Florida judge, again, orders the state to raise bridge tolls

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A Florida judge Wednesday approved a request by the Garcon Point Bridge bondholders to compel the Florida Department of Transportation to raise tolls on the span. The bonds have been in default since 2011.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper had ordered FDOT on Dec. 4 to increase tolls but the agency didn't, prompting bondholders to return to court to enforce the ruling.

A Florida judge for a second time ordered state officials to raise tolls on the Garcon Point Bridge.

Maria Cheng of MC Advisors LLC, a consultant for a group of bondholders, said Cooper had ruled that FDOT agreed to maintain the bridge and raise tolls in a lease-purchase agreement when the bonds were issued in 1996.

“The ruling relied on several factors, including FDOT’s own traffic consultant who clearly stated a toll increase was necessary to fulfill provisions in the lease-purchase agreement," Cheng said in a statement. "Unfortunately, more than two months later, FDOT has yet to implement the rate increase that was ordered by the judge to be done in a timely manner.

"Bondholders had no choice but to return to court to ask Judge Cooper to compel FDOT to comply with his previous judgment," she added.

FDOT was ordered to take action on the tolls due to the fact that the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority, which oversees the Garcon Point Bridge, hasn't existed for years because the governor hasn't appointed a board of directors.

FDOT didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about why the state agency hadn't followed Cooper's instructions in December.

In a Feb. 10 story by the News Service of Florida, after bondholders filed a motion to compel, FDOT spokeswoman Beth Frady said that the agency was coordinating the implementation of Cooper's order and would "provide additional information regarding the amount of the tolls to customers and media in the coming weeks when a final decision is made.”

Tolls have been a sensitive issue for residents in the northwest Florida communities surrounding the bridge. While there is a free roadway in the area, the 3.5-mile, two-lane Garcon Point Bridge serves as a quicker and more direct route across Santa Rosa Bay.

Tolls for two-axle vehicles are currently $3.75 for both SunPass transponder holders and cash transactions. The fees, collected in each direction, haven't been increased in at least eight years.

CDM Smith, which was hired by FDOT, has recommended tolls be increased by 75 cents for SunPass holders and by $1.25 for drivers paying with cash, for a total toll of $4.50 and $5, respectively. Tolls for vehicles with more axles would also rise.

Bond trustee UMB filed a lawsuit in December 2018 after requesting a rate increase in March 2015, which FDOT did not implement, and failing in early 2018 to get the Legislature to sign off on restructuring the debt.

The Garcon Point Bridge opened in 1999, after the bridge authority issued $75.5 million of fixed rate, current-interest bonds and $19.5 million of capital appreciation bonds to finance its construction. Toll collections never met consultants’ projections and when reserves were exhausted, the debt went into default.

The bonds mature in 2028. The trustee accelerated the debt on Jan. 1, 2013, declaring all principal immediately payable as a result of the default.

Cheng reiterated Wednesday that bondholders have attempted several times to resolve the lack of action in raising tolls outside of the court, including an offer to cooperate in a restructuring deal. Those offers were rejected, she said.

"The bondholders remain willing to explore these previously offered alternatives or other reasonable solutions," Cheng said.

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