TAMPA — After years of battling its legislative doom, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority received its financial freedom from the state Thursday.
A $455 million bond deal caps the authority's negotiations to repay its debts and be the sole owner of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and other assets.
"We've been working toward this for the past five years," said Susan Chrzan, a spokeswoman for the agency. "It means the money that comes off the tolls stays here locally."
With the bond sale, the authority will continue to pay its debts, maintain the roadways under its control and do something new: open a savings account, Chrzan said.
Besides the expressway and its elevated, reversible lanes connecting downtown Tampa with its eastern suburbs, the authority owns and maintains two other roadways — Brandon Parkway and Meridian Avenue.
The authority, which collects tolls on the Selmon, is governed by an appointed board that includes Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller.
Car drivers using a SunPass pay $1.50 to use the elevated lanes, or up to $2.50 to use the ground-level expressway depending on where they enter and exit, according to the agency's website.
The move for independence is a relief for the expressway authority, which has seen legislation filed in the past few years that would have dismantled it.
In March, the state Department of Transportation lobbied to fold the authority into the state. Toll money collected on the Selmon would have been pooled with tolls from other regions and made available for road projects in other areas of the state.
DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad told the Times then that turning over the bureaucracy to the state would save the authority $24 million annually.
But local politicians weren't sold on the idea and backed the expressway authority.
Bills introduced in the Legislature eventually failed.
Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said the DOT changed its position and entered into talks with the expressway authority earlier this year.
"I think it's a good thing," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "I was involved in the conversations and the state has been extremely helpful. It's a win-win."
A spokesman for the DOT could not be reached for comment Thursday evening.
Chrzan said the original lease agreement with the state called for the expressway authority to repay loans for building the Selmon Expressway to the DOT. Then, the state would take possession of the expressway.
Now that those debts are being repaid and the expressway authority alone owns the Selmon, tolls that area residents pay to use it will stay here.
"We're excited about it and very glad it happened," Chrzan said. "We now have the ability to help out more in the regional planning projects."