The Florida Influencer Series

Road project complete and paid off? Keep paying the tolls, Influencers say

From the newly approved, record-breaking extension of the Suncoast Parkway to the future Naples-area toll road toward Interstate 4 near Orlando, tollways are multiplying in the Sunshine State.

Tolls collected by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and local entities like Miami-Dade County and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) are reinvested into the roadways in the form of roadway extensions, maintenance ramps and lighting. Historically, governments paid for road projects through a gas tax, but revenues plateaued as cars became more fuel efficient, while tolls remained reliable.

In the last fiscal year ending July 2018, FDOT — which manages Florida’s Turnpike, the Turnpike Extension through Homestead, the Palmetto Expressway (State Road 826) and interstate express lanes — pulled in about $430 million from its tolls through Broward and Miami-Dade alone, according to financial reports.

The funds went toward 50 projects across 14 counties, with the bulk of projects focused on road widening and capacity-related construction.

But once transportation projects are paid off, should tolls continue to be collected for other transportation projects? Or should the tolls end when the project is complete?

In a new survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of 50 prominent political and policy figures from across the state, a majority (58 percent) said tolls should continue to be collected when a project is completed.

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They cited various reasons for continued tolling, ranging from maintenance and infrastructure to highway policing to investments in better accounting and oversight.

According to a panel of the state’s leading voices, roadwork is never truly “complete” and revenue sources will always be needed to offset costs. Many of them agreed that tolls should be collected at a reduced rate when a project is complete and that the tolls should cover maintenance of the road in question.

Annie Lord, executive director of Miami Homes for All, said roads are “depreciating assets that will need maintenance forever” and that the state should continue to charge tolls, perhaps at a reduced rate, to cover those costs.

Leigh-Ann Buchanan, executive director of Venture Café Miami, said tolls should be collected at a reduced level that is “necessary to maintain the roads and to ensure proper upkeep.”

Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association agreed that tolls should be reduced, but still exist after a project is completed..

“I think it’s important to make sure after the road is paid for that there is still enough money from tolls for maintenance,” she said.

Space Florida CEO Frank DiBello agreed.

“Operators using the infrastructure should be the ones paying for infrastructure care,” he said.

University of West Florida President Martha Saunders also voiced support for tolls, as they provide some backup for the “precious little money” Florida sets aside for maintenance and infrastructure.

About 39 percent of the Influencers said tolls should end when a project is paid off, citing the regressive nature of the fee.

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Barron Channer, the founder of Miami-based investment firm Woodwater Group, called an extended toll a “hidden tax.” Channer and others pointed out the impact it has on poor Floridians who drive every day to get to school or work, especially in a state that lacks a robust public transportation infrastructure.

“It is a particularly heavy tax of low-income earners who are forced to drive far distances,” Channer said.

“The taxpayer is already paying taxes that when managed well shall provide the necessary roads. We don’t need to be hit twice for roadwork,’’ added David Swanson, senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

Carmen Castillo, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based SDI International Corp., also pointed out the effect tolls have on the tourism industry and said a continued fee burdens those who traverse the state.

“Our citizens and vital tourists are already burdened with more toll roads than the vast majority of other states, and we needn’t erode the goodwill and sentiment of those visitors on which we depend for so much of our economic health,” she said.

We asked the Influencers how well Florida officials are doing in focusing on policy solutions that address the needs of all state residents.

Excellent: 5 percent

Good: 53 percent

Fair: 37 percent

Poor: 5 percent

Samantha J. Gross is a politics and policy reporter for the Miami Herald. Before she moved to the Sunshine State, she covered breaking news at the Boston Globe and the Dallas Morning News.