Flames of scandal still being fanned as Florida ponders toll increase

| 11/21/2006

A recent conviction in a financial scandal involving a regional toll authority in Florida could hinder a request by the authority to increase toll rates.

Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority officials announced Monday that they are planning a series of public meetings in December to pitch a possible 25-cent toll increase in the Orlando region. Current toll rates for cars and trucks on the authority's system of more than a dozen roads range from 50 cents to $4.00.

Meanwhile, a financial scandal involving payments by the authority to former consultant Doug Guetzloe is still fresh.

Guetzloe, a talk radio host and former leader of an anti-toll group called "Ax the Tax," could face two months of jail time after being convicted this week of violating election procedures relating to financial disclosure.

The toll authority paid Guetzloe $107,000 as a consultant from 2004 to 2006. His critics allege that Guetzloe was paid to hush his anti-toll talk, while the toll authority claims they paid him to research public opinion about tolls.

Guetzloe, who is free pending appeal and is battling a form of cancer, has gone on record to say he advised the authority not to raise tolls and that his silence could not be bought, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

As the scandal remains fresh, toll authority officials say they are in a funding quandary, saying toll revenue is not keeping up with maintenance and construction costs that have doubled since 2002.

The authority is proposing a 25-cent increase to bring in $1.24 billion over the next 25 years. The authority has not raised tolls since 1991.

Officials were quoted in the Sentinel as saying several improvement projects have been on hold lately because of the funding shortfall.

The public meeting schedule has yet to be announced.