Gov. Rick Scott's announcement this week that he plans to speed up by decades construction of an expressway that would link Interstate 275 and U.S. 19 is welcome news. What is not so welcome is the way the governor plans to help pay for it. Why should Pinellas County drivers be forced to pay a toll to drive on an elevated road from one free highway to another or remain stuck in traffic?
Scott caught county officials and most everyone else by surprise when he decided to make millions in state money available for a $338 million project that would link I-275 with both U.S. 19 and the Bayside Bridge in mid Pinellas. The need to move north and south in Pinellas without hitting so many traffic signals has been obvious since the shortsighted decision years ago that the county's only interstate would run from St. Petersburg east across the Howard Frankland Bridge rather than continue north. The short expressway embraced by Scott will enable drivers traveling north to take the interstate through St. Petersburg to the new link, then continue along the reconstructed U.S. 19 or the Bayside Bridge to north Pinellas without stopping. It also will make it much easier for north Pinellas residents to get to St. Petersburg.
This long-sought highway project was never contemplated to be a toll road. There should be a broader conversation in Pinellas about the role of government and its responsibility to build public works projects that benefit everyone. Pinellas County's $53 million share of the cost will come from Penny for Pinellas money, so local taxpayers already will be making a significant contribution to the new expressway that would be under construction in 2017.
Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad has made clear that the state's general policy now is to pay for major highway projects by slapping tolls on them. But Prasad had to reverse course in 2012 when he talked about adding a toll to an entire future span of the Howard Frankland Bridge after Tampa Bay officials complained. Yet Republican legislators offered only praise for Scott's expressway announcement on Monday. The same concerns about undermining the region's efforts to unite with a toll bridge are just as valid in linking south and north Pinellas with a toll road.
Tolls can finance limited access roads to cover long distances such as Florida's Turnpike and the Suncoast Parkway. And the gas tax, which traditionally has paid for transportation projects, is a declining source of revenue as cars get better gas mileage. But this project covers a relatively short distance in an urban area, and the governor has found plenty of money to spend on ports, airports and tax breaks.
It's probably a coincidence that many of the Pinellas Republicans who praised the governor's toll road project also oppose the November referendum on raising the sales tax by 1 percent to pay for enhanced bus service and a new rail system connecting St. Petersburg with Clearwater. At the very least the new elevated expressway should have a dedicated lane for express bus service envisioned by Greenlight Pinellas. And if the trade-off for moving up the expressway project by 20 years is a toll, then the toll should be retired when the project is paid off and not continued forever.
Scott's newfound interest in finding millions for road projects such as U.S. 19 and the elevated expressway is good for Pinellas. But advancing an important road project by transforming it into a toll road should benefit Pinellas drivers at least as much as Scott's re-election campaign, and there should be a broader public review.