Crist Plan Would Lease Highways to Private Companies

Wed October 24, 2007 - Southeast Edition
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) One of the many ideas under consideration as a way to help the state save money without raising taxes is a vague plan floated by Gov. Charlie Crist to lease some Florida toll highways to private vendors.

Among the roads that could be leased are the Alligator Alley stretch of Interstate 75 across the Everglades, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay and others.

Crist envisions the possibility of a long-term lease that would allow private companies to run the toll plazas and do the maintenance on the highways. The companies would then be allowed to raise tolls, although there would be a limit.

Records of discussions on the issue cited in a story Sept. 22 in the Orlando Sentinel show that Alligator Alley between Naples and Fort Lauderdale would probably be among the most likely candidates for such a lease. The state has estimated it could raise between $504 million and $1.3 billion by leasing it to private investors.

Crist has said repeatedly that it could be a good deal for the state.

“I’m just trying to be innovative and not raise taxes,” the governor said.

The Department of Transportation also has pushed two other toll roads as “most likely candidates” for privatization: the state-owned stretch of the BeachLine Expressway in Orange and Brevard counties, and the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Florida’s DOT has predicted that leasing the easternmost 9 mi. of BeachLine could net the state between $139.9 million and $321 million, according to the documents cited by the newspaper.

The 5-mi. Skyway bridge along Interstate 275 could bring in $477 million to $1.3 billion, according to the state estimates.

But in all those scenarios, the tolls would likely go up. The estimates envision companies providing more revenue to the state if they are allowed to raise tolls more. For example, if the state wants the maximum $1.3 billion return on the Skyway lease, it would have to allow a vendor to raise the toll from the current 75 cents to $5.

State Transportation Department spokeswoman Pam Griffis called all the proposals “very, very, very preliminary.”