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Plan could slam Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority

TALLAHASSEE — A last-minute budget power play in the Florida Legislature threatens the future of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority by forcing it to pay $69 million it owes the state by July 15 or be put out of business.

The proposal had not been publicly discussed all session, surfacing for the first time Monday morning.

It was done at the request of Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate's influential chief budget writer, as a way of mitigating a $160 million withdrawal from the state's road building trust fund.

Alexander made it clear that the demand the authority repay the state was aimed squarely at Hillsborough Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, who chairs the House Transportation Budget Committee. Glorioso championed a transfer from the state road-building fund to cover other expenses over the opposition of Senate leaders, who eventually agreed to the sweep.

"With its senior representative from the area raiding money out of the state transportation trust fund, it ought to recall those monies and reduce the potential for any projects being delayed or bumped," Alexander said.

Glorioso was livid when he learned Alexander had singled him out. He said he supported the transfer under direction from House Speaker Larry Cretul.

"I was a good soldier and followed his orders," Glorioso said. "I have that much authority? I have that much power that I could do the sweep? Do it on my own? Give me a break."

The Expressway Authority owes the Florida Department of Transportation $100 million, paid over the past 20 years to subsidize the authority's operating and maintenance budget. The authority makes annual payments on the debt and has not borrowed money from the department since 2002, said Joe Waggoner, its executive director.

The $69 million demanded in the budget provision is exactly what the authority received last summer after settling a lawsuit with engineering consultant URS Corp. The authority sued URS after an elevated section of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway collapsed during construction in 2004.

"The state needs funds. Someone apparently saw that we had this settlement, and they saw it as an opportunity," Waggoner said. "I'd characterize it more as a seizure."

The authority is waiting for another $5 million from URS.

The authority's plans call for the money to be used to pay down existing bond financing and lower debt service payments from $26 million a year to $16 million. New bonds would then help pay to widen a stretch of the expressway between downtown Tampa and Ybor City.

Waggoner said the Transportation Department knows the authority's plans. Dick Kane, a department spokesman, said the department had nothing to do with the new budget provision.

"This is something that the Legislature just proposed this morning," Kane said Monday afternoon. "Quite frankly, we were surprised by it. We have been in discussion with the authority on where we go next in terms of partnership and other projects in the region."

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, was upset that the proposal was never discussed with members of the Hillsborough legislative delegation. She said the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority also owes the state a lot of money but has not been required to repay it.

Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, called the move "very, very odd."

"None of our legislative delegation was consulted. That is wrong," he said. "It is grossly unfortunate that this is happening at the 11th hour in a year when there was so much pride taken in having an open, transparent budgeting process."

The move also was a slap at Sen. Mike Fasano, the New Port Richey Republican who oversees the transportation budget. He said he was not consulted.

"This kind of stuff should not happen in conference," Fasano said. "It should happen in the appropriations committee. It should be debated, questions could be asked: 'Why? Where's the money going to come from? Do they have the money?' "

Fasano said he hoped Gov. Charlie Crist would veto it.

Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said he hadn't heard the governor "express one way or another whether he would veto that specific provision if it ends up in the final bill."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at sbousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Plan could slam Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority 04/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 11:48am]

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