ORLANDO – Meeting for the first time with its new membership – including Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs – on board, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority opened itself up for feedback from the public on Wednesday — and got plenty.
Those comments included calls for an end to both the tolls on roads the Expressway Authority has built, and an end to the board itself, as well a call for higher ethical standards and a major push for the construction of the Wekiva Parkway.
As Walter A. Ketcham Jr., the authority’s chairman, noted at the beginning of the public hearing, the board welcomes feedback from the public as long as people stayed within a three minute presentation. While several of the speakers quickly surpassed that short time limit, they nevertheless brought along strong opinions on the region’s highways, tolls, construction jobs and economic future.
Charles Lee, representing the Florida Audubon, urged the board to move aggressively on the construction of the Wekiva Parkway, a 21-mile stretch of road connecting from where State Road 429 ends in Apopka to the 417/Interstate 4 interchange in Seminole County, connecting parts of Lake, Orange and Seminole counties. It would essentially create a beltway around Orlando.
Seminole County officials signed on to the project last August, while Lake County commissioners gave the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority permission to build it last October.
“I believe that it is incumbent on this organization and the members who serve on this board to place the Wekiva Parkway at the top of its priorities list,” Lee said. “We have a golden moment here.”
It’s been estimated, he said, that the project would create up to 11,000 construction jobs, much needed at a time when the region’s unemployment rate remains mired in double digits.
He also said the Expressway Authority could save even more money by moving quickly to purchase the land needed for the roadway, since the real estate market remains in a serious slump.
“We have an opportunity to save the toll payers of this region hundreds of millions of dollars by moving quickly to acquire the right of way while real estate prices are down,” Lee said. “We have the opportunity to save many millions of dollars turning dirt.”
Charlie Williams, the volunteer president of the League of Women Voters, noted that his organization supports the expansion of a multi-modal transportation system in Central Florida, which includes both a high speed train and the Wekiva Parkway.
“We all know and love our Orlando area airport,” he said. “But when it comes to our land port, what do you think of?”
The region needs to invest in improved transportation systems, and to move quickly to get them built, he said.
“When it comes to transportation, what you need to remind the average citizen is it can take seven years to build a road,” Williams said.
But Doug Guetzloe, chairman of the anti-tax group Ax The tax, countered that the Expressway Authority should instead pursue a very different agenda: abolishing itself.
“The issue is not whether or not there should be toll increases,” Guetzloe said. “The issue is whether this board should exist.”
Guetzloe noted that the Expressway Authority was created by the state Legislature back in the 1960s to build a limited access roadway from Orange to Brevard County, and then to build State Road 408, which was completed in 1973. But rather than disband and remove the tolls from this highway, the authority stayed around and continued building new roads – and adding new tolls, Guetzloe said.
“I believe – and I think a lot of citizens believe – that your mission is really completed,” he said. “What you continue to do is build more roads and pass more tolls … and build more roads and pass more tolls.”
Guetzloe noted that the authority’s executive director, Michael Synder, has successfully carried out their mission of creating a highway network that gets local residents to other locations across Central Florida, and quickly.
“Mike Synder has done exactly what you’ve asked him to do, which is build roads,” Guetzloe said. “You guys do build great roads. But it’s time that they become freeways.”
That would mean ending the toll system, rather than look at future toll hikes. He noted that local motorists are still angry at the toll hikes approved by the authority in 2009, and said the board risked angering them even further by going along with a scheduled hike in 2012.
“There is a simmering discontent among a lot of toll payers,” Guetzloe said. “I would urge you to consider declaring your mission is over. This can be done.”
Tom Powell of Windermere took the view that the Expressway Authority would be around for a long time, and should consider establishing a system of internal auditing to ensure public money is being spent wisely.
“I searched the web site to see if there was a charter for the internal audit function, and I couldn’t find it,” Powell said. “What makes an organization function properly? One of them was to establish an internal audit function with a charter. When you have certain things in place, you contribute to the ethical soundness of the organization. When I see millions of dollars flow through this organization, as a citizen I am concerned. I’m just eager to see a strong ethical climate play out.”
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