Bills may loosen toll road rules
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
The state Department of Transportation has repeatedly faced criticism for using inflated traffic estimates to justify building toll roads that then fell short of paying for themselves.
Even though state law forbids the department to build toll roads that do not make money, the DOT has built four in the past 12 years, including the Veterans Expressway in Tampa and the Suncoast Parkway in Hernando and Pasco counties.
Now the Legislature is trying to fix the problem -- by repealing the law forbidding the DOT to build toll roads that will lose money.
Instead, under bills sponsored by two area lawmakers, the DOT could build toll roads anywhere, regardless of whether they are financially feasible.
The tolls paid by drivers in the rest of the system, including on the Sunshine Skyway and on Florida's Turnpike, would subsidize the money losers.
The bills would make other significant changes in the turnpike system:
DOT would be allowed to build hotels and motels at its toll road interchanges.
The Turnpike would no longer have to wait to get all its permits for filling wetlands and causing other environmental damage before it advertises for construction bids.
DOT employees could join contractors in bidding on Turnpike contracts, and they would not have to resign from their state jobs unless their company's bid was accepted.
A spokesman for the Turnpike's administration, Mike Washburn, said the DOT wants the law changed because it would allow the agency "to run more like a business." The House sponsor, Rep. David Russell Jr., R-Brooksville, predicted the changes would result in better management of the state's growth because the Turnpike's managers would have greater flexibility.
But financial experts and environmental activists say the changes will only make a bad system worse, producing toll roads built primarily to satisfy those with clout, not the public.
Laurie Macdonald of the Sierra Club predicted the change will pave the way for DOT to push ahead with building the controversial Citrus County segment of the Suncoast Parkway, even if it cannot pay for itself.
"This way they would not have to justify its existence in terms of economics," she said.
But if a road cannot pay for itself, "it probably isn't needed," contended government financing expert Joe Mooney, who was fired from an independent toll bridge project for challenging the figures used to justify its construction -- figures that turned out to be wrong.
"If there is no need, why are they being built?" Mooney asked. Without some financial test to determine whether a toll road is really needed, he said, "I think the pork barrel will get a lot bigger."
Unnecessary roads will be built to benefit developers who could not build without access, but don't want the cost added to the price of their new subdivisions, office parks and entertainment complexes, warned Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida.
"It lets the people in South Florida, who are trying to get to and from their jobs on the Turnpike, subsidize the construction of various speculative roads that will never pay for themselves, in order to promote development in other parts of the state," Lee said. The result will be "urban sprawl and bad development."
Not true, said the Turnpike's planning director, Kevin Thibault. Just because a road won't make money, he said, that doesn't mean it isn't needed to alleviate traffic gridlock.
The Senate sponsor, Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, did not return calls for comment. But Russell, the House sponsor, contended that the DOT would still be required to follow its own policies requiring that new roads be built only if they meet a traffic need.
However, the DOT itself has failed to follow the law on toll roads, according to the state Transportation Commission, a watchdog agency that has in the past failed to get the Legislature to take any action to curb DOT's Turnpike excesses.
The law now says that before anyone builds a new toll road using state money, there must be sufficient demand for the road that it will pay for itself. The law says that traffic projections must be high enough to show that, by its fifth year of operation, tolls from a new parkway will equal half the annual payment on its bond debt. That was the test the Legislature designed 12 years ago to protect the toll system from political influence.
Instead of following the law, though, various toll projects have skirted it by using inflated traffic projections to justify construction. The Garcon Point Bridge near Pensacola, nicknamed "Bo's Bridge" because it was a pet project of former House Speaker Bo Johnson, has drawn only half the drivers that it was supposed to attract. The authority that owns the bridge recently defaulted on its bonds after Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed a $1-million bailout approved by the Legislature.
The Turnpike's managers have avoided a similar fate only because of the popularity of its Mainline, the original segment built to carry travelers between Central Florida and South Florida.
The Mainline is so popular that it paid off its bond debts in the 1980s. The DOT could have torn down the toll booths and let travelers use the road for free.
Instead, the DOT has used the tolls paid by the Mainline's drivers to cover the shortfalls of the Veterans Expressway, Suncoast Parkway and two other lightly traveled roads that are part of the Turnpike, the Polk Parkway near Lakeland and the Seminole Parkway near Sanford.
Those four roads met the financial feasibility test, but only by using inflated traffic projections. A vice president of the company that provided the flawed projections, URS Greiner Woodward Clyde, later admitted that in some cases they were "just guessing."
Russell's bill, H261, is one committee vote away from going to the full House. Sebesta's bill, S502, has passed the Transportation Committee but has yet to go further. Bush has not taken a position.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire