Florida Legislature OKs bill that includes authorization to lease toll roads

| Friday, May 04, 2007

A bill headed to Gov. Charlie Crist’s desk would allow the Florida Department of Transportation to lease most toll roads in the state to private groups.

The Senate voted 37-2 Thursday, May 3, to approve the far-reaching transportation bill that would apply to any existing toll facilities in the state’s highway system, except the Florida Turnpike. House lawmakers followed suit with a 68-49 vote Friday, May 4, that cleared the way for the bill to advance to the governor’s suite.

The transportation bill – HB985 – would allow regular toll increases on all “pay to play” 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.

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.

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