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Politics

Proposal could fund more toll roads

The bill would double the amount that the state Turnpike Enterprise can borrow to build.

By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Published April 19, 2007


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TAMPA - State transportation officials unveiled ambitious plans for new toll roads this past year, including nine massive expressways that would remake what's left of rural Florida.

But with the credit of the state's chief toll road agency maxed out, even modest toll road projects are out of the question.

So where will the money to pay for all this come from?

Part of that answer could come next week, when a bill with little opposition faces its final committee vote before the entire state Senate takes it up.

The bill, SB 2804, would double what Florida's Turnpike Enterprise can borrow to build toll roads, raising the cap from $4.5-billion to $9-billion.

The bill's intent is to make it easier to build toll roads, said its sponsor, Sen. Carey Baker, a Central Florida Republican who chairs the Senate's Transportation Committee.

"It's not that we need more toll roads; it's that we need more roads," he said. "And our current transportation revenue is not sufficient to build the roads we need."

But the bill fuels development in rural parts of the state that don't need it, said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida.

"When you remove any calculus for the viability of a highway, you're giving permission to road builders to open up more green space for more roads," Lee said. "You're giving the turnpike a blank check to build wherever they want."

The bill eliminates a requirement that toll projects pay off half of their costs 12 years after getting built. It also extends the time projects must pay off all costs from 22 years to 30 years.

The requirements are meant to protect the Turnpike Enterprise from projects that may default for lack of traffic.

The Turnpike agency's net revenue, about $488-million last year, would pay off investors if projects default. That shortfall could force higher tolls on other roads, such as the Suncoast Parkway, said Chris Warren, the turnpike's deputy executive director.

"This bill doesn't make it risky," Warren said. "Our own bond covenants require us to use prudent financial controls."

Warren said the Turnpike Enterprise would first expand current roads, and doesn't have any new projects in mind if the bill passed.

"There is no way we can run willy-nilly and build at will here," Warren said. "We still have to get our projects approved with local political support."

Lee questioned the bill's timing, coming two months after a Turnpike Enterprise report that determined a 152-mile project in Central Florida, called the Heartland Parkway, was unfeasible.

"So what do you know?" Lee said. "The turnpike tells the Heartland folks that they can't build the road because it doesn't meet the financial criteria, then, BING, the Legislature changes the financial criteria so that the turnpike can now build that very road."

The turnpike's project manager for the Heartland Parkway said that, under the new bill, it still wouldn't be feasible.

"This wouldn't pay for itself in 30 years," said Dave Wood. "It would take a real smart effort, involving possible private contributions, to make this project work."

Cari Roth, a lobbyist for landowners pushing for the Heartland Parkway - including two companies controlled by state Sen. J.D. Alexander - said she didn't know about the bill.

Baker said it could help projects like hers get built faster.

"In the sense that it will give the Turnpike Enterprise more money, if they were willing, then yes, maybe it could help in that endeavor," Baker said. "But there's a whole lot of things that would have to occur before that happens."

Staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

 

[Last modified April 19, 2007, 13:33:08]


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