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Transportation agencies fight over bill for Selmon Expressway upgrades

TAMPA — Hillsborough County's Expressway Authority and state transportation officials have been fighting over an $84 million bill, which each side insists on paying.

But the more powerful Florida Department of Transportation has grabbed the check, saying it will pay to repair and widen the elevated portion of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway winding through downtown Tampa.

The problem for Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority?

The project costs will be tacked on to the authority's state tab, already expected to be $136 million next year. And that's more juice for state legislators, particularly in the Senate, who have been trying to disband the local agency and merge it with other toll agencies around the state.

Legislators cited toll agencies' state debt as a key reason for consolidation, expressway board chairman Stephen Diaco noted Wednesday.

"This debt will be used against us," he said.

Diaco called an emergency meeting Wednesday after state transportation officials and Gov. Rick Scott's office rejected the authority's financing plan for the project.

The complicated plan was to have been the authority's most ambitious effort to eliminate state subsidies of its capital projects.

The agency proposed issuing $221.5 million in bonds to cover not only the bridge deck replacement and widening but also to consolidate loans and pay for other Selmon Expressway projects now included in the state transportation budget.

Toll revenue would be used to pay off those bonds over the next 30 years.

But state transportation officials rejected the plan, saying it would cost Selmon Expressway drivers an extra $242 million in interest and borrowing. The debt to the state is interest-free.

"The department is not pushing for the consolidation," said district transportation secretary Don Skelton. "We're simply looking at the financial plan."

Authority executive director Joe Waggoner argued that drivers may pay more during a 30-year period but that his refinancing plan gives the authority a bigger cushion each year. That means if revenue is off one year, he said, there's less risk of a toll increase.

He said the plan would free up money the state had earmarked for the expressway other transportation projects.

But Skelton, who is a voting member of the expressway board, said the state didn't need the authority's permission to pursue and pay for the bridge deck project. In fact, the state already has accepted bids and expects to name its winner today.

So Waggoner presented board members Wednesday with this recommendation: agree to let the state Transportation Department go after the project but continue to lobby officials to reconsider its financing.

The board's majority made a political statement, rejecting the resolution in a 4-2 vote.

"My vote doesn't make any difference because they're going to do it anyhow," said vice chairman Donald Phillips.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a board member, voted for the resolution, but he predicted the agency continuing to pursue its own plan would not amount to much.

"I'm not interested in making political statements," he said. "I'm interested in getting a bridge deck built."

Reach Jodie Tillman at jtillman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3374.

Transportation agencies fight over bill for Selmon Expressway upgrades 08/31/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 31, 2011 11:48pm]
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