Florida Governor Rick Scott wants to put road-building in the fast lane

Aug 5, 2011

The following article was published in the Florida Current on August 5, 2011:

Scott wants to put road-building in the fast lane

By Gary Fineout

Gov. Rick Scott is backing a major transportation plan that calls for speeding up road projects and relying more on new tolls to help pay for them.

The Scott administration wants to accelerate work on nearly $1 billion worth of road projects, including work on Interstate 75, Interstate 95, as well as roads in Hillsborough and Duval County. The plan also calls for moving ahead with $1.8 billion worth of Florida Turnpike projects, including breaking ground on the Wekiva Parkway in Central Florida by October 2012.

The new plan was unveiled at a road-builders conference on Friday by Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad.

Prasad during his remarks also said that DOT plans to revive work on its “future corridors” plan including the controversial Heartland Parkway, which would run from Polk County to Collier County. Some of the future corridor projects have come under fire from environmental groups who say the roads would spur growth. The Heartland Parkway has also been controversial because the initial route was supposed to go through land owned by a company headed by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Scott said he was backing the new transportation plan as way to help the state’s economy. Part of the plan calls for eliminating “regulatory burdens” in order to speed up construction.

“The transportation industry will be leading the charge in making sure we have the state-of-the-art infrastructure that is interconnected and efficient,” Scott said in a statement. “This will make Florida tough to beat for the place where we all want to live, work and play.”

There is no mention in the plan of how much it will cost in total. But a key element of the “Florida Transportation Vision for the 21st Century” says DOT will start relying primarily on tolls to pay for new projects.

“The gas tax as a funding source for transportation is no longer sustainable,” Prasad said in his prepared remarks. “Therefore, we must diversify our sources of revenue.”

Prasad said that the state will use tolls to finance interstate highway expansions, bridge replacements and to build expressways. He also called for a series of “managed lanes” where private companies would help pay for — and then collect tolls — for lanes built along existing roads such as Interstate 4 in Orlando, Interstate 75 in Broward County and the Palmetto Expressway in Miami-Dade County.

This change would likely require legislative approval.

Sen. Don Gaetz, the chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees DOT, said he was “skeptical” of using tolls as a revenue source, but he said he could support them if they “solved real transportation problems.”

Sen. Mike Fasano said he has no problem with additional toll roads although he said he would not support turning over existing roads to any private companies.

This marks the first time that Scott has outlined a major plan dealing with Florida’s roads. Earlier this year Scott rejected federal funding for a high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando. The governor did sign off on SunRail but he made it clear that he had misgivings about the project.

The new plan unveiled by Prasad did not talk much about mass transit, other than to say the state would look at having a private company help take over Tri-Rail in South Florida in order to make improvements to the commuter rail service.

DOT also wants to move ahead on a handful of projects in its “future corridors action plan” including the East-West Heartland Parkway that would run from Manatee County over to St. Lucie County as well as new roads to link Tampa to Jacksonville and Panama City to Alabama.

Prasad also said that DOT wants to look at consolidating metropolitan planning organizations and that DOT wants to privatize and outsource as much as possible in the coming years.

“If it’s in the yellow pages, we shouldn’t be doing it,’’ Prasad said.

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