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Florida's bridge to nowhere is broke

Garcon Point Bridge’s rapid construction brought the builders a big bonus — and then a huge penalty for environmental crime.

Associated Press (2001)

Garcon Point Bridge’s rapid construction brought the builders a big bonus — and then a huge penalty for environmental crime.

Even in a state known for political boondoggles like a Taj Mahal courthouse and an unneeded aircraft hangar, the Garcon Point Bridge stands out.

Nicknamed "Bo's Bridge" for its biggest backer, former House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson, the bridge over eastern Pensacola Bay was built using bogus traffic projections, faulty financing and shoddy construction practices. The day it opened in 1999, it had already incurred hefty fines for environmental destruction. Now Bo's Bridge is broke, and the taxpayers are likely to be stuck with millions of dollars in debt.

The bridge's owner, the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority, owes its bondholders $90 million. It owes the state Department of Transportation more than $24 million. The amount in its bank account: $4 million.

State officials have said the bridge authority is so broke that it couldn't afford to mail out notices of its meetings. But that's not a problem because the board hasn't met in nearly a year. Once federal investigators began poking around, all but one member quit.

"People laugh and point fingers at me and say, 'He's the last remaining idiot there,' " joked Morgan Lamb, the sole board member of the authority.

What happened to Bo's Bridge is a cautionary tale about how bending the rules for a politician's pet project can ruin everyone who touches it.

"This thing is so upside down, it's really embarrassing," said state Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze. "We all feel kind of powerless to do anything."

When the bridge was built, its backers contended it would cost the taxpayers nothing. It was financed by selling bonds that would be paid back using tolls — tolls that now are the highest in Florida: $3.75 to cross its 3½ mile, two-lane span.

Why so much? Because so few drivers use it. Fewer than ever as the toll keeps climbing.

"It's really a goofy way to run a bridge," conceded Lamb, who is also president of the Santa Rosa County Republican Club.

Critics have even launched a Facebook page, "I Won't Use the Garcon Point Bridge." More than 900 have joined, some posting items like a clip of Elvis Presley singing Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

On July 1, the authority failed to make a $5 million payment to a New York bank, which is now demanding the entire amount it is owed: $90 million.

State officials quickly announced that they would not bail out the bridge authority. They said that if it declared bankruptcy, that would not affect Florida's ability to borrow money.

But Joe Mooney, who was ousted as the bridge authority's financial adviser when he warned board members that their borrowing plan didn't make sense, says the state is liable.

"The fact of the matter is, the state directed that project, the state signed off on every decision the board made … the state's hands are all over this thing," Mooney said.

• • •

Bo's Bridge would have never been built if not for Johnson, a real estate wheeler-dealer who grew up amid the rough-and-tumble of Panhandle politics. His father, a former Santa Rosa County commissioner, was once accused of trying to hire a hit man to rub out someone who'd crossed him.

In the late 1980s Garcon (pronounced GAR-sohn) Point was an isolated, rural area, as was the stretch of peninsula across the bay from it. But Johnson could foresee development erupting there if only a bridge could connect the two spots for easy access to Interstate 10 and U.S. 98.

Environmental groups warned that such a bridge would harm the bay and never attract enough motorists to justify its expense.

But Johnson, a Milton Democrat, had an interest in the land on one side of the bridge route. As House speaker he had the clout to push the project along. He even waived state rules to get the authority an $8.5 million startup loan when the limit was supposed to be $500,000.

The builders put the bridge together in just 29 months, setting a speed record and collecting a big bonus. Then they set another record: the largest financial penalty in Panhandle history for an environmental crime.

The secret to the bridge's rapid construction was that the company, Odebrecht-Metric, dumped concrete and other waste into the bay, sometimes barely missing fishermen's heads. Odebrecht-Metric paid $4 million in fines and restitution.

Then the authority had to borrow millions of dollars more to pay for the builders' destruction of wetlands.

The week the bridge opened, Johnson was convicted in an unrelated case of taking "consulting fees" from road builders, casinos and other companies while speaker and not reporting it on his taxes. He spent two years in federal prison.

• • •

The worst was yet to come.

The bridge's financing was based on traffic estimates from URS Greiner Woodward Clyde of San Francisco. URS predicted the bridge would quickly attract 7,500 motorists a day, enough to pay for itself.

Mooney, the financial adviser and a longtime Panhandle resident, knew that was wrong and said so. The bridge authority got another financial adviser.

Two years after it opened the bridge was drawing an average of just 4,000 motorists a day paying the $2 toll. Two months ago the average was 3,844 cars a day. URS based its projections on another bridge that leads to the popular beach resort of Destin. There is no Destin at the end of the Garcon Point Bridge.

"We now know that," Arthur Goldberg, the URS vice president who wrote the estimates for Garcon Point Bridge, said in 2000.

URS also provided off-base traffic predictions for the Veterans Expressway in Tampa and the Suncoast Parkway in Pasco and Hernando counties. URS vice president Hugh Miller told the Times in 2000 they "were basically guessing."

Yet URS is still the bridge authority's traffic adviser. When collections fell short, URS recommended raising tolls, and the authority did it "like a bunch of zombies," said Lamb, the lone board member.

State legislators agreed to a $1 million bailout in 2001, but then-Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it. So the authority started dipping into reserves to make payments to bondholders. After a decade, the account is all but empty.

The authority failed to post official notices about its woes, an apparent violation of U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission rules. Last fall, SEC officials summoned the authority's chairman and vice chairman to testify and turn over two crates of documents. No charges have been filed.

What happens next is anyone's guess.

There's talk the bondholders might take possession of the bridge and try to sell it, or sue the state demanding their money. But the state is a creditor, too. The DOT operated the bridge for 12 years for $1 million a year — another debt the authority has yet to pay.

DOT officials say they will keep it open for the drivers who might still want to cross that bridge when they come to it.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at

Bridge time line

1984: Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority created by Florida Legislature. Project pushed by Rep. Bo Johnson, soon to be House speaker.

1996: Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority issues first series of bonds to finance construction. Bonds to be paid off using tolls.

1999: Bridge opens days after Johnson is convicted of tax evasion.

2000: Toll projections already falling short. Odebrecht-Myers pleads guilty to tossing construction debris into the bay.

2001: Bridge authority can't meet payments. Governor vetoes bailout. Authority dips into reserve fund.

2004: Toll raised from $2.50 to $3.

2007: Toll raised to $3.50.

Nov. 17, 2010: SEC requests two cases of documents and calls the chairman and vice chairman to testify. Mass resignations from authority board follow.

Dec. 14-15: SEC investigators go to Milton to review authority documents.

Jan. 5, 2011: Toll boosted to $3.75, highest in the state.

June 30: Florida Department of Transportation officials say there will be no state bailout, but the DOT will continue operating the bridge without getting paid. Authority owes $24 million to state.

July 1: Authority fails to make $5 million payment to Bank of New York Mellon, which demands the full $90 million still owed to bondholders, setting off default.

Florida's bridge to nowhere is broke 07/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 10, 2011 10:25pm]
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