1. Opinion

Tallahassee power grab on transport

Published Feb. 21, 2012

THE Florida Senate will consider a bill this week that would unwind a half-century of smart transportation planning. The legislation would put the expressway authorities in Hillsborough and Orange counties under virtual state control, diminishing the ability of local communities to address their unique transportation needs. This is a power and money grab by Tallahassee that would hurt two of the most dynamic metro areas of the state.

The bill, SB 1998, would turn over toll collections from the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority to the state. It also would limit the discretion these agencies have to sell bonds to finance new road projects. The measure assigns the agencies under the authority of the state Department for Transportation for "administrative and fiscal accountability purposes." While the authorities would keep their local governing boards and ostensibly remain independent, that authority would exist largely on paper. Local boards would lose expertise and autonomy, and decisionmaking would shift to Tallahassee.

This is exactly the wrong direction for two fast-growing regions that have made monumental strides in recent years in addressing long-term transportation priorities. And essentially centralizing operations under the state is contrary to the usual Republican clamor about smaller government and local control. The bill would give the state much more purview over how the local agencies spend money. It also allows the state to charge new administrative fees to process the toll collections. The net effect is that Tallahassee would have a much heavier hand in setting prices for local toll roads. And it would be easier for political leaders far from Tampa or Orlando to steer local money to pet projects in outlying areas.

State transportation officials say the move would not diminish the local authorities. But having local boards retain the power to set road priorities means little if the power of the purse shifts to Tallahassee. State officials have not made a convincing case the DOT can more cheaply process the tolls; in fact, Hillsborough has drastically reduced costs since farming out toll collection to a private vendor in 2009. If the DOT wants the job, it should bid on it. The contract comes up in 2013.

The Tampa Bay area has made great strides in recent years in approaching transportation as a regional issue. So has the greater Orlando area, which is why the SunRail commuter rail is being built there. Now the state would get in the way just as these regional cooperative efforts are paying off. This hardly is a businesslike strategy for the Republican-led Legislature. If the point is to create efficiencies, the expressway authorities had already begun those talks. And it certainly doesn't serve the districts of House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, or incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The Senate should drop this legislation or the House should kill it.