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Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority battles bill to terminate its existence

TAMPA — Starting this fall, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority plans to add two lanes to the downtown portion of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway.

That is, if there is a Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

The budget proposal moving through the Florida Senate includes a bill to dissolve the authority and its peers in Orange County and Niceville. The authorities' liabilities and assets — like the Selmon Expressway — would be handed to the Turnpike Enterprise, a state agency that runs the Florida Turnpike.

The state said it would still widen the proposed 1.5 miles of the expressway — from the Hillsborough River to 19th Street — assuming the Expressway Authority borrows the necessary $60 million before it's terminated. But the authority said the impending closure would handicap its ability to borrow.

That's just one of many complaints authority officials are leveling against the state's plan this week as they fight for the authority's life.

The savings would be negligible, expressway management would be less efficient, and most importantly, they said, the county would be left without a local voice on a crucial artery.

"The state would make the decisions and there's no board (for citizens) to go in front of and say, 'This is stupid. We don't like it,' or 'Hey, yeah, let's do this,' " said expressway authority spokeswoman Sue Chrzan.

In an admittedly limited analysis, state officials said they would save $14 million by consolidating staff of the three authorities, including 14 Hillsborough employees. It would save an additional $10 million from yearly subsidies it now pays to the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority and Mid-Bay Bridge Authority.

The consolidation would also position the Turnpike Enterprise, the nation's fourth-largest toll agency, to borrow an additional $3 billion through bonds during the next decade, state transportation officials said.

The state will also examine refinancing the authorities' debt using the Enterprise's superior bond rating for additional millions in savings, officials said.

And the Enterprise will work with local Metropolitan Planning Organizations to plan projects and hear citizens' concerns, officials said.

As it stands now, the bill would eliminate the 25-cent discount for SunPass users. Last week, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, amended the bill to retain the discount. But Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander killed it again in the bill's most recent version. Gaetz responded Tuesday with another amendment to keep it.

Still alive is a change aimed at preventing citizens from paying for roads they'll seldom use. Under the change, excess Selmon Expressway toll revenue must be spent in Hillsborough.

This week, authority officials have been lobbying lawmakers to kill the bill.

"We just want them to leave things as is. But if they want money, we have a better proposal," Chrzan said.

Aiming to satisfy the state's apparent appetite to fund new infrastructure, the authority has drafted an early alternative plan: the Tampa, Orlando and Miami expressway authorities would purchase state-owned highways and roads for up to $3.4 billion.

That plan may be unnecessary. Without a companion bill in the House, lawmakers said the bill is vulnerable in final budget negotiations.

The Hillsborough Expressway Authority, which manages the Crosstown Expressway and two connector roads, made about $29 million in profits last year — all of which went to existing debts to the state and bondholders.

The authority owes the state about $120 million for building and maintaining the Crosstown Expressway. Since 1973, the authority has paid back 43 percent of its total state debt.

"Think of it as a mortgage," said Stephen Diaco, chairman of the authority's board. "Here we are paying our bills on time, everything's right, and they're foreclosing on us. And that's just wrong."

Times correspondent Rich Shopes contributed to this report. Jack Nicas can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or jnicas@sptimes.com.

Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority battles bill to terminate its existence 03/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 11:37pm]
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