ORANGE COUNTY – You’ve heard the old saying. “There are only two things in life that are certain…death and taxes.” Well, that old saying might just have to be revised.
The new certainty on the horizon is toll fees. There has always been somewhat of a controversy at times with toll roads, but now that debate is getting more fuel with a new house bill allowing for the possible leasing of toll roads to private companies. The legislation, approved recently by the Florida House and endorsed by the Senate, is a giant transportation package with toll roads taking a lot of the focus.
In just a matter of time, private companies could gain control of well-known Florida transportation entities, including the Beachline, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge and Alligator Alley.
The bill includes provisions that would allow the Department of Transportation to lease existing toll roads to private companies. The bill also allows the DOT to enter into new deals and allow companies to build new toll roads at any time. The bill limits the leases to 50 years, although they could be extended to 75 years or more. Eventually, any new roads would be owned by the state.
The only toll road system that will not be leased is the Florida Turnpike. However, provisions include the increase of the Turnpike’s bonding capacity to $10 billion, allowing for another $900 million in turnpike construction projects. There is one turnpike provision in the bill that should definitely get the attention of motorists throughout Florida. According to the legislation, current tolls would be allowed to be raised by linking them to rates of inflation. In other words, tolls that have been consistent for years will start to rise, fast.
However, it still has one hurdle left.
“HB 985 has not been presented to the Governor yet,” said Jim Harrison, Director of Growth Management. “The Orange County BCC did not take an official position on the bill, except a general desire to keep up with any legislation that dealt with ethics/oversight authority by the State over the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.”
One part of the legislation that addresses that concern has been placed in the bill. The Department of Transportation will be tasked to periodically review the finances and operations of expressway authorities.
This is nothing new on the national landscape. Other states and cities have followed a similar path, including the states of Indiana, Texas, California, and the city of Chicago. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other states are considering similar moves.
“We feel that we have a very well-run and efficient toll road system, and I think it safe to say we would take great interest in any attempt to lease it,” said Harrison.
Why lease? Florida hasn’t raised gas taxes in over 15 years, with no adjustments for inflation. There are more cars on the road, more residents moving here (some 300,000 per year), and more strain on the system. However, there’s no money. Florida wants to spend $117 billion on transportation in the next 15-20 years, but projections show that barely half of that amount will be available.
Proponents of the bill argue that leasing could be a viable solution in trying to generate more money for the state road system. The state estimates that leasing Alligator Alley could net $3 billion over 50 years. Leasing the Beachline could bring in $1.3 billion. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay could generate $8.2 billion.
That sounds good for the state, but some in Orange County want to know how much of that new cash flow will benefit us closer to home. Opponents say that money from these private toll roads could be disbursed anywhere in the state. At present, monies from highways like 408, 417 and the Beachline stay in Orange County and surrounding areas for improvements and revenue. With this bill, those monies could go anywhere.
“I am not aware at all of the funding distribution if this happens,” said Harrison.
On the flip side of the issue, opponents are greatly concerned that releasing control of toll roads to private companies may result in significant urban sprawl. If private companies are given the option to build new toll roads at will, and with the attractive money-making potential that this provides, many Democrats in the House argued that there will be a general disregard for planned urban growth. The result: sprawl in the name of profits.
“Sprawl is, of course, of great concern to the county, and we all must take care to prevent the ill effects of uncontrolled sprawl,” said Harrison.
No matter which side of the issue you’re on, it looks like you had better start saving that extra toll change now. You’ll need it.