Transport bill deserves veto

Published May 16, 2007

A transportation bill on Gov. Charlie Crist's desk could lock in Florida's worst planning mistakes well into the next century. HB 985 would allow investor-owned companies to lease existing toll roads and build new ones. It's bad enough to pawn public assets to raise immediate cash. But this legislation also would pave the way for more sprawl and worsen congestion. Developers would have every incentive to make money twice - first by building expressways to nowhere, then by building up entire communities around the roads. Crist's veto would tell lawmakers to get serious about transportation and growth management.

The wide-ranging bill would allow private companies to lease existing toll facilities, with the exception of Florida's Turnpike, and build new ones through partnerships with the state. The state would regulate toll increases through these agreements and get a cut, under deals that could last up to 75 years. Supporters say the move could generate hundreds of millions of dollars for a state with billions in unfunded road needs through 2025. The bill also would more than double the amount the Turnpike could borrow to build toll projects, to $10-billion from the current $4.5-billion.

Toll roads have a place serving as alternate routes for people who can afford to bypass clogged freeways and local roads. By adding capacity, they build on the free network and help Florida do a better job moving people and goods. But tolls should not be the backbone of a transportation system or be viewed politically as inherently preferable to investing tax money in the public system. Road-building is a public responsibility that should help ensure the movement of residents and commerce, steer growth and ensure public safety as evacuation routes. It should not be a private enterprise for private profit.

Lawmakers wrote off this bill's effect on sprawl. Their focus was creating a honey pot for roads, which hooks the state as much as investors to road-reliant, rural development. Both sides would have an interest in building along these corridors and contractual reasons to avoid any serious discussion of mass transit. Is that a direction this state can really afford to take for another 75 years? The governor should be clear: Long-term plans need balance. Let the Legislature try again next year.