The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is on a mission, like never before, to amass power and control over our state’s mass transit system. Though the department would like for you to believe that it is simply following the model of other states, in fact no other state in America is going down this lonely road.
Ananth Prassad is the Secretary for FDOT and he was one of three finalists presented by the Florida Transportation Commission to Governor Rick Scott. Ananth is warm, personable and very qualified and has the distinction of working within the department and rising to become Assistant Secretary before joining the private sector and finally returning to become Secretary.
The department’s mission is to oversee Florida’s integrated transportation system and insure that it performs well. This, of course, is an especially difficult job at a time when the state’s coffers continue to decrease and since neither the legislature nor the Governor are inclined to raise taxes or fees; this puts real pressure on the department.
Enter the three existing expressway authorities around the state: Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA), Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) and Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX). While MDX is a horse just like the other two, it is a horse of a different color inasmuch as it was created by a Charter Government in Miami-Dade County. Importantly, MDX owes no money to FDOT because it realized the precarious position that it was in and decided years ago to pay off their debt to the state. On the other hand both OOCEA and THEA owe money to FDOT because the department advances money to these two expressways (called Lease Purchase Agreements) so that new sections can be built without taking revenue from their existing local toll roads. The expressway business can be very lucrative because the authorities can take in tolls and use those monies to pay for operations and maintenance and can also pay back the department – if the department is willing to accept the money. More about that later.
Last session, FDOT rolled out the idea of bringing the Orlando and Tampa expressway authorities within the fold of the department under the guise of saving money. In fact the department and their supporters said that by consolidating them into FDOT, $24 million would be saved. That’s not a lot of money in a $70+ billion state budget, but every nickel counts and especially when we are facing another $1.4 billion deficit for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The Florida Senate tried to make this consolidation happen last year, but House Speaker Dean Cannon would not hear of it, and so it died.
But, this year, FDOT has again attempted to bring the Orlando and Tampa “cash cows” expressways into the warm bosom of their department, and the Senate is again trying to facilitate it.
So, the opponents of this move asked the Reason Foundation to take a look at this important issue and ferret out the truth. You remember the Reason Foundation; those are the folks that said last year that High Speed Rail (HSR) was a boondoggle and that is should not be attempted in Florida. The Governor listened and promptly killed it. Who better to deliver the news of whether there is any truth to these alleged savings than the very folks who waded through the facts of HSR and deftly put a knife through its heart? I know that I paid attention because I was an advocate for HSR and when I lost, I wanted to know more about this foundation. What I learned was that the founder, who interestingly is now the vice president for transportation policy (he didn’t like the admin and wanted to get back to the policy thing!), is considered one of the foremost experts on toll roads in the entire country. Not only has Robert Poole worked as a consultant on toll roads in the states of California, Washington, and Texas, he also has worked for USDOT and even for about eight years as a consultant to FDOT!
Last Monday, Sen. Jim Norman held a press conference in front of the doors to the Senate chamber and released the study conducted by Robert and a peer researcher in Atlanta. The conclusion was the title to the study: “Florida Toll Agencies Should Not Be Consolidated” (www.reason.org/news/show/florida-toll-agencies-consolidated).
Remember when I told you that it had been argued that we, the taxpayers, would save $24 million by folding in the agencies within FDOT? Well, the gentlemen from Reason looked line-by-line at the figures used by the department and at best they said that maybe $3.5 million would be saved, and probably more like $2 million. That means that about 90% of the purported savings were from fantasy land, and could not be independently justified. This not only hurts the department’s credibility but also that of the Florida Governmental Efficiency Task Force which likewise, with little independent verification, accepted as fact that $24 million was the right number.
Certainly other arguments have been advanced as well. Like the state Division of Bond Finance can secure bond dollars at a lower interest rate than the expressway authorities. That is true if the locals simply auction their bonds, but if they negotiate them, then the locals have actually sometimes beat the state bond folks, so it is not inherently true that the state can do better in all cases. And, of course, there is always the argument that the state can build roads faster, more efficiently and smarter than the locals, but that got debunked as well. In fact, most if not all of the innovations that have been occurring in expressways have occurred at the local level: no more toll plazas, plate-by-picture, reversible lanes, etc.
Finally, the report states the obvious. That the state department was conceived as a way of interconnecting urban areas around the state and the expressway authorities were designed to put an emphasis on local control of intra-city toll roads. That Texas, a favorite poster child for Governor Scott is creating more regional toll authorities, not less. That the local authorities should be given even greater independence and should become self-supporting, not the other way around.
I commented that the local authority, at least the one in Tampa, has attempted to pay back FDOT most of the money that they have borrowed from the state. FDOT refused the money! That’s right; the state wouldn’t accept a check. I don’t know about you, but when I look a gift horse in the mouth, I usually accept it – willingly.
Last week, Tampa Senators Arthenia Joyner, Jim Norman and Rhonda Storms stood up for their hometown expressway and refused to be pushed into accepting the platitudes that were offered by the Secretary that no consolidation was taking place. None of them believed him and they voted in concert against the departments bill. They lost in a 5-3 vote of the Senate Transportation Committee. Obviously, the Senate is going to go down the road again of supporting the department, but I’m betting that Speaker Cannon hasn’t changed his mind one iota. And since when is it a Republican mantra that locals should send their money to Tallahassee or Washington DC for that matter and that we should expect “savings.” Quite simply, no one believes that or as we say in North Florida: that dog don’t hunt.
Barney Bishop III, who just founded his third company, is an outspoken, lifelong Democrat with a strong fiscally conservative streak. He believes that government is not the answer to all of our problems, that civil discourse is obligatory, that compromising on details will not undercut one’s core beliefs, and that a resilient, robust private sector is the elixir needed for a true democracy to grow and survive. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.