Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Transportation

Tampa's toll road authority survives state takeover attempt, for now

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TALLAHASSEE — The University of South Florida and the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority must feel like brothers in arms.

Both institutions have been fending off legislation that they say would weaken them. USF scrambled the past two weeks to restore cuts that were made to its budget in a battle with Sen. JD Alexander.

Meanwhile, the Expressway Authority, builder and operator of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, feels just as besieged by an attempt to fold it and two other regional toll agencies into the Department of Transportation.

Why should local commuters care? Because, Expressway Authority officials say, local control of an agency that builds projects to relieve Hillsborough congestion would be lost. And permission to build future projects would be ceded to the state, which would also control the toll revenue produced.

"It's been such a distraction," said Expressway Authority chairman Steven Diaco. "A lot of resources and time have been spent fighting this."

Florida DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad said consolidation under state control would help the regional expressway authorities, not hurt them. The authorities would save about $24 million a year by shifting bureaucratic expenses to the state, he said.

"Why do we need these shadow governments across the state?" Prasad said. "Once you have a project built, why do you need to create a bureaucracy to operate it when you already have a bureaucracy?"

So far, however, Prasad has been stymied. He agreed to weaken his proposal so that it would affect only toll road collections, not the hiring of bond counsel or other matters that could have wider financial implications. But that bill was gutted last week.

"As it stands currently, it'll be status quo for the expressway authorities," Prasad said.

Expressway Authority officials aren't taking any chances.

Executive director Joseph Waggoner is heading to Tallahassee today to monitor any last-minute maneuvering, and lobbyist Barney Bishop has been working with the expressway authorities to defeat the legislation.

Bishop said that by controlling expressway authority revenues — Tampa's authority has about $200 million — the state can help the state DOT to borrow more. That extra money could then be spent on projects elsewhere, he said.

Bishop and Waggoner question the DOT's claim that enveloping the regional authorities under the state would save $24 million. They say the savings would be only $3 million at the most. Prasad stands by his estimate, and says the state wouldn't direct money from the toll authorities into projects elsewhere in the state.

"The money would stay local," he said. "It's not a money grab."

Still, local lawmakers were wary. Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, helped defeat the state's efforts.

"We're holding firm against it," Weatherford said. "It's so important for Hillsborough to have its own authority. It's doing projects cheaply and efficiently. We don't want to lose that power.

"It's dead, for now."

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