tampabay.com

More toll roads possible with bill

A measure to give private companies control over roads passes in the House.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published March 23, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Think the state isn't meeting your road needs? Some lawmakers believe private companies can help.

Faced with declining fuel tax revenue to pay for highways, legislators are pushing a measure that would make it easier for private companies to build toll roads and lease existing toll facilities for up to 50 years.

That means no tax hike. But it also would mean higher tolls on all existing toll roads in the state, including Florida's Turnpike, the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, the Suncoast Parkway and the Pinellas Bayway in St. Pete Beach.

It would also mean the private companies could bump tolls up whenever they saw fit.

House members voted 74-40 along party lines Thursday to empower private companies to increase tolls at least every five years and lease toll facilities that aren't part of the turnpike.

Republican lawmakers say leases can provide an immediate windfall the state can then spend on other road projects. "We've got falling revenue; we've got increases in costs," said bill sponsor Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "House Bill 7033 goes a long way to answer that."

It's an approach catching on elsewhere. Indiana, for instance, leased its entire toll road network for $3.85-billion.

But costs to drivers could balloon. While the bill calls for tolls to increase at least every five years to keep pace with inflation, it also hands companies the keys to raise them beyond that at their discretion without limit.

"A toll is a tax," said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston. "If we vote yes for this today, we're voting to raise people's taxes."

The bill allows existing toll facilities to be leased, as long as they're not part of the turnpike. A House analysis estimated that leasing Alligator Alley could fetch the state $3-billion and leasing the Pinellas Bayway would bring in $6-million.

But Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, cautioned about the long term: "We're mortgaging off our future so we have money today."

The bill is a radical departure from how transportation has been financed the past 50 years, when highway construction and operation were generally considered services best done by government.

But a powerful antitax movement has undermined this approach.

Politicians haven't raised the federal gas tax since 1993. No state gas tax has been raised to keep pace with inflation since 1991. Greater fuel efficiency has reduced the amount of money gas taxes raise.

Meanwhile, congestion is growing worse while the slate of road projects grows longer.

Road privatization allows state transportation officials and elected officials to build roads faster with no tax increase. That's a dream blurb on a resume or campaign flier.

Many questions remain on whether privatization works, said Robert Puentes, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

"The private companies are only going to be interested in roads where they can make money," Puentes said. "Sometimes that's in line with what the public wants, sometimes it's not."

One long-range project that private companies could bid on is Future Corridors, a series of nine massive toll roads across rural Florida that were promoted by Jeb Bush when he was governor.

One road, the Heartland Parkway, would cross vast land holdings owned by companies controlled by state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. Alexander helped start a group that has lobbied for the toll road for more than a year.

Gov. Charlie Crist distanced himself from Future Corridors earlier this month by saying the state should instead fix existing roads.

So far, there is no companion legislation in the Senate.

Staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.