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Foreign group to build toll road

To avoid using public subsidies, the East-West Road could cost drivers $2.75 a trip.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published February 27, 2007


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TAMPA - Hillsborough's toll road agency picked a company Monday to build and operate a long-delayed link between New Tampa and Interstate 275.

Officials faced two unpalatable choices: either commit to a $24-million-a-year public subsidy or extract a record high local toll directly from motorists.

Big tolls won out. Drivers will pay up to $2.75 each way for a 3-mile trip, unless the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority can negotiate a better deal.

Barring that, the plan could still fall apart.

"We always have the right to walk away if the deal doesn't work for us," said board member Don Skelton.

The agency says it intends to build the East-West Road only if it makes financial sense; the toll shouldn't be so expensive that drivers won't use it.

This would be the first time in Florida that a private company teams with a public agency to build a road and then collect tolls over a period of time for profit. The idea is to avoid using public money.

Foreign companies have the most experience with such deals. After reviewing bids from two such firms, local officials chose the Plenary Group, a subsidiary of a consortium from Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Plenary plans to start rush hour tolls at a relatively low $1.50 to get drivers accustomed to using its road, which would accept only SunPass. It would raise that by a quarter a year for the first five years, to $2.75.

In contrast, tolls on the much longer Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway range from 75 cents to $1.75.

Martin Stone, the Expressway Authority's planning director, expects that the agency will spend at least four months negotiating with Plenary to lower the tolls.

They'll try to cut the costs of the roughly $150-million road - parts of which would be elevated over the Cypress Creek swamp - and may extend Plenary's control of the road from 40 years to 50 or 60.

If negotiations fail, the authority would have to decide whether to put the road back up for bid or abandon the project.

The agency's interim executive director, Stephen L. Reich, said expectations for the new road are high in New Tampa, where suburbanites want the option of avoiding congested Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

"If we can't reach agreement with Plenary ... we owe it to the community to try to find some kind of solution," Reich said.

The other company bidding to build the road, Spanish firm OHL, would have charged tolls of only 75 cents or $1, but it sought $24-million a year in public subsidies over 40 years.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.

[Last modified February 27, 2007, 00:18:35]


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