BRADENTON, Fla. - The Florida Department of Transportation last week released the names of eight firms interested in the state's first-ever lease of an existing toll road.

Leasing of the 78-mile toll road known as Alligator Alley in South Florida is being considered primarily as a way to raise cash when state revenue collections are down and there's a backlog of transportation needs.

Funds from the lease must be spent on such projects in Broward and Collier counties, which Alligator Alley crosses.

However, the leasing idea is getting considerable opposition from drivers. Protestors carrying placards picketed several locations in South Florida late last week attempting to get the attention of elected officials visiting the region.

Gov. Charlie Crist has encouraged FDOT to use public-private partnerships to speed up some transportation projects, and he has indicated he supports leasing the Alley.

The state road agency expects to enter into a concession agreement to lease the road, which is part of Interstate 75, in return for an up-front payment and a portion of excess toll revenues over the life of the concession agreement, which will be between 50 and 75 years.

Alligator Alley, which traverses the Florida Everglades from Fort Lauderdale to Naples, has about $41 million of outstanding debt rated A-plus by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's and A1 by Moody's Investors Service. Approximately $2 million of tolls a year through 2016 are owed to the South Florida Water Management District for Everglades improvements.

While there is outstanding debt, the FDOT believes the toll road has value that can be leveraged.

FDOT's assistant secretary for engineering and operations, Kevin Thibault, has said the lease would get "much needed" revenue up front for transportation needs and stimulate the economy.

The firms or consortiums responding to the RFQ are: Alligator Alley Development Partners, consisting of OHL Concesiones and Carlyle Infrastructure Partners LP; Abertis Infraestructuras SA; Italy's Atlantia SPA with non-equity partners Autostrade SPA and Texas-based Electronic Transaction ConsultantsCorp.; A2 Transportation Partners consisting of Brisa Auto-Estradas de Portugal SA, Brazil's Companhia de Concessoes Rodoviarias, and JPMorgan IIF Acquisitions LLC; Australia's Macquarie Capital Group Ltd., a subsidiary of MIHI LLC; France's Vinci Concessions Development with non-equity partners Confironte USA and the Hubbard Group of Orlando; Everglades Parkway Partners, consisting of Cintra Concesiones de Infraestructuras de Transporte SA and G.S. Global Infrastructure Partners I LP, an infrastructure investment vehicle operated by Goldman, Sachs& Co.; and GVI Alligator Alley Access Partners, consisting of Corporación Financiera Caja de Madrid SA, FCC Construccion SA, and non-equity partner GVI-Alltech O&M Joint Venture, which is a partnership between U.K.-based Global Vision International and the U.S.-based bioscience firm Alltech.

Last week, hundreds of people turned out for two public workshops sponsored by FDOT to discuss the leasing proposal. Many people said they were opposed to the venture. Some said they feared tolls would increase and some believed the state intended to sell the Alley.

Protestors carried placards that said "I-75 Not 4 Sale," "Governor - Sell Your Stuff Not Mine," "Public Asset Not 4 Sale," "Don't Sell My Road," "No Toll 4 Corporate Profit," "Leasing = Fleecing," "Keep the Public in Public Property," and "I-75 Lease Poor Public Policy."

The protestors also turned out for a south Florida visit by Lieut. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp last week.

FDOT on May 5 issued a request for qualifications from firms interested in leasing the Alley, which crosses the southern part of the state from the west coast to the east coast.

The department plans to announce a short list of firms qualified to bid on the project by June 30. A request for proposals and draft concession agreement is expected to be released July 1. The final concession agreement will be released Aug. 30 and the deadline for RFPs to be submitted is Sept. 30. FDOT expects to release the name of the preliminary preferred concessionaire in October.

The toll now is $2.50 each way across the Alley, but officials say they will determine how much tolls could increase through the concession agreement.

"If the department enters into a public-private partnership, it will ensure that the agreement is cost-effective and in the best interest of the public," FDOT said in a question-and-answer segment on "The department will set the parameters of the toll rate increases, including the capping of toll rates and department sharing in excess revenues."

In fiscal 2007, approximately 8.3 million toll transactions produced $23.5 million in revenues while operations and maintenance costs were put at $6.1 million.

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