KILL THE BEAST 


If you get a chance, send political gadabout Doug Guetzloe a thank-you card. Were it not for Guetzloe's blunder, the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority's soft skin might never have been peeled away to expose its rotten innards.

Had Guetzloe attached a required disclaimer to a political mailer he sent out earlier this year attacking Winter Park mayoral candidate (and eventual victor) David Strong, he never would have faced a misdemeanor indictment. Had he not been indicted, investigators wouldn't have had a chance to scour his financial records, and the world never would have known that the expressway authority chairman, Allan Keen, and executive director Mike Snyder paid him $107,500 for "consulting" without ever running it by the authority's board of directors.

For your money Keen and Snyder bought a few phone calls and a three-page memo stating that people don't like toll increases. If you give them the benefit of the doubt for not being that stupid, then you have to wonder what they really paid for. Perhaps they wanted to purchase Guetzloe's support for future toll increases. Or maybe Keen — who is part of the development team for a proposed four-story condominium in Winter Park called the Carlisle — had routed Guetzloe public dollars to smear Strong, who campaigned against the Carlisle. (Keen and Guetzloe have both denied this allegation.)

In any case there's no good scenario for how your toll dollars were spent. And that's one reason the expressway authority must die. Need more? How about the recent revelation that Keen allegedly received $2,600 worth of theme-park tickets from the public relations firm the authority employed until late October, Pecora & Blexrud, but didn't pay the firm back? Or Ron Pecora's allegation that the authority's attorney offered to bring his firm back on board if Pecora lied about Guetzloe's hiring? Or the fact that Snyder paid more than $500,000 for "team-building" to Harmony, Inc., a Maryland company with whom he worked 15 years ago? Or that the authority's last executive director, Harold Worrall, had to resign in 2004 after illegally destroying a tape of a public meeting? Or the fact that the expressway authority spends more than $1 million a year advertising itself (which is to say it spends your money to convince you to spend more of your money on toll roads) and pays lobbyists $303,500 a year? How about the fact that you don't have any say about who controls the expressway authority?

Still not convinced? Then let's get to the real reason that it's time to rise up and kill the expressway authority: It exists only to collect your money, so it can grow, so it can collect more of your money. It is a revenue juggernaut. It is a tax. It is a bureaucratic cancer.

"It's a beast," Orange County spokesman Steve Triggs says.

And now it must die.

And now it must die.

ANDERSEN'S ROAD

According to local historian and Rollins College professor Richard Foglesong, the expressway authority was the brainchild of one man: Martin Andersen, publisher and editor of the Orlando Morning Sentinel from the 1930s to 1965. Andersen was a power broker when this city was little more than orange groves. He editorialized on the front page. Politicians begged his favor; if they offended or disagreed with him, his publication would make a point of chastising them. He bought ink by the barrel, and it wasn't a good idea to pick a fight with him.

In the early 1960s, Andersen foresaw a problem: The Kennedy Space Center was shaping up as Central Florida's main economic engine, and that didn't bode well for Orlando. Driving between Cape Canaveral and Orlando back then was no easy feat; there was no straight shot, meaning coastal cities like Melbourne were poised to take Orlando's place as the area's dominant town. That wouldn't be good for Andersen's paper.

So he came up with the idea of a road connecting Orlando to the coast. But the state wouldn't pay for it, and local governments couldn't afford it. So Andersen borrowed an idea from Jacksonville: toll roads. The Morning Sentinel took up the cause, local leaders echoed the need and sure enough Tallahassee created the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority in 1963. The authority took out bonds and financed an expressway between Orlando and the Space Coast. (In 1965 Walt Disney announced his plans, so Andersen's timing was good.)

In 1967, the Martin Andersen Bee Line Expressway opened for traffic. The expressway authority took out about $7 million in bonds to finance the construction. The authority forecast 3,000 cars a day paying a 35-cent toll. At that rate, the road would have been paid off in a little more than 18 years — assuming revenue only went to paying off the bonds — and the authority could have slipped quietly into the sunset.

Of course that didn't happen.

Instead, the authority issued about $89 million in new bonds and built the first stretch of State Road 408, then $70 million more in bonds for its part of State Road 417, then $273 million more to expand its very first road. It morphed into a state agency with real money, real power and real control over how this region grows.

For the last decade, the expressway authority has focused on building what the feds never did: a beltway around Orlando. Once it's finished, you'll be able to circumnavigate rush-hour traffic by taking State Road 417 from Disney to Seminole County, or State Road 429 along Central Florida's western edge. Eventually, the authority plans to build what's called the Wekiva Connector, a road through environmentally sensitive lands that will connect State Road 429 to State Road 417 and complete the beltway's northwestern loop. The authority also plans the $425 million Maitland Boulevard Extension, which will hook up Maitland and Apopka. (It will be named the John Land Apopka Expressway, after the longtime Apopka mayor and road advocate.) Ultimately, you'll be able to get from Sanford to the University of Central Florida to Disney while barely setting a wheel on the hated I-4. If you ever wondered why Orlando is so sprawling, look no further than the expressway authority. And thank Martin Andersen.

Today, the expressway authority controls just over 100 miles of road, including all or parts of state roads 408, 429, 417 and 528. It is the second largest toll-collecting agency in the state, surpassed only by the Florida Turnpike Enterprise. Last year, it collected $188.6 million in toll revenue, or more than a half-million dollars a day. By comparison, the Miami-Dade County Expressway Authority only took in $71 million. The Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority collected a paltry $28.5 million.

According to its 2005 annual report, the authority's assets exceed its liabilities by $599 million. That year, it added $70.5 million to that number, and is expected to add another $2 billion over the next two decades. If the agency were a different kind of business, you'd call that profit.

It has $1.76 billion in financed debt, including $499 million in new bonds that it financed last year, and just over $2 billion in total liabilities. (Though the authority collects about $200 million a year, it only spends half of that on paying off its debt.) It will be paying its debt off until at least 2040, according to authority documents. Unless, of course, it takes out new bonds to build more roads, which it will. Next year the agency plans to take out more $276.6 million in new debt. And the cycle continues.

MONSTER

When you pay a toll, where does the money go?

Perhaps a better way to phrase that question is the reverse: Where doesn't your toll money go? It doesn't go to the county, city or any other local government; it doesn't pay for mass transit, schools, cops or firefighters; it doesn't get your garbage picked up, fix potholes on your streets or cracks in your sidewalks; it doesn't add lanes to I-4.

The money goes right back to the expressway authority, which uses it to build more toll roads, or endlessly reconfigure existing roads.

Example: For years, the Holland West Mainline Plaza that bookends the city's western core has been a particular irritant to State Road 408 drivers. The I-4 interchange has always been messy, but State Road 408's on-ramp unloaded drivers into a maze of construction, lane closures and, eventually, the Holland Toll Plaza that overlooked the Citrus Bowl. In November, the authority completed construction on a new toll plaza about a mile west, and knocked the old one down. The new plaza allows E-Pass users to drive through it without slowing down. The cost: Nearly $25 million.

Further west, the authority is constructing a western on-ramp to State Road 408 from Good Homes Road. That on-ramp will allow drivers to take the expressway for about a mile, or until that road ends and the Florida Turnpike begins. The cost: $11 million.

The price tag for widening State Road 408 from Ocoee to the State Road 417 interchange on the east side of downtown will be $600 million. As large a project as that sounds, it's but a small part of the expressway authority's expanding empire.

Orange County has $180 million budgeted for road building in the next five years; the expressway authority plans to spend $1.1 billion in that same period.

But building in Orange County isn't enough for the expressway authority. In 2005, the agency announced plans to build new toll roads in Lake, Brevard, Volusia and Osceola counties. At the end of its 25-year plan, the expressway authority would reach from the Space Coast to Clermont to St. Cloud. These new roads would spread over 85 miles and cost $3 billion to build. George Gilhooley, the former Florida Department of Transportation secretary for District No. 5 and a member of the expressway authority's board of directors at the time, said in 2005 that none of these proposed roads were on the state's priority list.

In July, the expressway authority announced that it plans to spend 18 months and millions of dollars studying whether or not to build toll roads into Brevard County. But the authority has a bad track record in Brevard. Years ago, it used tolls to build the Bennett Causeway and promised to remove the tolls once the road was paid off. It wasn't until an investigation in 1991 discovered the bridge had actually been paid off years earlier that the tolls finally came down.

In the 1990s the authority board debated whether or not to retire the debt and get rid of the tolls, as some people insisted the agency promised in the 1970s. Not surprisingly, the expressway authority decided not to sunset itself. Today, the future of the tolls isn't even a question this board is willing to consider. As Keen told Florida Trend magazine earlier this year, "People say, ‘When will the tolls be paid off?' The answer is, ‘Never.'"

In fact, they want to raise tolls, to pay for more construction, to make more money, to pay for more construction, etc.

Without the authority's recent troubles, this increase would have flown through without a hitch. The expressway authority's board hadn't even held a public hearing before they spent $10,000 designing advertisements to announce the hikes. Public hearings are a nuisance to these people.

In fact, the authority spends a lot of money selling itself. Until recently, the authority paid the powerhouse public relations firm Pecora & Blexrud $1.7 million a year, even though it has an in-house communications director and another person who handles public-records requests. Last year, the agency spent just over $1 million advertising itself.

NO SAY

The authority's board has five members, three of whom are appointed by the governor, typically as payback for campaign support. The mayor of Orange County and the Florida Department of Transportation's district secretary round it out. Of the five people who control how your toll dollars are spent, only one is answerable to voters. Taxpayers and toll payers are not the expressway authority's constituency; developers are.

"The expressway authority engages in behind-the-scenes decision-making," Foglesong says. "It's responsible to one part of the community, the beneficiaries of growth."

How entangled are the authority's members in the region's growth machine? Keen, the board's chairman, is both a prominent developer whose name is attached to dozens of development corporations and a Republican benefactor who has given more than $5,000 to the state Republican Party and GOP candidates in recent years, including $1,000 to Gov. Jeb Bush's campaigns. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Keen and Crotty also helped raise more than $100,000 for President Bush's 2004 re-election campaign. Expressway authority vice chair Orlando Evora, who works for the Greenberg Traurig law firm, has declared 168 conflicts of interest in the last five years because companies seeking to do business with the authority have relationships with his law firm. (By contrast, in the last three years all seven Orange County commissioners have, collectively, declared 16 conflicts of interest.) Evora's law firm has raised $475,000 nationally for the GOP since 1997.

"`The expressway authority is` corrupt," says former CountyWatch leader Doug Head. "They have always been corrupt. They will remain corrupt. ... They are a growth machine agency of the most corrupt sort."

Scandals aside, the expressway authority could argue that it has provided a valuable service to Central Florida. Orlando has a network of limited-access freeways that keep traffic off other arteries. It was one of the first tolling authorities to implement an electronic transponder system. According to its website, the authority has issued 436,000 E-Pass transponders. Once renovations to the East-West Express-way are finished, you'll be able to travel from Ocoee to UCF without slowing down.

The roads are also relatively safe. From September 2004 to August 2005, the entire 100-mile system of highways saw 2,293 accidents, only 10 of which were fatal.

According to the expressway authority, you pay relatively little to access their roads, an average of 9.5 cents per mile compared to the national average of 12.2 cents per mile. That hasn't increased in 15 years. Meanwhile, the cost of construction has skyrocketed. This year, the authority killed $1.4 billion in projects, including widening an eastern part of State Road 408 and interchanges between that road and Innovation Way.

"The increased costs for each project means fewer projects needed for the community would be done if the current toll plan and revenue stream were left in place," authority spokeswoman Mary Brooks says in an e-mail. In other words, the expressway authority isn't taking enough money to do everything it wants to do.

And toll roads tax the people who use them. Highways cost money, and state funds aren't always there. Conservative politicians don't want to raise sales or gas taxes to pay for new roads either, so user-pay systems are more attractive. Toll roads mean lower gas taxes.

But the fact is the expressway authority has long since outlived its usefulness. It is prone to largesse and influence-peddling that would be unforgivable were this an elected body. Where and how roads will be built is much too important an issue to be left to a group of well-connected partisan hacks with an unlimited source of funding and no checks or balances on their power. And that's why the expressway authority must die.

HOW TO SLAY A BEAST

Our expressway authority isn't the only one in the state racked with charges of corruption and incompetence; the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority has also seen its share of bad press in recent months. In October, the Tampa Tribune reported that Tampa authority officials were questioning thousands of dollars its lobbyist invoiced to the agency for political fund-raisers he attended and time he spent helping people who were seeking appointments to the authority's board. (Orange County's authority pays two lobbyists — one federal and one state — $159,500 and $144,000, respectively; by comparison, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority pays a team of lobbyists $96,000 a year.) On Nov. 22, the St. Petersburg Times declared that the Tampa agency "is now a crime scene," based on reporting that suggested the authority's former director — who resigned earlier that month after Tribune reporters questioned him about his ties to a gay porn company — directed $400,000 to a drainage company he had ties to over staff's objections.

Even if toll road agencies were run ethically and responsibly, toll roads are discriminatory by their nature. They are roads for those who can afford them. A daily commute from Ocoee to downtown Orlando can cost $50 a month, or $600 a year. The average E-Pass user spends $80 a month, or $960 a year. For many people that equals an extra month's rent, a couple of car payments or two months of groceries. If the authority's planned toll increase goes through, that price goes up at least $1 a day. If you can't afford the price, you're relegated to poorly maintained and congested arteries like State Road 50.

In 1988, the residents of Jacksonville were fed up not only by tolls, but the traffic jams toll booths caused. They voted to replace their tolls with a half-cent sales tax. The vote was close — a 2,500-vote margin of victory out of more than 140,000 votes cast — but in August 1989, the tolls were gone.

Could that happen here? Local officials don't take the idea seriously. The increased traffic on those roads would clog them like I-4, they say. That's not the main reason this idea has gone nowhere, though. The reality is, we're tax-averse.

"We have to be willing to pay taxes for roads," Head says. "Roads people want, not roads developers want."

Maintaining the authority's roads costs $11 million a year. Orange County could easily cover that by raising gas taxes. But under current state law, it couldn't come close to equaling the nearly $200 million in toll revenue the authority takes in each year.

The federal government taxes 18.4 cents for every gallon of unleaded gasoline. The state tacks on another 23.1 cents in taxes and fees. Orange County adds another six cents in local taxes. Under state law, it could add on another six cents as well, which would bring it up to the state's maximum allotment of 53.5 cents per gallon, as 16 of the state's 67 counties currently do.

If the county maxed out gas taxes it would generate about $34 million, according to county statistics. About $12 million of that would be split among the region's municipalities, leaving the county with just under $22 million a year in new revenue. That would pay for road maintenance, but it wouldn't pay off the authority's bonds. So it's not as simple as tearing down the toll booths.

The county could raise its sales tax by a half-penny under state law, from six and a half cents to seven cents for every dollar spent. This solution would generate $174.3 million, about $125 million of which would go to the county, and the rest to municipalities. While that money wouldn't cover all the annual revenue the authority takes in, it would allow the county to reduce all or eliminate some of the tolls.

But this too could prove sticky. In 2003, Orange County voters rejected a road-building plan called Mobility 20/20, which included a half-cent sales tax increase.

Orange County commissioner Teresa Jacobs has a different idea: reforming the expressway authority. Since 2004, she's advocated putting more elected officials on the board; a politician whose job is on the line would probably have pulled the plug on Guetzloe's $107,500 "report."

Jacobs wants to require the authority to get Orange County's permission to build outside the county. She'd also like to see some of the agency's projected $2 billion surplus over the next two decades used to reduce tolls or widen non-toll roads.

On Dec. 5, the county commission rejected Jacobs' push to overhaul the authority's board with three elected officials, instead of just one. That's unfortunate.

But Jacobs' plan didn't go far enough. Not even close. The authority doesn't need to be changed. Shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic still lands you in the North Atlantic. The real answer is to stab this beast right in the heart.

The expressway authority's job is done. Orlando has a series of freeways that connect it to the coast and circumvent I-4. That the authority still pursues an ambitious agenda of building roads anywhere will only perpetuate sprawl.

Orange County should take over the expressway authority. The county is efficient and cautious, two words that no one uses to describe the expressway authority these days. The county also has the means and experience to absorb this behemoth. The county would still collect tolls. But instead of endless expansion, the money would pay for vital projects — the ongoing renovation of State Road 408 and interchanges to Innovation Way — and to pay off the bonds. When the roads are paid for, the tolls come down. Eliminating the expressway authority's road-building ambitions outside Orange County would eliminate the need for toll increases. Raising the gas tax would generate enough money to maintain the road system.

If the county controlled the expressway authority, it would answer to voters. Perhaps they would decide to keep the tolls on the roads as a means of paying for the effective mass transit system this region desperately needs to compete in the 21st century. Or perhaps they would muster the political courage to raise the sales tax and ditch the tolls altogether. In any case, it would be the voters who get to decide the region's fate instead of political water-carriers.

Reforming or obliterating the expressway authority requires political courage. The Legislature will only act if there's a hue and cry from local leaders, and that's something they've been unwilling to do. Which is why you have to make them. Only when the expressway authority becomes an issue with the people you elect will change ever occur.

In the meantime, the scandals of today will fade, people like Guetzloe will get their snouts back in the trough and Central Florida will have squandered yet another opportunity for real progress. Recent headlines have brought the expressway authority to its knees; it's time to finish the job.

jbillman@orlandoweekly.com

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