A tax increase by another name

With Florida facing a serious revenue shortfall, state transportation leaders are dusting off plans for leasing Alligator Alley to a private company — and giving the firm the power to set tolls. This is a move born of desperation. No doubt it seems an easy way for state lawmakers to create a politically painless new revenue stream. But the plan essentially amounts to a tax by other means, with tolls substituting for a tax increase.

Florida residents should put a stop to this ill-advised raid on the pocketbook. They should tell members of the Legislative Budget Commission to ditch the idea. To send members an e-mail, see the contact information below.

An analysis completed last year showed that investors may be willing to pay up to $1 billion for a 50-year lease of Alligator Alley. To recoup their investment, the vendors would be allowed to raise toll rates so long as they shared rate-hike plans with state lawmakers. In effect, the state would turn over responsibility for operating the tolls and maintaining the highway to a private vendor who presumably could manage the system more efficiently.

The obvious benefit is that the state would get an immediate cash infusion to offset revenue shortfalls. The reality, though, is that the plan, at best, is a short-term fix with long-term consequences for motorists and taxpayers. The state basically would give up control of an asset paid for by hundreds of millions of tax dollars. The vendor doesn’t have to build or create a thing, doesn’t have to put capital at risk. The vendor shows up, gives the state money and takes over the tolls and road operations.

The fact that there are any tolls at all on that stretch of Interstate-75 is part of the story. The state took over the highway in a special arrangement with the federal government. When the government began building the interstate-highway system in the 1960s, using federal tax dollars, the roads were supposed to be toll-free. Today, all but a few have remained toll-free.

The Naples-to-Broward portion of I-75 got an exception to the no-toll rule when Florida promised in the 1980s to widen the 76-mile stretch to four lanes and build culverts and bridges for panthers to cross underneath the roadway. The culverts and bridges also would alleviate the dam effect of the road and improve the southward flow of Everglades water. State lawmakers promised to remove the tolls after construction costs were paid. They later changed their minds, however, and made the tolls permanent.

Now, lawmakers want to further abuse taxpayers’ investment and renege on their promise to manage the system. That would be a senseless giveaway and an abdication of responsibility.

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