Florida House OKs bill to allow for private leasing of toll roads

| Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A bill that would allow the Florida Department of Transportation to lease most toll roads in the state to private entities is halfway through the statehouse.

The House voted 74-40 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 the Legislature.

Sponsored by Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the bill also would allow the state to enter into public-private partnerships to build more roads. Regular toll increases would be allowed 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 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 bill 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 warned that such moves to lease roads could put future state revenues at risk.

"We're mortgaging off our future so we have money today," Rep. Susan Bucher, D-West Palm Beach, told the St. Petersburg Times.

The bill - HB7033 - is awaiting assignment to committee in the Senate.

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