A major change is brewing in Tallahassee, and too many local leaders are quiet about it.
Over the past year, local media outlets have been following the happenings within the Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. From improprieties in the process used to hire a lobbyist, to changes to the Authority’s attorney, to having a (now former) Executive Director who ran gay porn sites on the side – the stories have become almost comical.
The Governor called for an external audit. Legislators are calling for changes. What will happen will have a tremendous impact on Hillsborough County residents – from South Tampa to Brandon to New Tampa.
State Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey) has filed a bill that will abolish the authority. It does so by creating a seven-county authority to manage transportation projects around the Tampa Bay area. The idea is being pushed by the Tampa Bay Partnership (which honored Fasano last year with it’s Chairman’s Cup for Excellence in Regionalism):
The Hillsborough County Expressway Authority is merged into the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, and the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority shall assume all powers, duties, functions, assets, and liabilities of the Hillsborough County Expressway Authority. [SB 506]
In general, I think a regional approach is helpful because traffic and transit issues do not stop at the city limits or county line. However, there is a problem with the current proposal.
There are several toll roads in the Tampa Bay Area: the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, the Veteran’s Expressway, the Suncoast Parkway, the Pinellas Bay Way, and the Polk County Parkway. Of these, I believe all of them except the Selmon are managed by the Florida Turnpike Authority.
And the Hillsborough County Expressway Authority is helping fund the construction of the new East-West Toll Road in New Tampa, to provide an easier way for New Tampa residents to reach Interstate 275 (thus alleviating some of the traffic issues on Bruce B. Down’s Boulevard).
Abolishing the Authority will probably put the East-West road on hold, but it will also mean that the toll revenue paid by Hillsborough residents will help fund the construction of roads in other counties. This is because the only toll revenue that will be collected by this new Authority will be from the Selmon.
Thankfully, there will be another bill by State Senator Victor Crist (R-Tampa) to preserve the Authority, while making significant changes to the board. Currently, the board has seven members – a Councilmember from the City of Tampa, a Hillsborough County Commissoner, and five people appointed by the Governor. Crist wants to change the makeup so that a majority of the board are appointed by locally elected officials. This will solve the internal problems of the Authority while keeping Hillsborough drivers’ toll money inside Hillsborough County.
If Senator Fasano, whose district does not include anyone in Hillsborough County, wants to create a regional Authority, he should leave the local Authority in place. That is something The State of Sunshine could support. Otherwise, it’s a terrible idea. Crist is right, change the board – don’t abolish it.
We will be closely following this issue as it moves through the legislative session.
[Disclosure: I have previously worked for Senator Victor Crist.]