BRADENTON, Fla. - A bill to abolish the high-profile Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority and replace the toll-road agency with a regional body cleared the Florida Senate Transportation Committee.
The legislation passed 9-to-0 in a pre-session hearing Thursday. It still must be heard by two other Senate committees.
A companion bill has been filed in the House but hearings have yet to be scheduled. The regular session begins March 4.
The legislation would replace the OOCEA with a Central Florida Expressway Authority, and expand the number of counties under the new authority's purview from one to four, adding Seminole, Lake, and Osceola counties to Orange.
The current five-member board would expand to 11 members with the mayors of Orange County and Orlando being permanent members.
"The purpose is to be able to deal regional problems and transportation problems in particular with regional solutions," the Transportation Committee was told Thursday by bill sponsor Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, a municipality in Seminole County.
Simmons said a regional agency makes sense when the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority's own 2030 master plan has identified projects in neighboring counties, including Lake, Seminole, Osceola and Brevard. He also mentioned specific projects.
Those projects include the $1.8 billion, 25-mile Wekiva Parkway that will cross Orange, Lake and Seminole counties. The new toll road is in design and being built by the OOCEA and the state Department of Transportation.
The Osceola County Expressway Authority has its own master plan, which includes three tollways and an extension to the existing 12.4-mile-long Osceola Parkway. The Osceola authority would also be abolished and replaced with the new regional entity.
"This bill is the product of ground-up preparation," Simmons said, adding that he has spoken with representatives of the OOCEA and all counties involved "and each one has had a significant fingerprint on this bill because I did not want something that was from the top down."
When asked how the OOCEA's outstanding $2.6 billion of outstanding bonds would be handled, Simmons said a bond attorney, the authority's attorney and the DOT had input into the language assuring that the transfer of the debt to the larger agency would not impair bondholders' rights.
The bill is expected to be amended to add a provision for a "heightened code of ethics" for the new authority, Simmons said.
Though he did not mention past ethical controversies that involved OOCEA, Simmons told the Orlando Sentinel that the larger agency will have more power and needs "a better set of instructions."
The OOCEA board, as a group, has not taken a position on the proposed legislation.
A similar bill passed the Senate last year but failed in the House.
A member of the public who addressed the Transportation Committee Thursday criticized lawmakers for "expanding government" when there were efforts in previous years to abolish most of the state's regional expressway and transportation authorities.
In 2011 and 2012, the Republican-led Legislature attempted to consolidate the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, OOCEA and the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise.
Those merger efforts failed, however.
Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $11.15 million in funding from the state's 2012 budget for lease-purchase agreement payments to OOCEA, Tampa-Hillsborough and the Osceola County expressway authorities.