Tollway agency criticized for lobbyist plan

Sen. Victor Crist warns the Expressway Authority that its future could be at risk.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published September 29, 2007

TAMPA - Warning of potentially serious consequences, Hillsborough County's senior state lawmaker is criticizing the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority's decision to look into hiring a lobbyist.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, a longtime critic of the toll road agency, says it's making a mistake.

"Spending large chunks of public dollars for private-sector lobbyists ... is absolutely unacceptable," he said.

But the Expressway Authority says it needs a lobbyist to represent it when the Legislature is in session next year. It says it is only taking steps to protect the interests of the agency and its toll road, the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

"We were very vulnerable and exposed in the last legislative session, because we didn't have anyone on the ground," authority chairman James Hargrett said at a board meeting this week.

At stake could be the survival of Hillsborough County's 40-year-old Expressway Authority.

Crist said the agency should take care not to irritate lawmakers, as it could still be in danger of being swallowed up by a new seven-county transportation authority. Legislators from other counties tried to make that happen this year.

"There are still hungry wolves out there that would love to see them gobbled into the regional authority," Crist said. "This is a cash cow."

The seven-county transportation board has ambitious plans and no money, while the Hillsborough authority may collect nearly $44-million in tolls this fiscal year.

That money goes to pay down the authority's debt and to maintain the Crosstown Expressway. But the authority's income will allow it to eventually borrow money, in the form of revenue bonds, to build roads.

Crist and the authority agree on one thing: The agency should remain intact, so its tolls are invested back into Hillsborough County.

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The disagreement is over the details.

Crist takes issue with the authority's plans to pay a professional lobbyist on a part-time basis instead of hiring a full-time employee to do it, the way the Tampa Port Authority and Hillsborough Aviation Authority do.

Crist and the toll road agency have different opinions over which choice would be more cost-effective.

But Crist also says an in-house staffer wouldn't be able to get involved in fundraising for political candidates, the way private lobbyists do.

The Expressway Authority's new executive director, Joe Waggoner, responded to Crist's remarks Friday.

He noted that the authority hasn't hired a lobbyist yet, but is exploring the issue.

He reiterated what the authority's general counsel, Patrick Maguire, told board members Monday: Based on what similar agencies pay, a part-time lobbyist would cost about $105,000 a year while a full-time one would cost about $155,000.

Maguire had also said expressway authorities in Orlando and Miami have contracts with outside lobbying firms.

"The board members and I are very aware of the sensitivity of this issue and appreciate the concerns being raised," Waggoner said. "We agree that the issue is more than just cost and time. The option outlined by Sen. Crist does have merit."

The Authority called Crist's office Friday to set up a meeting.

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