Just how scary are tolls on local highways?

Tolls are unlikely to scare motorists away from a major highway if it gets people where they want to go faster, supporters of the Poinciana Parkway are predicting. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

POINCIANA – Nobody likes paying tolls when they get on a highway, but there’s one reality to them, said Tony Iorio: sometimes they just can’t get built without having tolls.
And the business owner is also betting that tolls won’t scare Poinciana area residents from riding on the Poinciana Parkway, a new highway that is expected to break ground at the end of this year, and will be constructed to make it easier for Poinciana residents to reach Interstate 4. It took years to get the project moving, because the cost inflated when it became clear that the road would have to go through Reedy Creek, an environmentally protected area.
Both now the project is moving forward, said Iorio, the vice president of development for AV Homes, the main builder in Poinciana and the main backer behind this project for nearly the past decade.
A toll study was recently completed on the proposed two-lane road — indicating that the cost of the tolls may determine how many people actually ride it.
“The toll study gives a variety of options,” Iorio said. “It starts at no toll, and goes up to $2.50 – but it will be somewhere in-between.”
Most likely, Iorio said, “I’m anticipating it will be between a dollar, and a dollar and a half each way.”
Once the road gets built, it will be operated by the Osceola County Expressway Authority, which wants to finance the construction work by issuing municipal bonds. The Express Authority needed a toll study done, and the new study, released late in May, showed that with no toll, the highway could expect 14,000 cars per day, but that with a toll of $1.50, that traffic volume would drop to less than half that number.
That disappointed some of the project’s supporters, who said they had hoped for projections of between 18,000 to 20,000 riders daily.
“What they got was the preliminary results of the new toll study,” said Keith Laytham, president of the local civic group Poinciana Residents for Smart Change, which supports the project.
With gas prices still high, and local roads like Poinciana Boulevard and Pleasant Hill Road heavily congested, it’s unlikely that a toll of $1 will deter many Poinciana residents from using the parkway, Laytham said.
“If I were to bet, I’d say the toll study came in ridiculously low,” he said, and Iorio agreed.
“We have the toll and revenue study that is in its final draft, and the projections are significantly off,” Iorio said. “Is there any surprise there?”
The study, he added, is unlikely to be undertaken a second time.
“We did the first study originally back in 2004,” he said. “These are called Bond Rated studies. They cost $300,000 to complete. That’s how expensive these studies are, so they can go to bond markets to finance construction.”
The ridership projects shouldn’t scare off those who would finance the bonds, he said.
“The thing they look for in the report is people saying ‘Oh, we don’t want the road,’ ” Iorio said. “But the people of Poinciana have been very supportive of this, and they are the ones getting this road built.”
Because of the project’s cost, AV Homes is no longer responsible for the construction of the project. The original price tag of $40 million soared because the firm was ordered by the state to build a four mile bridge over the Reedy Creek environmental preserve to keep it from being disturbed by the construction work. That inflated the potential cost of the road to more than $170 million.
AV Homes turned to the county governments to complete the project, and commissioners in Osceola and Polk counties agreed to support it as a public road owned by the two counties, and operated by the Osceola County Expressway Authority as a toll road.
The Osceola County Expressway Authority didn’t exist until 2010, when it was created to give Osceola County a vehicle for building new roads like this one.
“It’s an important job engine,” said state Rep. Mike Horner, R-St. Cloud, who used his position on the House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee to push for the Poinciana Parkway.
Horner said he did that because he understands that “Transportation is the lifeblood of economic development. If you have quality transportation, you can attract employers. It’s a great economic engine for all of Osceola county and Northeast Polk.”
Horner played a critical role in getting the project moving because he successfully filed the bill to create the Osceola County Expressway Authority to oversee new road transportation projects in the county – including the Poinciana Parkway. Previously, Osceola County had been under the supervision of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority.
“I sponsored the bill that created the Osceola Expressway Authority, which has been able to get this project off the dime,” Horner said, adding that it proved to be the funding vehicle needed to move this project forward.
“The concept of the Poinciana Parkway is not new,” Horner said. “We just never were able to get it to fruition. Last year we were able to put in some dollars to help them get off the ground.”
Iorio praised Horner’s work behind the scenes on getting this project moving, saying “He has taken on this monumental challenge, and he has done more for this project, I can’t stress that enough.”

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