The declaration by Gov. Rick Scott's transportation secretary that drivers could pay tolls to cross a new Howard Frankland Bridge reflects a radical shift in state philosophy and a lack of understanding about Tampa Bay. The last thing this region needs as it seeks to become a seamless economic and cultural force are bridge tolls that would divide us. A new bridge that can accommodate express lanes and rail is a necessity that will benefit everyone, and its cost should be shared by all.
Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board that tolls will have to help pay for major new bridges and additional highway lanes along Interstates 4, 75 and 275. Gas tax revenue that has traditionally paid for transportation projects has been declining even as gas prices rise, because the tax is assessed by the gallon and vehicles are more fuel efficient. Prasad said the Howard Frankland's northbound span, scheduled to be replaced in 2022, could cost at least $500 million. "If we're going to replace it," he said, "put a toll on it."
Bridge tolls would undermine the region's efforts to come together in areas such as transit, job creation, higher education and tourism. Some 44,000 Pinellas residents commute daily to work to Hillsborough; another 25,000 drive to Pinellas from Hillsborough. While Prasad said commuters could use the other two bay area bridges, the Howard Frankland is the only direct interstate connection between the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa. It is a road of necessity for thousands and the backbone of the two largest economies in the bay area.
Gas taxes are inadequate to meet the state's transportation needs. But the solution is to increase the gas tax and broaden the revenue stream, not slap tolls on every new major bridge and interstate. Good transportation networks are a basic government responsibility, and their costs should be a collective burden. Such public construction projects should not be treated as private enterprises paid for by user fees that not all Floridians can afford.
There is a role for tolls. They can finance limited networks created to travel long distances, such as Florida's Turnpike. They can work in some urban areas where commuters could opt to pay extra for a limited-access highway or lane but have viable alternatives. They have long been used to build smaller bridges to specific destinations such as the beaches. But none of those concepts apply to the Howard Frankland. And paying for all new interstate highway lanes with tolls as the state is exploring raises fairness issues.
Some months ago, the governor sounded surprised to hear that this region is known as Tampa Bay. His administration's suggestion that tolls are the way to pay for a new Howard Frankland Bridge indicates he still has a big learning curve. Tolls would be a barrier to all that is happening to unite the bay area, from the recent creation of a regional transit organization to exploratory talks about merging the Hillsborough and Pinellas bus systems to building attendance for professional sports franchises on both sides of the bay. As Senate Transportation Committee chairman Jack Latvala of Clearwater said after he was caught by surprise, "It's a horrible idea.''
The Howard Frankland Bridge needs a new span, and it should be built much sooner than 2022 to accommodate more traffic and new rail so the region can grow economically. A toll bridge is not the way to go, and the Tampa Bay community should make that clear to the governor.