Barney Bishop column: FDOT’s campaign to gut the independence of the Orlando & Tampa expressway authorities

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The Florida Department of Transportation’s insidious campaign to gut the Tampa and Orlando expressway authority’s independence was consummated by the Florida Senate last week when it voted to rip any pretense for local control away from them.  This was the culmination of a three week fight in the upper chamber that if embraced by the House and signed off by the Governor would mean that once again “central planning” is vogue among transportation bureaucrats in Tallahassee.

I’m shocked because amassing power in one agency whose core mission is clearly state-wide rather than local-centric is the opposite of the GOP mantra of keeping decision-making at the level closest to the people.  Furthermore, it runs counter to the Governor’s stated position that he likes much of what Texas does, and centralized control of toll roads in Texas was condemned to the trash pile of history some time ago.  In fact, Texas is creating more regional toll road authority’s not less!

This saga started last year when newly-appointed FDOT Secretary Ananth Prassad got the Senate to bite on the concept of consolidating in order to save money.  Now who doesn’t want to save money in this tight economy?  You’d have to be an idiot to not support saving money, right? Well, the department promised that if the two roll road agencies were gobbled up by the department that duplicity, savings and efficiency would all of a sudden appear at FDOT and with a snap of your fingers $24 million would be in our collective tax pockets.

Who wouldn’t trust the department to tell the God’s honest truth?  Well, the Reason Foundation for one has to be convinced beyond a doubt and when it recently finished doing a study called “Should Florida Toll Agencies Be Consolidated?” (www.reason.org, January 30, 2012, http://reason.org/news/show/florida-toll-agencies-consolidated ) the answer was no.  In fact, it wasn’t just no, it was hell no.  The authors, including nationally preeminent toll road expert Robert Poole who has worked extensively for both USDOT and FDOT, issued a stinging rebuke of the department’s mathematics.  Their thorough line-by-line analysis of the $24 million says that they can only independently affirm, at best, a little over $3 million of the $24 million.  In other words, 80% per cent of the savings are made up and thus will never be realized. So much for saving taxpayer money.  But, to make matters worse the study found that no other state is centralizing toll roads, and that for many years now innovation has surfaced at the Tampa and Orlando toll road agencies not with FDOT.  Ouch!

At a recent Senate Transportation Committee meeting where Senators Joyner, Norman and Storms defended the independence and local control of toll roads, the department rightfully claimed that the department’s bill was not a consolidation effort, it was about efficiency and that the department supported the Reason Foundation report.  First it seems that the department can’t add; now it can’t read to comprehend.  In any event, the Secretary was technically correct even though every one of the Tampa Senators knew that this was the “camel’s nose under the tent.”

Then without telling anyone, FDOT raised their hammer and drove a spike into the heart of the two toll road agencies by deftly changing all of the language and implementing full throat consolidation in Senate Conforming Bill 7104.  There wasn’t any longer any pretense that they were just going to take over some “back office operations.”  With the speed that any Soviet central planner would have greatly admired, the Secretary dealt his crushing blow to any hint of an indie revolution by the Senate Tampa trio.

Still, House Speaker Dean Cannon, of Orlando by the way, hasn’t yet bit on this tale of strange bed partners between FDOT and a Panhandle Senator who doesn’t even have any  expressways in his district.  If the savings are all smoke and mirrors, innovation has been accomplished at the two toll agencies and not with FDOT, if the Reason Foundation study says that the two should be given more independence not less, it isn’t likely that the Speaker is going to end his political career with letting his own hometown toll agency get run over by the Senate.

To make matter much worse, Tampa attempted last year to pay back FDOT in order to reduce its long term financial obligation to the state which would have resulted in about $160 million more into the state’s transportation budget for FY 2012-13.  That would have put hundreds of Floridians to work building critical infrastructure at a time when jobs are the number one mission for our Governor.  Watch for the details in my next installment of this continuing saga.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.