ORLANDO – With the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority collecting a record amount in tolls last year, the anti-tax group Ax the Tax is once again calling on the authority to abandon tolls altogether, saying they discourage motorists from getting on toll roads and are no longer needed.
“We were there two years ago at the public hearings that were held,” said Doug Guetzloe, who founded Ax the Tax. “They were public non-hearings — they were not hearing anything. We said it was not necessary, there was plenty of money to complete their projects, and they should just disband the tolls.” Those tolls are actually slated to go up against in 2012 to help finance the Wekiva Parkway.
The Expressway Authority took in $251 million in 2010, a 22 percent increase from 2009. The authority was created by the Florida Legislature in 1963 to focus on building a limited access roadway from Orlando to Brevard County. The authority’s second project was construction of State Road 408, also known as the East-West Expressway, a 13.3 mile road built for $89 million, and completed in December 1973.
The expansion of this roadway, which started in July 2003, was designed to extend 16 miles from Clarke Road to State Road 417 – the Central Florida GreeneWay. State Road 417 is a toll road forming an eastern beltway around Orlando.
Citing a need to finance road improvements and expansions, in 2009 the Expressway Authority voted unanimously to raise tolls by 25 cents. The chairman, Rich Crotty, the former Orange County mayor, defended the toll hikes by noting that the authority was negotiating long-term bond deals and the increased revenues brought in from the toll hike would be needed.
But Guetzloe said the toll hikes angered commuters and forced them off the toll roads, and that the Expressway Authority is simply unresponsive to what the public wants or needs.
“It’s a self-perpetuating bureaucracy,” Guetzloe said. “The bonded indebtedness is one of the arguments they keep throwing at us, but the last time we checked, they had $1.4 billion worth of bonds.”
The Expressway Authority could eliminate that debt, he said, by having county government take over payment of the bonds, and not rely on tolls to finance them.
“They should transfer the cost of paying the bonds off to the Orange County government,” Guetzloe said. “Each county government could agree to absorb the cost of the bonds.”
Last year, Florida lawmakers passed a bill allowing for the creation of the Osceola County Expressway Authority. That separates Osecola County from the authority of the Orlando/Orange County Expressway Authority. It also lets Osceola officials set guidelines for the highways that go through their county and gives Osceola officials the ability to raise tolls to pay for road improvement projects.
Guetzloe said Orange County alone had the money to finance the bonds for the next two decades.
“You take $1.4 billion and divide that into separate payments, and Orange County could come up with $70 million a year, paid over 20 years,” Guetzloe said. “The Orange County budget is $5 billion. If you’re talking about $70 million, that’s a drop in the bucket. The county currently has $632 million in reserves – what they call a rainy day fund. That is money that is not budgeted and is unspent.”
Using that money to pay off the bonds, Guetzloe said, would enable the Expressway Authority to eliminate the tolls.
“You could take the tolls off the toll roads today and have a highway,” Guetzloe said. “It is the finest road system we have. If you took the tolls off, you would reduce traffic congestion in Central Florida. If you take the tolls off, people would use them again. People can’t really pay these tolls, especially in these times. We say open it up to the great unwashed masses.”
But doing so, he said, “would abolish the Expressway Authority and that would get rid of 200 to 300 high paying jobs.”
Guetzloe said the future of those tolls would now likely depend on Orange County’s new mayor, Teresa Jacobs, who takes over as chairman of the authority.
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