Hillsborough is run off road
May 21, 2010
A political compromise has reduced the losses from a surprise raid on the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, but a big problem remains.
Instead of losing $69 million and being put out of business, the authority is now giving up $19 million.
The local agency survives, but its plans for widening the elevated portion of the expressway from downtown to the new Interstate 4 connector must be delayed, at a high cost and no small inconvenience.
The Hillsborough County Commission expressed frustration on Wednesday but held short of calling on Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the money grab. It is unclear that the offending language is in a budget line item that can legally be vetoed. Commissioners also are wary of possible political payback from legislators who would be left with a big budget hole to fill.
The board is right to express outrage, and the stronger the better.
Without warning and in the closing days of the legislative session, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, engineered a raid on part of a long-term, $117 million loan that the state Department of Transportation had made to the authority.
No other expressway authority was asked to contribute. There is no evidence the many ramifications of the ploy were considered.
Alexander simply made $69 million of the loan due immediately. If the authority refused to pay, it was to be abolished. But paying the money would wreck the authority's financial plans and effectively put it out of business anyway.
As the authority's executive director, Joseph Waggoner, explains, the loan is from the years prior to 2001, before the toll road was profitable.
He was planning to use the money to make possible the widening of an old, elevated section of the highway and have the work done at the same time the bridge deck is being rebuilt.
The widening would help keep traffic flowing during the repairs and increase toll revenues. The extra lanes will be needed to handle traffic from I-4 that will use the elevated connector, now under construction.
The loss of $19 million means that the rebuilding of the old bridges will be done separately from the eventual widening, and doing the work separately is sure to cost more.
Rep. Richard Glorioso of Plant City, head of the House transportation budget committee, and other delegation members had to fight hard just to keep the loss at $19 million.
The episode illustrates much of what is wrong with lawmaking in Tallahassee. Important changes are inserted at the last minute with no analysis or debate.
Too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few unpredictable leaders like Alexander, who use their positions to bully their colleagues.
Term-limited legislators give too little thought to the state's long-term financial health, including the need to encourage, not penalize, self-sufficient projects such as the Selmon Expressway.
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