For Whom the Tolls Swell
Florida's growing reliance on toll roads to keep pace with growth attracts new investor interest.
From the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority to the new North Florida Transportation Corridor Authority in the fastgrowing Panhandle, Florida has turned to toll roads to hoist itself from the muck of transportation policies that haven't kept pace with growth. Virtually all of the state's new limited-access roads built from scratch in the last 15 years have been toll roads, says Bob Hartnett, a former state legislator who now heads an alliance of toll authorities called TEAMFL (Transportation and Expressway Authority Membership of Florida).
And more toll roads are coming, ranging from variable-priced tolls on new highspeed lanes on the Dolphin Expressway in Miami to a new east-west corridor in the Panhandle. A toll expressway now seems to be the consensus choice for the sensitive Wekiva area north of Orlando. Further into the future, possibilities such as cross-Florida and north-south expressways in lower-peninsula counties like Hardee, De Soto and Highlands, may also rely on tolls as the population grows inland to cheaper, vacant land away from the coasts.
"There's no other way to come up with funding to make up the shortfall," says Marcos R. Marchena, an Orlando lawyer appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to the Florida Transportation Commission in 2004.
"We're not going to be able to just throw tax dollars at this." At least with tolls, he adds, "If you don't use it, you don't pay for it."
Marchena's hometown is something of a poster child for toll roads. With fast growth and below-average gas taxes -- 24 cents a gallon in state and local gas tax vs. 26 cents on average statewide and an allowable maximum of 30 cents -- Orlando has had little choice but to build toll roads to manage its nationally ranked congestion. Imagine trying to drive in Orange County -- which has one free limited-access highway, Interstate 4 -- without Florida's Turnpike, the Beach Line Expressway (formerly the Bee Line), the GreeneWay, the East-West Expressway and the rest of its network of toll roads created by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA). The OOCEA network has grown over the last decade from $83 million in toll revenue to $189 million this year.
Tolls aren't universally popular, of course. Republican U.S. Rep. John L. Mica of Winter Park, wanting to bolster plans for commuter rail, championed a provision in the latest federal highway legislation to block tolls on I-4 express lanes through central Florida.