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Toll lanes booming across Florida

A nine-mile stretch of the Veterans Expressway, from Memorial Highway to Dale Mabry in Tampa, is part of a project that will include adding lanes and other infrastructure improvements, scheduled to open in 2016 (first phase) and 2017 (second phase).  
[JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

A nine-mile stretch of the Veterans Expressway, from Memorial Highway to Dale Mabry in Tampa, is part of a project that will include adding lanes and other infrastructure improvements, scheduled to open in 2016 (first phase) and 2017 (second phase). [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]

In the next decade, Florida's biggest cities will add toll lanes to the state's busiest highways. Nobody knows exactly how much it will cost. Maybe as little as $3 billion. Maybe double that.

What's clear is that when the toll lanes across the state are complete, they will become one of the largest infrastructure projects in state history.

There's little debate that these toll lanes, also called express lanes or managed lanes, make commutes quicker for those willing to pay as much as $10 to use them. But there has been little debate about the need for the projects — not one resident will cast a vote on the lanes or the billions spent to create them.

Instead, 169 miles of toll lanes will arrive as part of a Rick Scott administration initiative. A series of projects that will be under construction until 2021 will add multiple toll lanes in Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa.

An analysis by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting has learned that the toll lane projects began thanks to state-funded reports produced by a think tank funded in part by toll lane developers. In addition, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad used to work for one of the state's largest toll lane builders before approving billions of dollars in toll lane projects, some of which have gone to his former employer.

Prasad says toll lanes effectively create a free-market highway system, where only those who use them have to pay for them. "It's about trying to efficiently move traffic," Prasad said. "It's about how we use existing lanes most efficiently."

There's little doubt the lanes can move cars, but what's still to be decided is whether Florida commuters will be happy to see them.

• • •

The idea of dividing a highway into free lanes and separate toll lanes might not exist if Bob Poole hadn't moved from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles in 1986. Poole is founder of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, and when he relocated, he suddenly realized how bad traffic could be.

Poole, an MIT-trained engineer, published a paper in 1988 about an idea he dreamed up to ease congestion. He proposed separating one or two lanes of traffic into an area where commuters would pay a toll to travel faster. Variable fees would go up as the highway becomes more congested, with supply and demand assuring that the toll lanes would always stay moving.

Then-California Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican, liked the idea so much he pushed through plans to add toll lanes to State Route 91 east of Los Angeles. It made an immediate effect on commutes, Poole recalls.

"People were suddenly able to go the speed limit on one of the most congested highways in the country," Poole said.

Since then, toll lanes have spread to many of the nation's major cities, including Seattle, Houston, Dallas and Minneapolis. In most places, they've been successful in reducing commute times for those who pay the extra fee, and in some instances, even for drivers in the free lanes.

There's an economic and quality of life benefit to giving drivers a quicker commute, says Steve Polzin, the director of mobility policy research at University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research. Toll lanes can be successful in cutting down wasted time spent commuting, Polzin said, and that makes a more productive society.

Toll lanes are also generally far cheaper than the $100 million to $200 million per mile it costs to add commuter rail lines, Polzin said. Toll lanes, in comparison, typically cost $26 million a mile for the average four-lane "express lane." And far more people are willing to use toll lanes over mass transit.

"We're trying to provide mobility to the population, and this works," Polzin said.

The idea of adding toll lanes in Florida didn't begin until 2001. That's when the Florida Department of Transportation called up Poole and asked for his help. Poole began working as a consultant for the state and moved in 2003 to the Broward County suburb of Plantation.

The state hired Poole to study the viability of toll lanes in South Florida. In 2008 he published a 38-page report titled "A Managed Lanes Vision for South Florida," which would become a primer for toll lane plans across the state.

The report spelled out a future with toll lanes throughout the Miami metro area by 2030. Poole imagined an 852-mile toll lane network that could eliminate about a third of the region's wasted hours spent in congestion. The report does not estimate the cost of all those toll lanes, but based on present-day estimates, the plan would cost about $22 billion.

In total, the state paid Poole $34,905 for his report and other work, according to the FDOT. That's in addition to the $200,000 yearly salary he makes from the Reason Foundation, according to tax documents.

After Scott's election in 2011, the governor tapped Poole as a transportation advisor for his transition team. A year later, Poole wrote a second report that envisioned a future of toll lanes intersecting Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. That report — funded by the Reason Foundation, not state money — proposed 579 miles of new toll lanes at a cost of $11.4 billion.

What wasn't mentioned in the reports is that Poole's Reason Foundation receives funding from several companies that stand to benefit from the toll lane projects he has proposed. Poole's think tank has accepted money from oil companies, car manufacturers, and several construction companies that build toll lanes.

Among them is ACS Infrastructure Development, an international corporation with an office in Coral Gables. The company now manages the Interstate 595 toll lanes and is building new toll lanes on Interstate 75.

Poole says the money given to his think tank is irrelevant. "We do the work we do because it makes sense," he said. "We have never done a project because someone has given us money."

Toll lanes in Florida got a second boost after Scott's election, when the governor brought in Ananth Prasad as his secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Prasad had been a longtime employee of FDOT. He left in 2008 to join HNTB, the Kansas City-based construction company that specializes in infrastructure projects including toll lanes. Prasad spent two years as a vice president in HNTB's office in Tallahassee, in charge of relations with FDOT on multiple state-funded projects.

HNTB, with seven offices in the state, has deep ties politically in Florida. Its political action committee, HNTB Holdings Ltd. PAC, amassed $397,000 in contributions since 2013. It contributes to mostly conservative candidates, including $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $25,000 to a political action committee that's working to reelect Scott.

As secretary, Prasad quickly began pushing through toll lane projects. His office approved new toll lanes in Jacksonville, Tampa, Orlando and the three counties that make up South Florida.

Just how much the toll lanes will cost hasn't been tallied. Because the toll lanes are typically installed as part of other highway improvement projects, the Florida Department of Transportation was unable to provide a breakdown of the costs. But based on average prices of toll lane construction, Florida could be looking at spending about $4.4 billion.

Poole told the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that the price tag for the toll lanes could cost as much as $6 billion. He cautioned it could go up significantly if the lanes include flyovers, bridge repairs and other costly infrastructure upgrades.

At those prices, the toll lanes would become one of the largest infrastructure projects in Florida history, said James Clark, a historian and lecturer at the University of Central Florida. Even in today's dollars, the Kennedy Space Center cost less, as did Florida's Turnpike; draining the Everglades likely cost more, although there's no known total for the price of that decades-long project.

In an interview with the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, Prasad said he had the governor's full backing for the projects, as long as they didn't raise taxes. Instead, the plans are generally funded through bonds that are paid off by the tolls that are collected. Those bonds will multiply the costs of the projects. In Broward County, the Interstate 595 toll lanes were part of a $1.8 billion project; when the bonds are paid off in 10 years, it will cost about $4 billion more.

Prasad said his only motivation for approving toll lane projects is that they are the best way to move traffic quickly. Asked about whether his time at HNTB might have influenced his support of toll lanes, Prasad said: "Two years at a transportation firm doesn't trump 20-plus years with the DOT. That is a far-fetched theory."

Scott, through the governor's press office, declined to be interviewed for this report. Scott's press secretary, John Tupps, emailed this response: "Governor Scott is proud to have invested a record $10.1 billion to improve Florida's transportation infrastructure in the It's Your Money Tax Cut Budget."

• • •

At the local level, cities and counties generally have to ask voters for permission to build major infrastructure projects. But FDOT has generally moved through the toll lane projects without referendums.

Local transportation authorities have been asked to weigh in and have held public meetings, but the plans have largely moved through exactly as FDOT designed them.

In at least one instance, the completed plans looked far different than what was promised to local transportation officials. In Miami, original FDOT designs of the I-95 toll lanes called for multiple exits and entrances, allowing commuters throughout Miami-Dade's northern corridor to access the lanes. When built, they included entrances and exits only at the far end of the lanes, meaning they largely benefit commuters traveling to or from Broward County.

Joe Quinty, a regional planner at the South Florida Regional Transit Authority in Pompano Beach, likened it to a bait and switch. "It's completely different from what was approved, and I can't believe people in Miami-Dade aren't up in arms about it," Quinty said.

Quinty says the state's toll lane plans have been rushed through the typical approval process, allowing for little input from anyone outside FDOT.

"These plans have been proposed, drawn up, and approved at a speed you don't usually see in government," Quinty said. "People have got to be wondering, 'Why don't I have more of a say in all of this?' "

In Jacksonville, the state is building a pair of toll lane projects that will total 29 miles. The plans come despite a referendum Jacksonville voters passed in 1988 to rid the city's highways of tolls in exchange for a half-cent sales tax. FDOT administrators say the state doesn't have to abide by the local referendum.

Tommy Hazouri, who was mayor at the time, says the state's plan to add toll lanes violates the spirit of the referendum. Locals will continue paying the sales tax even after the addition of the toll lanes.

"It's not just distasteful. It's dishonoring what people voted for," Hazouri said. "It's an issue of honoring what you say. Voters decided to tax themselves to get rid of the tolls, and here we are adding tolls. It flies in the face of public trust."

Some critics of toll lanes claim they create "Lexus lanes," where rich drivers get to speed past those who can't afford the tolls.

That claim seems to have been supported by a state-issued report on toll lane drivers, which found that 87 percent of motorists who use the lanes most frequently have an annual household income of more than $76,000. Of those, the people who use the lanes most frequently have household incomes of at least $150,000, three times the median household income in Florida. The least frequent user are the poor, those whose household income is less than $25,000, who account for 4 percent of toll lane drivers.

Poole disputes the idea that the toll lanes become Lexus lanes and says the average cars driven by these drivers are affordable — Toyotas, Hondas, and Chevys. He says the lanes give all drivers a chance to get somewhere when they're in a hurry.

As for whether the money being spent on toll lanes could be used on mass transit, Prasad, the transportation secretary, says commuter rail lines don't do enough to ease highway congestion.

"People say, 'What about me? I'm stuck in traffic today?' " Prasad said. "Those who are against this do not have to use them. The consumer is ultimately in control."

With no referendum or public vote coming, whether Florida commuters will like the idea of express lanes likely won't be known until they're actually built.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit >fcir.org.>

How toll lanes work

Toll lanes typically take over one or two left lanes of a highway, separating them with barriers or plastic poles. Most forbid entry over several miles.

Commuters can decide to move into a toll lane as they drive. After they move into a toll lane they are charged a toll, either with electronic transponders or billed based on their license plates.

Fees increase during congestion, which lessens the number of commuters using the lanes.

Some toll lanes switch directions throughout the day to reflect commuting patterns.

Total highway projects that include toll lanes

Cost: $6.96 billion

Length: 169.5 miles

Description: The state plans to add toll lanes to all of Florida's major cities, including multiple projects in Miami, a massive project in Orlando, and Jacksonville's first highway toll in 25 years. Costs include other highway improvements, including new lanes and sound dampening walls.

Schedule: First lanes opened in 2011; projects planned through 2021

I-95 Express Lanes Phase 1

Cost: $122 million

Length: 10 miles

Description: The state's first express lanes extend from downtown Miami north to the Broward County line. Tolls range from 50 cents to $10.50, depending on traffic.

Opened: 2008

I-595

Cost: $1.8 billion

Length: 10½ miles

Description: Reversible toll lanes from Fort Lauderdale to west Broward County charge fees based on traffic conditions. Operated by a private contractor, I 595 Express LLC. Project included vast upgrades beyond the toll lanes, including improvements to 2½ miles of the Florida's Turnpike.

Opened: 2014

I-95 Express Lanes Phase 2

Cost: $112 million

Length: 14 miles

Description: Extending existing express lanes from the Golden Glades Interchange in Miami-Dade County to Broward Boulevard in Broward County.

Scheduled to open: April 2015

First Coast Expressway

Cost: $175 million

Length: 19.3 miles

Description: Will connect I-10 west of Jacksonville with Interstate 95 in northern St. Johns County.

Scheduled to open: 2016

Veterans Expressway

Cost: $380 million

Length: 9 miles, from Memorial Highway to Dale Mabry in Tampa

Description: Part of a project that will include adding lanes and other infrastructure improvements.

Scheduled to open: First phase, 2016; second phase, 2017

Palmetto Express

Cost: $244 million

Length: 13 miles, from West Flagler Street to Northwest 154th Street in Miami

Description: Project will connect other Miami highway express lanes.

Scheduled to open: 2017

Interstate 295

Cost: $247 million

Length: 9.7 miles, in both directions from Interstate 95

Description: May become the first of several toll lanes in Jacksonville.

Scheduled to open: 2017

Homestead Extension of Florida's Turnpike

Cost: $186 million

Length: 18 miles, from Tallahassee Road to State Road 836

Description: Express lanes project will include overall widening and improvement projects.

Scheduled to open: First phase, 2017; second phase, 2018

I-95 Express Lanes Phase 3

Cost: $901.6 million (estimate)

Length: 29 miles

Description: Extending express lanes from Broward Boulevard to Linton Boulevard in Palm Beach County and multiple other highway improvements.

Scheduled to open: A portion will open in 2019; the rest is to be determined

I-75 Express Lanes

Cost: $481 million

Length: 15 miles

Description: Four toll lanes from Northwest 170 Street in Miami-Dade County to I-595 in Broward County. Includes other general highway improvements.

Scheduled to open: 2019

Interstate 4

Cost: $2.3 billion

Length: 21 miles, from Kirkman Road to north of State Road 434 in Orlando

Description: FDOT will manage the lanes, with prices rising with congestion. Revenues will fund maintenance of the lanes. The state will pay a private company to maintain the lanes; that fee has not been set.

Scheduled to open: 2021

Toll lanes booming across Florida 09/21/14 [Last modified: Sunday, September 21, 2014 2:19pm]
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