BRADENTON, Fla. — Republicans are redoubling their efforts to consolidate Florida’s local and state toll-road agencies. But the targeted agencies are pushing back.
Consolidation was proposed by legislators last year but failed after local agencies mounted campaigns against the measure.
But in the last two weeks, lawmakers in pre-session meetings and a state Government Efficiency Task Force began new consolidation hearings. And that has generated aggressive push-back from local agencies that would be affected by such a move, including the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority and Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.
The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority and the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority, which defaulted on its toll-revenue bonds in July, are also targets for consolidation.
All would be merged with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise. The agencies collectively have $6.2 billion of outstanding debt, which potentially could be refinanced in a consolidation scenario or remain outstanding and secured by their respective toll revenues.
In presentations Wednesday night to the Task Force, Expressway Authority directors said their agencies bring value to the traveling public that includes their ability to issue bonds to build important local projects and create jobs.
Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad said his agency had not taken a position on consolidation and, in fact, sees “lot of value to having regional authorities.” “The question is: are there efficiencies in consolidation … that can be squeezed out?” he asked.
Reynold Meyer, staff director for the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development Appropriations, told the task force that previous studies showed that as much as $24 million could be saved from the consolidation of certain functions, such as operations, maintenance and “perhaps” administration.
“Assuming there’s $24 million in savings you can plough it back to the people paying the tolls, you don’t charge them as much, or take that $24 million and bond it,” Meyer said.
Osceola County commissioner Frank Attkisson, a member of the task force and former Republican lawmaker, called the Expressway Authority presentations the “typical food fight” between agencies struggling to survive. He wanted to know what consolidation would mean to consumers in reduced tolls or construction of more roads. “If you can’t show me practical numbers, I’m not interested in the feel-good stuff,” he said.
Several task force members talked about creating a new business model for toll roads and using “apples to apples” metrics as the basis for their ultimate recommendation to the Legislature.
Two of the five priority areas being examined by the task force are expressway consolidation and toll securitization. The others are business regulation and licensing, outsourcing and procurement, and information technology.
Political experts and lawmakers have predicted that the consolidation issue will be a hot topic in the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 10.