Florida House OKs bill that includes authorization to lease toll roads

| 4/26/2007

The Florida House has approved a far-reaching transportation bill that would allow the Florida Department of Transportation to lease most toll roads in the state to private groups.

The Republican-led House voted 78-37 Wednesday, April 25, along party lines to send a bill to the Senate that would apply to any existing toll facilities in the state’s highway system, except the Florida Turnpike system. If the agreement for leasing an existing facility does not include provisions for additional capacity, the project must be approved by FDOT.

This is the second bill in a few weeks to gain passage in the House that would allow the state to enter into public-private partnerships to build more roads. The earlier House bill didn’t have a companion bill in the Senate, therefore dooming it to failure.

The transportation bill – HB985 – has a companion in the Senate. That bill – SB2804 – doesn’t allow toll roads to be privatized, but the provision could be added to it.

The House bill would allow regular toll increases to keep pace with inflation. Companies also could raise the fees beyond that at their discretion.

Leases would be limited to 50 years, though it does leave room for the possibility of extending those agreements to 75 years or more.

House Republicans cite declining vigor of the motor fuels tax and increasing congestion for the need to look elsewhere for transportation dollars. They point to discussions early this year with industry officials who told legislators the state was sitting on a “gold mine” of roads that could be leased to private groups, the Palm Beach Post reported.

A House analysis of the effort did not report what the state collects each year in tolls, but it says leasing toll routes would help generate immediate cash that would help pay for $117 billion in road improvements through fiscal year 2025.

The analysis estimated that leasing Alligator Alley could be worth $3 billion for the state. The Pinellas Bayway could bring in $6 billion while the Sunshine Skyway could raise $8.2 billion.

Democrats in the chamber were unsuccessful in an attempt to have the tolling provisions removed from the bill. They warned that such moves to lease roads could put future state revenues at risk. They also say it’s unfair to tax people for roads they’ve already paid for.

Another provision in the transportation bill would boost the revenue bond cap for the Florida Turnpike from $4.5 billion to $10 billion. That would authorize more than $900 million in projects to be done immediately, the Post reported.

The House transportation bill is awaiting assignment to committee in the Senate.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor