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    Financially, 'Bo's Bridge' in dire straits

    Florida backed the bonds used to build the Garcon Point Bridge. Now there's danger of defaulting on the debt.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001


    A controversial toll bridge pushed by former House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson is on the verge of defaulting on its loans unless Gov. Jeb Bush approves a bailout of more than $1-million.

    The Garcon Point Bridge, nicknamed "Bo's Bridge" because of Johnson's support, is in such dire financial trouble that its director has quit, its bonds have been downgraded to junk status and its toll is about to become the most expensive in the state.

    So few motorists use the bridge that it's bringing in only half the money its owner, the Santa Rosa Bridge Authority, needs to pay bills. Although the authority has been unable to repay millions of dollars that it has already borrowed from the state, the Legislature just approved lending it another $1.4-million to cover what it owes private investors.

    Audubon of Florida this week asked the governor to veto the bailout, to send a message to the backers of other toll roads and bridges across the state.

    "Bo's Bridge is a warning that we have a toll system that is threatening the environment and threatening the state's fiscal responsibility," Audubon senior vice president Charles Lee said.

    But a bridge official contended that a veto would hurt other state transportation projects.

    "If our loan defaults, the state of Florida is going to have trouble ever getting funding for anything ever again," said Bridge Authority vice chairman Garnett Breeding.

    A Bush spokeswoman said Wednesday the governor has made no decisions yet about a veto.

    The bridge, which opened in 1999, spans eastern Pensacola Bay. Critics called it a boondoggle that would harm the bay, spur development on barrier islands and never attract enough motorists to justify its expense.

    Johnson pushed through special laws to get it built, even waiving state rules to get the authority an $8.5-million loan when the limit was supposed to be $500,000. The authority is now unable to repay.

    Johnson, a Milton Democrat, was later sent to federal prison on unrelated tax evasion charges. He was released in February. The company that built the bridge, Odebrecht-Metric, pleaded guilty last year to illegally dumping waste in the bay, cutting corners to finish quickly.

    The bridge's financial woes mark it as an important lesson for other questionable toll facilities such as the Suncoast Parkway, said Lee, the Audubon official. If the state bails out this bridge, he said, "it almost encourages other authorities to get into the same situation."

    "It was a fraud to begin with," said environmental activist Linda Young, who battled the Garcon Point Bridge project for years. "They shouldn't give them a red cent. They need to let it crash and burn."

    But the bridge authority's former financial adviser, who was forced out when he insisted that the span would never pay for itself, said Bush should not veto the bailout.

    A default would "have a devastating effect on the state's credit rating," Joe Mooney said. He predicted the Legislature will be forced to bail out the bridge repeatedly to protect the state's credit.

    The bridge authority's $95-million bond issue was based on traffic estimates from URS Greiner Woodward Clyde of San Francisco. URS predicted the bridge would attract 7,500 motorists a day, enough to pay for itself. But URS was wrong, as it has been about several other toll projects around Florida, including the Veterans Expressway in Tampa.

    Instead the bridge has drawn an average of just 4,000 motorists a day paying the $2 toll. The collections have been so poor that a New York bond-rating service downgraded the bonds to "junk" status, meaning they are a risky investment.

    To attract more traffic, some authority members wanted to lower the toll to 50 cents, Breeding said, but URS's experts said that would hurt revenue and the state Department of Transportation agreed.

    So at the insistence of URS and the DOT, Breeding said, the authority will instead boost the charge to $2.50 next month. That will make the Garcon Point Bridge the most expensive in the state, which will discourage some of its current customers.

    The authority is cutting expenses where it can. Executive Director Mahlon McCall has resigned because the authority can't afford his $45,000 annual salary anymore, Breeding said.

    But bridge officials concede they are likely to need the bailout to cover a bond payment due July 1. Still, Breeding insisted the state will get its millions back someday.

    "It's just going to take longer than we anticipated," Breeding said. "It may take 40 years, but the money that's been loaned to us will be paid back."

    - Staff researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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