Florida's leaders should engage the public in a discussion about building toll lanes across the state. The price tag -- an estimated $3 billion to more than $6 billion -- merits a broad debate.
As proposed, these express lanes could charge up to $10, a hefty price that would likely limit access to motorists with plenty of disposable income.
Also known as "Lexus lanes" because of the upscale style of vehicle that typically travels on toll highways, this could be the state's largest infrastructure project -- one that could be set in motion without a public vote or discussion.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting disclosed this week that Gov. Rick Scott's administration is already initiating the construction of a series of projects for 169 miles of these managed lanes in Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville with a targeted completion date of 2021.
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Easing congestion on Florida's busiest highways is a worthwhile goal, and if enough commuters utilize the toll lanes, then everyone benefits with a faster drive. Business would, too, with trucks reaching destinations quicker.
A free market highway system, as described by Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, would pay for itself over time. Fees would vary, rising as highways become more crowded -- thus ensuring toll lanes don't get bogged down as supply and demand come into play. This policy is known as congestion pricing.
But the downside is those new lanes would be financed through bonds, multiplying the cost considerably. Still, that's a better approach than raising taxes or cutting state services to fund construction.
Special express lanes have far more appeal than another idea bandied about in the past -- converting free public roads into toll highways and charging everyone. Certain taxpayers would then be paying twice to access roads, an inequitable and intolerable situation.
Why the rush?
Even though local transportation authorities have discussed this issue, little if any local influence has altered FDOT's designs. Critics express outrage that the state's plans have been hurried through the usual approval process.
Floridians deserve input into such a monumental shift in transportation policy -- and the design because of the impact on communities.
One idea that should be on the table is high-occupancy vehicles gaining free access to toll lanes. The goal with toll lanes should also be reducing the number of vehicles on highways, in accordance with cutting down on vehicle emissions and pollution and encouraging car pooling and fewer vehicles on roads.
HOV lanes are popular around the country, offering free access to vehicles with two or more people aboard. There are also hybrid lanes, which allow HOVs to pay a cheaper toll than single person vehicles.
Another part of this issue is commuter rail, but toll lanes are far cheaper -- averaging $26 million per mile of four lanes versus $100 million to $200 million for trains. America's car culture won't change any time soon, and toll lanes offer an alternative to wasting time and productivity stuck on a highway with cars crawling down the asphalt.
As long as toll roads supplement regular highways, they would be a good option in the state's transportation network. But FDOT's fast track and at least one major change in design than that pledged to local officials in Miami -- far fewer exit and entry points -- gives pause about the process.
The state should listen to local transportation authorities and citizens who know their communities best. Tallahassee should not dictate such a sweeping and expensive program.