Alligator Alley may be up for lease

Mar 21, 2008

Gary Fineout

Miami Herald

Desperate to generate more money for road projects across the state, Florida transportation authorities are moving ahead with a plan to lease Alligator Alley to a company that would have the power to set the tolls it charges.

If ultimately approved, the deal could lead to increases in the tolls drivers pay on the 78-mile portion of Interstate 75 that links Sunrise in Broward County with Naples.

Some South Florida lawmakers say they will fight the proposal, saying the state won't benefit in the long run if it gives private companies control of state property and the right to raise tolls to fatten profits.

The Florida Department of Transportation quietly announced on Thursday that agency officials plan to start talking next month to investment banks and others that might have an interest in taking over the road.

The Republican-controlled Legislature last year passed a law that gave the department the green light to consider leasing out state roads such as Alligator Alley and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the Tampa Bay area. The actual leases do not have to be approved by the full Legislature, just by a small group of lawmakers who sit on a budget panel.

Dick Kane, a department spokesman, said the agency has concluded that only Alligator Alley right now could prove attractive to investors.

'We want to test the market to verify that we are maximizing the value of Florida's assets,' he said.

One analysis done last year indicated that Alligator Alley could fetch anywhere from $500 million to more than $1 billion, depending on the tolls allowed. The main scenario said that a 50-year lease for Alligator Alley could fetch the state $504 million, as long as the tolls could rise to $3 within a year, $4.50 by 2012 and $6.75 within a decade. Currently, the toll is $2.50.

There is no guarantee that Florida would ultimately approve a deal to turn over the road, Kane said. Instead, it is ``just the next step in the process.'

The state law makes it clear that any agreement between DOT and the investors would have to spell out how the tolls would rise.

DOT Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos has already told Gov. Charlie Crist about DOT's plans, Kane said.

Having private companies take over roads is more common in other countries. Similar proposals in the United States have generated a political firestorm. Many Democrats in the Legislature last year staunchly opposed the measure that authorized the DOT to pursue leasing deals.

DOT's announcement comes when lawmakers are on the verge of slashing the state budget as much as $2.5 billion. The transportation agency has been hit by Florida's financial woes because rising fuel prices have led to a drop in gas tax money. Proceeds of a lease would go to DOT for other road projects.

Rep. Jack Seiler, a Wilton Manors Democrat, said it would irresponsible to lease Alligator Alley.

'It's a short-term solution and in the long run we are going to regret it,' said Seiler. ``At the end of the day I think its irresponsible of us to turn over a public asset for someone's else private gain.'

Sen. Alex Villalobos, a Miami Republican, agreed.

'It might be a good idea. But I really doubt it,' said Villalobos. ``It seems everything that makes money for the state the state wants to privatize. What's in this for the people of Florida?'

Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who sits on the panel that would ultimately have to sign off on any lease, said he is not opposed to having private companies build new roads. But he said he opposed leasing any roads that taxpayers ``have already paid for.'

Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

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