Florida governor signs toll road lease bill

| 6/22/2007

The Florida Department of Transportation can lease most toll roads in the state to private groups, under a bill signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The leasing provision is included in a far-reaching transportation bill that applies to any existing toll facilities in the state’s highway system, except the Florida Turnpike. It also allows private groups to build and operate new roads.

The new law, previously HB985, allows regular toll increases on all “pay-as-you-go” routes, including the turnpike, to keep pace with inflation. Tolling authorities 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.

Supporters cite declining vigor of the motor fuels tax and increasing congestion for the need to look elsewhere for transportation dollars. They point to discussion 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.

Opponents warn 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.

The new law also boosts the state’s bonding capacity for the Florida Turnpike from $4.5 billion to $10 billion. That authorizes more than $900 million in projects to be done immediately, the Post reported.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor