Battle brewing over your Expressway tolls

10:00 PM, Apr 17, 2011   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida - While the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) says the tides may be turning in their battle with the state's Turnpike Authority, the agency is preparing for another round of battle in Tallahassee.

A bill that would eliminate discounts for drivers who use Sunpass, which has already been approved by the state senate, would also absorb THEA into the Turnpike Authority.

THEA controls the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

"You're going to pay the tolls, and the money may not stay here," said Joe Waggoner, executive director for THEA.

Waggoner is concerned the $40 million in annual revenues the Selmon Expressway generates would go toward other projects in the state rather than projects that benefit the people that drive the road.

Right now, the Selmon revenues go toward operating and maintaining the road, paying off its debt, and helping to secure bonds for future local projects.

The authority is working on securing $60 million in bonds to expand the Selmon Expressway from the Hillsborough River to 19th Street.

"If this is turned over to the Turnpike," Waggoner continued, "all those revenues then go to the Turnpike and Tallahassee for them to decide where the money should be used."

Proponents of the bill say the state could save millions by absorbing THEA and two other regional authorities.  But Waggoner maintains the state can only save money if it takes from the local authorities created to protect local interests.

Waggoner also cites the 14 local THEA employees and their impressive production as reasons not to consolidate.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority pays just 23 percent of revenue toward road operation and maintenance.  The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority, also in peril, uses just 20 percent of revenue.

He says the Turnpike Authority uses 35 percent of revenue on operation and maintenance.

Waggoner's made several trips to Tallahassee this month already and is planning more to drive his point home.

The House hasn't demonstrated much of an interest in the bill yet, but it will go to conference later this month.  It could then be used as a bargaining chip by either house.  Waggoner remains optimistic, but is hunkering down for a long fight.

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