BRADENTON, Fla. - Democratic state Sen. Dave Aronberg was reelected this week, giving him the chance to follow through with legislation aimed at curtailing the use of transportation-related public-private partnerships in Florida.
Riding the coattails of Democratic victories across the nation, Aronberg had nearly 60% of the vote to win early yesterday, based on preliminary results. He has pre-filed two bills aimed at limiting some of the Florida Department of Transportation's use of P3s on existing toll roads.
For several months, Aronberg has championed the cause of those who oppose FDOT's plan to lease Alligator Alley, a four-lane toll road that traverses Broward and Collier counties. Aronberg's district covers Charlotte, Glades, Lee, and Palm Beach counties, and some elected officials in those counties oppose the lease proposal as well.
FDOT has asked six consortiums to submit proposals to lease the 78-mile section of Interstate 75 in South Florida, which are due Dec. 15. The lease would be between 50 and 75 years.
The six consortiums are A2 Transportation Partners, the Alligator Alley Development Partners, Atlantia S.p.A., Everglades Parkway Partners, GVI-Lehman Alligator Alley Access Partners, and Vinci Concessions. Many of the prospective concessionaires have foreign investors.
Saying he was concerned about higher tolls, lowered maintenance, and national security risks, Aronberg unveiled his plan last Friday to put the brakes on what he called a "high-stakes plan to lease Alligator Alley to foreign-owned companies."
"FDOT has failed to do their homework on this massive deal," Aronberg said when he announced two bills he intends to sponsor. "It's disappointing that the state is allowing private, foreign-financed companies to take control over our roads before anyone has looked to see if this plan is in the best interest of our state."
Aronberg claimed the department is rushing into the lease of Alligator Alley. He said FDOT has refused to have the lease proposal undergo a review from the Florida Council on Efficient Government.
While the council was created by the state Legislature to review and evaluate outsourcing plans that exceed $10 million, Aronberg admitted that FDOT is exempt from the council's review.
Aronberg said he intends to sponsor two bills for the full Legislature to consider next year.
One bill would prohibit FDOT from entering into any agreement or concession to lease an existing toll road if the leaseholder or concessionaire obtains more than 10% of its financing through one or more extraterritorial corporations.
The second bill would prohibit the department from entering into any agreement with a private entity or consortium for the lease of an existing transportation facility for two years beginning July 1, 2009.
"The stakes are simply too high to rush into a deal," Aronberg said. "We need a two-year moratorium to allow us to carefully weigh the options and do what's in the best interest for Floridians."
Although he voted for the transportation bill in 2006 that authorized broader use of public-private partnerships, including leasing of existing toll roads in the state, Aronberg claims FDOT has not been transparent in its quest to privatize Alligator Alley.
Kristen Pesicek, the senator's aide, said yesterday that Aronberg is not necessarily against leasing the toll road.
"He hasn't seen any reason to support this yet," Pesicek said. "If you look at DOT documents, they said they will be using the [lease] funds elsewhere in the state, not solely in Broward and Collier."
FDOT officials could not be reached for comment. But in the past they have said that there is a backlog of unfunded transportation projects in South Florida, and according to state law revenues from the lease of Alligator Alley must be spent in Collier and Broward counties.
On a special Web site about the leasing project at www.alligator-alley.com, the department said existing state law authorizes it to use any new funds from the lease to reimburse outstanding contractual obligations, operate and maintain the facility, contribute to the Everglades Fund of the South Florida Water Management District, and accelerate construction of much-needed transportation projects in Broward and Collier counties.
The contribution to the Everglades has been required for a number of years.
Studies by the state and investment banks suggest that leasing Alligator Alley could bring in anywhere from $350 million to more than $1 billion.
While Aronberg has prepared his bills for filing, they won't receive official numbers until the Legislature meets for its organizational session Nov. 18.
Similar controversies about foreign operators or investors in P3 projects are playing out in New Jersey and Texas. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine in late June announced that the state would not enter any of its roadways in a long-term lease agreement with a for-profit or foreign operator. He has proposed that the state form a public benefit corporation whereby private investors would be able to invest in New Jersey's transportation infrastructure.
In Texas, debates have emerged over public versus private ownership and operation of new toll roads. While the state is studying private participation in toll projects, a new state law gives public toll authorities the right of first refusal on any project awarded by the Texas Transportation Commission.