Tallahassee is gearing up to deliver another blow to the Tampa Bay area's transportation system. Just weeks after Gov. Rick Scott rejected federal money for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, the Senate's proposed budget calls for the state to gobble up the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority. This grab for money and power could cost taxpayers dearly and delay much-needed road projects throughout the bay area.
The Senate would roll three local expressway authorities — those in Tampa, Orange County and in the Panhandle — into the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, an arm of the state that runs toll roads for the Department of Transportation. The Turnpike Enterprise says the consolidation could save $24 million a year by reducing administrative costs and state subsidies to the local agencies. But the state acknowledges that its estimate is a "quick analysis"; it did not consider the agencies' assets or the modest nontoll revenue they generate such as investment income and other fees. The state did not even look at salaries, expenses or outstanding contracts to get a real picture of the budget. Tampa officials also say the state could end up paying millions of dollars more by refinancing the debt it assumes from local authorities.
Legislators should not rush a decision based on such a cursory look at the facts. The legislation calls for doing away with local discounts for commuters who use the SunPass electronic debit sticker. For everyday commuters who rely on the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway, the price of a one-way trip from Brandon to South Tampa would jump to $3 from $2.50. The discount has been a good enrollment vehicle for SunPass, and losing it could cause motorists to opt for the pay-by-mail charge, which could increase overhead costs. While the legislation includes language aimed at keeping dollars raised locally in their communities, it leaves a door open for the state to shift money around — and with much less public scrutiny.
The real loss would be in the bay area's ability to prioritize major transportation projects. Tampa's Expressway Authority not only operates the Crosstown, a principal east-west corridor. It also played a major role in securing the I-4 connector, which will serve Tampa's port and its major highways. The authority also has spent years working on a connector in the Gandy area that would speed a hurricane evacuation route from Pinellas County. Having an agency that is locally governed and focused on local projects of statewide importance serves the community well. The Legislature should leave it alone.