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Tampa Expressway Authority gains new allies in its fight for survival

TAMPA — The state wants to disband the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority and take control of its crown jewel: the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. For weeks, the authority has been fighting for its life.

On Thursday, with two weeks until lawmakers decide the authority's fate, backup arrived — the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and its 1,900 power brokers.

"It's vitally important to our community and our growth that we can keep (the authority) independent," said chamber president Bob Rohrlack. "We want to have local control."

Pending legislation would fold the Expressway Authority and its peers in Orlando and Nice­ville into the state Turnpike Enterprise, which runs the Florida Turnpike.

State officials say the consolidation would save $24 million and position the state to borrow $3 billion more through bonds during the next decade.

Authority officials say the state's calculations are off, and that savings would be negligible. The say the state would only be able to borrow more because of new assets — like the Selmon Expressway — while the regional authorities could borrow more effectively on their own because of more efficient operations.

The bill would also mean higher tolls, according to state plans for the consolidation. The current bill's language would eliminate the 25-cent discount for SunPass users, earning the state $624 million over five years, state data show.

Some lawmakers want to keep the discount. If they succeed, other tolls would likely increase. According to an alternative state plan, keeping the discount means state tolls would rise 13 percent in fiscal year 2013, and about 20 percent by 2016.

Critics say citizens would lose a local voice on a crucial artery.

State officials said if the bill passes, citizens can express their local transportation concerns to metropolitan planning organizations. The bill also requires toll revenue to be used in the county where it's collected.

In an effort to avoid the ax, the authority proposed an ambitious alternative: the Tampa, Orlando and Miami expressway authorities would buy state-owned highways and roads for $3.2 to $5.4 billion. The Orlando and Miami authorities have not committed to the plan.

"It can infuse more money into state government as well as maintaining our local control," Rohrlack said.

This month, the Senate budget committee passed the bill, which was proposed by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. It now awaits action in a conference committee with two weeks of session remaining.

Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

Tampa Expressway Authority gains new allies in its fight for survival 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 11:53pm]
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