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Expressway Authority's loan request sparks review

The agency says it asked for $1.5-million for its next project, not the Crosstown Expressway.

Published March 30, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - Senate President Tom Lee has initiated a financial review of the agency building the elevated commuter lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway to figure out if it has the money to finish the job.

Word in the Capitol has been that the project could require a major bailout, though officials with the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority say that's not true. Lawmakers want to see for themselves, given the agency's request for a $1.5-million loan for its next project.

Lee, R-Valrico, was among the lawmakers who met with Expressway Authority leaders in Tallahassee last week. The agency's leaders visited to assure lawmakers they had the money to complete the connector between downtown Tampa and Brandon.

"We just really want to make sure that they are able to complete the work that they have," Lee said. "This is an appropriate opportunity for the Legislature to review that situation prior to advancing money for their new project."

He said Senate staffers in the transportation and appropriations committees are examining claims from contractors, and whether the agency has enough in reserve to pay its bills. The study may not be complete until the last days of the session, which ends May 5.

"We certainly will provide any information that they need so they have a clear understanding of our financial position," said Ralph Mervine, the Expressway Authority's interim executive director. "I believe we have a sound financial plan to complete this project."

The agency has been under scrutiny since a section of the elevated roadway under construction collapsed in unstable ground two years ago. The Expressway Authority expects to open the elevated lanes between Tampa and Brandon late this summer.

The project's price tag has ballooned from its original $370-million.

The Expressway Authority has filed a lawsuit for damages exceeding $120-million against URS Corp., the general engineering consultant, and Figg Engineering, which designed a bridge over Interstate 75.

Recently, it discussed the possibility of a $15-million loan with the state Transportation Department, a proposal now off the table. "We were looking ahead on a worst-case basis, which we thought was prudent," Mervine said.

The agency has reported to state transportation officials that it knows of about $19-million in claims for the project. It has around $11-million in contingency funds.

Disputes between contractors and an agency are common in road-building projects. The Expressway Authority expects to pay between $8-million and $10-million, which would fall within the contingency funding, the agency says.

Still, the mention of another state loan sounded alarms for Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who controls the Senate's purse strings for transportation funding.

"If you're solvent, why are you asking for $15-million?" Fasano said. "That's kind of questionable."

The Expressway Authority wants to partner with a private financial backer to build an East-West toll road connecting New Tampa to Interstate 275. The $1.5-million loan, which would help to finalize plans, is included in the House's proposed budget, but not the Senate's.

"I would like for the Expressway Authority to have the budget situation that would allow them to do (the planning) without requesting more money," said Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa, who supports the loan if necessary.

The Expressway Authority says the loan is neede d to move the new project forward.

Mervine declared the funding dead in an interview Tuesday with the St. Petersburg Times. He blamed a story the newspaper published last week about concerns in Tallahassee over the agency's finances.

"(The article) has caused enough commotion in Tallahassee that the chances of us getting study money are effectively dead," Mervine said.

He called back within an hour to reverse himself.

Mervine blamed his statements on "a moment of frustration." The Expressway Authority is following a normal process in applying for a loan from a state trust fund for toll facilities to begin its next project, he said.

In Tallahassee, key lawmakers want questions answered first.

"The bigger question is: Should they be doing the second job before they finish the first job?" said Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee and has worked closely with the Expressway Authority on the New Tampa project.

"It's very much up in the air," he added.

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified March 30, 2006, 02:15:33]

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