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Private Alligator Alley would be paved with fool's gold

Sun-Sentinel - 11/27/2007 12:00:00 AM
by Michael Mayo

Here's the only way I'd be for a privatized Alligator Alley with $10 tolls each direction: If the ride came with a double-latte from Starbucks, a slots voucher for the Big Cypress Seminole gambling tent and a 90 mph speed limit.

Otherwise, this sounds like a really bad idea.

Faced with budget shortfalls, Gov. Charlie Crist is considering raising quick cash by leasing some toll roads and bridges to private investors. Earlier this year the Legislature approved, and Crist signed, a law allowing long-term private leases on state toll roads not operated by the Florida Turnpike Enterprise.

Alligator Alley, the 78-mile toll stretch of Interstate 75 that runs through the Everglades from Naples to Weston, is a top privatization candidate, according to a preliminary study done by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The state estimates a 50-year private lease on Alligator Alley could bring $500 million to $1.3 billion, with the higher figure based on tolls allowed to reach $10 in the first decade.

The toll for passenger cars is now $2.50 each way, $2 for those who use the electronic SunPass.

"I have great concerns about the state turning over existing toll roads to private companies," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. "But if the state goes through with it, hey, I'll bid for it."

Fasano was being facetious. He knows the privatization concept could be a great deal for the private companies but could leave drivers digging into their pockets for outrageous toll hikes.

"They might say they'll only be able to raise the tolls so much so many times, but I'm sure they'll have the best lobbyists money can buy to get around that," Fasano said Monday.

Fasano said the intent of the law approved earlier this year was to stimulate "public-private partnerships" to build new toll roads in congested areas. Something like the plan to expand Interstate 595 with additional toll lanes built and operated by private companies.

"I'm all for public-private partnerships if it means we can build or expand something that the state doesn't have money for," Fasano said. "But Florida taxpayers have already built Alligator Alley."

Alligator Alley opened as a two-lane state road in the late 1960s. It was widened to four lanes from 1986-1992. Even though it was designated part of the federal interstate system in 1993, the road is owned, operated and maintained by the state.

Some privatization ideas seem defensible, such as Crist's exploration of outsourcing the Florida Lottery. In that case, it might be possible to have the state get more and spend less to have someone else manage a product that isn't essential like gambling.

But the idea of leasing out public infrastructure for a fast buck seems unseemly. About 25,000 vehicles use Alligator Alley to cross the southern part of the state every day, and the route is a virtual monopoly, with no easy alternatives. A steep toll hike could price it out of reach for low-income travelers.

No matter how many safeguards are written into a contract, the private operator's chief goal would be maximizing profits. Fasano wonders how much oversight the state would have to ensure proper maintenance. There's no telling if the private company would act in the public's best interest by suspending tolls when hurricanes threaten.

In 2006, Indiana leased its 157-mile East-West Toll Road to an Australian-Spanish consortium for 75 years for a lump-sum payment of $3.8 billion. Critics say the company will make a profit after 15 years.

"I think it could be a very good opportunity for Florida," Crist said in September. "I'm just trying to be innovative and not raise taxes."

But if all it does is raise tolls and line private pockets for decades, what's the point?