BRADENTON, Fla. — As the Central Florida Expressway Authority board prepares to meet for the first time, it faces big decisions, including what to include in a five-year plan and how to finance it.
The new, four-county regional toll road agency officially came to life on June 20 when Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 230.
The same stroke of Scott's pen also abolished the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, though its name remains on $2.66 billion of revenue bonds outstanding as of June 30, 2013.
The Central Florida Expressway, which dubs itself CFX, will continue servicing the 17 bond issues sold between 1990 and 2013 by the now-defunct Orlando-Orange County agency. The debt is rated A by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's, and A2 by Moody's Investors Service.
Legislators who advanced SB 230 said the measure is designed to create a regional toll authority to build expressways that consider the transportation needs of Orange, Osceola, Lake and Seminole counties.
Those areas in central Florida contribute to the large workforce employed in downtown Orlando and Orange County. The area hosts several mega-theme parks along with the Orange County Convention Center, the second-largest convention center in the U.S. behind McCormick Place in Chicago.
Central Florida also has a growing medical and biomedical research hub.
"Too often, civic leaders in our area talk about the region of Central Florida without having a regional vision or regional planning," said bill co-sponsor Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, a city located in Orange and Seminole counties. "One of the changes to the expressway board is to bring about a truly regional transportation authority."
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who was a member of the old authority and became an automatic member of the new board June 20 as required by the bill, commended Scott and legislators for moving "this crucial piece of legislation" forward.
"Under this new structure, we will have the opportunity to create a board with a majority of elected officials able to oversee toll collections and roadway operations while also providing direct accountability to our citizens," Jacobs said. "I'm also extremely proud that the bill signed into law follows Orange County's lead by embracing stringent ethics requirements, similar to what the county first adopted in 2008."
The previous expressway authority board had members.
The new CFX panel will have nine members, two of which are the mayors of Orange County and Orlando. In addition to Jacobs, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer will join the board at its first meeting July 10.
County governments have appointed four others since the bill was signed: Orange County Commissioner Scott Boyd, Osceola County Commission Chairman Fred Hawkins, Seminole County Commissioner Brenda Carey, and Lake County Commissioner Welton Cadwell.
The governor has three board appointments, and Scott has said that he would move promptly to name them, though his office's vetting process can take some time.
Seven people have told Scott they are interested in serving on the CFX board, including attorney Walter Ketcham, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Ketcham was chairman of the prior board, and had been appointed to it by Scott.
For a meeting to take place a quorum of five members must attend and all five must vote affirmatively to take any action, according to the enabling legislation.
At the July 10 meeting, the CFX board is expected to conduct housekeeping chores such as electing officers and doing a review of ethics policies as well as the Florida sunshine law, which provides for public access to information.
The sunshine law also prohibits two more or board members from discussing CFX business outside of a public meeting. Violations of the law were lodged against two former board members during a grand jury investigation.
The inquiry also resulted in an indictment against suspended authority board member Scott Batterson on one count of bribery and two counts of solicitation for receiving unlawful compensation.
The Central Florida Expressway Authority is responsible for the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of a 109-mile limited-access expressway system that consists of five toll roads.
In addition to planning for future projects, the authority is required by SB 230 to build the $1.6 billion Wekiva Parkway, which will complete a beltway around the Orlando area.
The plan of finance being considered by the prior authority called for the Wekiva to be funded with $492 million of senior lien bonds, $192 million from a low-interest federal loan through the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, and cash.
The legislation also calls for the new authority to assume the toll road projects under way by the Osceola County Expressway Authority but only after those projects meet certain financial milestones, in order to protect the CFX's finances.
On June 20, Scott also signed Senate Bill 218 expanding the territory of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority on Florida's west coast.
SB 218 allows the THEA to assist counties adjacent to Hillsborough County with transportation projects, including "managed lanes and transit supporting facilities."
The legislation authorizes the authority to "construct, repair, replace, operate, install, and maintain" toll facilities, which includes "roads, bridges, avenues of access, thoroughfares, boulevards, and other transit supporting facilities."
The authority said new projects could include bus toll lanes, a concept that consists of installing limited-access managed express lanes on existing roadways to be used by transit and personal vehicles paying variable-rate tolls.
The concept currently is in development by the Expressway Authority, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, and Florida Department of Transportation.
Stephen Diaco, chairman of the Expressway Authority board, said SB 218 empowers the THEA to meet regional needs.
"THEA has a proven track record of providing innovative transportation solutions such as the bus toll concept," he said. With the legislation signed into law "THEA stands willing and ready to partner with our neighboring counties, and together, we meet the region's transportation needs in a timely manner with innovative and efficient solutions."
The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority had $444.7 million of revenue bonds outstanding as of June 30, 2013.
In February, Standard & Poor's raised its rating on the toll revenue bonds to A from A-minus, and said the outlook is stable.
"The upgrade reflects what we consider to be a consistent financial profile commensurate with the higher rating," said Standard & Poor's analyst Adam Torres.
S&P said the higher rating reflects the agency's strong debt service coverage and liquidity, the deep and diverse economy of Tampa and Hillsborough County, a policy requiring predictable toll increases on an automatic basis, and no current debt plans.
THEA's bonds are rated A3 with a positive outlook by Moody's Investors Service.
The Expressway Authority operates a single toll facility - the 15-mile Lee Roy Selmon Expressway from Brandon to downtown Tampa. The expressway has four ground-level lanes and three elevated reversible lanes.