largest transportation budget in state history,” while Howard Glassman, executive director of the Florida MPO Advisory Council, said that Prasad’s “complete streets initiative that promotes alternative transportation systems and pedestrian safety recognizes Florida’s demographic change and supports livable and walkable communities.”

But what about Prasad’s record? Some of his notable light-rail projects include a “partially-privately-funded” high-speed rail between Miami and Orlando and promoting a $25 million structure to link two counties via light rail. Prasad has also focused on developing Florida’s ports — last year he advocated for dredging ports in Jacksonville to increase trade. But his impact on roads and tolls are perhaps most significant, including a $338 million elevated toll roadway project (with the Federal Highway Administration covering nearly half the cost); turning down what would’ve been the state’s first privately-funded and -operated toll road, and a general push towards toll roads that, he claims, was geared toward moving traffic more efficiently.

Critics like the Tampa Bay Times are calling for Prasad’s replacement to be “less enamored of toll roads and more amenable to mass transit,” which did not emerge as a priority during Prasad’s tenure. And, as The Florida Times-Union notes, Prasad “used to work for one of the state’s largest toll lane builders before approving billions of dollars in toll lane projects, some of which have gone to his former employer.” (In response, Prasad had said, “Two years at a transportation firm doesn’t trump 20-plus years with the DOT. That is a far-fetched theory.”)

As far as walkability — a major issue in Florida, one of the most deadly states for pedestrians — Prasad pushed for pedestrian and cyclist safety with the Pedestrian & Bicycle Focused Initiative, and oversaw additional bike lanes and infrastructure to accommodate bikers and walkers on limited access roads. But the state still has a long way to go to implement “complete” streets — the roads in question still cater to vehicles traveling at 55 mph (or faster), and bike lanes are often blocked due to lack of enforcement.

Among the $10 billion in funds Governor Scott attributed to Prasad’s leadership are Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, including a $20 million grant awarded in September for replacing Florida’s Tamiami Trail with a 2.6-mile elevated bridge to “help restore natural storm water flows into the Everglades National Park and Northeast Shark River, while preserving a critical transportation link between Southwest Florida and Miami.” In 2013, Florida International University received over $11 million in TIGER funding for transit improvements; the year prior, the city of Tampa received over $10 million to support bike and pedestrian connections.

Prasad is the third state agency head in Florida to resign from his post within the week. The Florida Transportation Commission will meet in the new year to determine his replacement.

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Category: Infrastructure, Transportation

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