Friday, January 19, 2018
Politics

House transportation plan calls for toll roads, trailside advertising

TALLAHASSEE — Frustrated by gridlock? Wondering what the long-term plan is to make it better?

Florida House members on Thursday unanimously passed a vision of the state's transportation future that calls for more toll roads. It would encourage more cellphone towers on state property to raise money to build roads in these days of declining gas-tax revenue. It also would allow businesses to put up signs on state nature and recreational trails to help pay for their maintenance.

But that's not all HB 7175 would do. It also dissolves the state's rail commission created in 2009 and rendered moot by Gov. Scott's refusal of billions in federal dollars that would have built a high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando.

But the bill does call for relief for air travelers, authorizing the Florida Department of Transportation to finance "strategic airport investment projects" with private partners that promote international trade.

The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, puts a heavy emphasis on private money. It authorizes the DOT to help pay for future road projects by using money from leases with wireless companies that want towers near state roads.

The bill allows "commercial sponsorship displays" on state trails. The money raised from the agreements between the DOT and private businesses would pay for trail maintenance, something that gas taxes have helped finance. A similar trailside sign measure failed two years ago because of concerns that it would clutter the landscape.

The bill does not make clear what kind of displays would be allowed, beyond stating that the signs would be governed by the federal Highway Beautification Act of 1965, which covers billboards.

Goodson said the bill won't allow massive billboards on trails, but he couldn't point to a specific exemption.

"If we have not addressed it to the liking of the naturalists or the nature people, I'm sure you'll see it come back and get corrected,'' he said.

The bill represents a package that Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad helped put together. Sweeping though it is, the bill, which passed 118-0, generated less discussion than bills on issues such as boxing exhibitions and Pop-Tart guns. Goodson heard only praise for the bill.

Later, asked why the bill was so focused on roads rather than rail, Goodson, who is a roads contractor, had this to say:

"We're not Europe. We're Americans. So therefore, I think we've always been tied to, originally, to horse and buggy. Now to cars. We fell in love with cars, and we want cars."

Even colleagues from across the aisle were persuaded by the bill's merits.

"(Democrats) were somewhat skeptical of the bill, but the sponsor did a great job," said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee.

Nowhere in the 128-page bill is there any mention of raising the gas tax, the traditional source of road construction dollars that hasn't been increased since 1991. Though the tax rate has held steady, revenues are drying up since cars don't use as much gas these days.

"As Republicans, we don't want to tax the people,'' Goodson said. "Why would I want to vote to raise any taxes?"

In a revenue twist likely to annoy local governments, HB 7175 prohibits cities and counties from placing parking meters along state roads for a year while the state considers how it can capture that revenue for state roads.

The bill now goes to the Senate. Last year, lawmakers failed to pass a transportation bill backed by the DOT because it got loaded up with too many amendments. House Speaker Will Weatherford said he's optimistic that won't happen this year.

"We've kept our bill measurably clean (of amendments) to what we've seen in years past," Weatherford said. "We'll see if that can maintain over the next eight days."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]

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