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Florida has a problem. It hasn't raised gas taxes since at least 1991, even to adjust for inflation. Meanwhile, higher gas prices mean more people are buying fuel-efficient vehicles, which means less money into the gas-tax coffers. The state relies on that money to build highways. Since more than 300,000 people move to Florida every year, building highways is urgent. But there's no money to build them. The state wants to spend $117 billion on transportation between now and 2025. Revenue projections leave a $53 billion shortfall.

State Rep. Dean Cannon, the powerful Winter Park Republican slated to become House Speaker in 2011, has a solution: Allow private companies to build and maintain toll roads. He pushed House Bill 7033, which permits precisely that, through the House on a party-line vote March 22.

"We've got falling revenue. We've got increases in costs," Cannon told the St. Petersburg Times. (He didn't return Orlando Weekly's calls.) "House Bill 7033 goes a long way to answer that."

The bill allows companies to bid on building and maintaining toll roads on state-owned land. It also allows contractors to enter lease agreements with the state to operate the state's existing toll roads, except for the Florida Turnpike.

The state estimates that leasing Alligator Alley — which crosses the state near the Everglades — could net $3 billion over 50 years. Leasing State Road 528 could bring in $1.3 billion. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge across Tampa Bay could generate $8.2 billion, a House staff analysis says.

Florida isn't setting the trend here. Other states and cities have partnered with private companies to build toll roads. Chicago leased its Chicago Skyway for 99 years to a private company for $1.83 billion. Indiana leased its entire toll road system for $3.85 billion. Texas Gov. Rick Perry wants to take in $80 billion over the next 20 years from private investors building new toll roads. In 2005, the state approved a $7.2 billion deal for the plan's first leg. Other states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, are considering similar proposals.

These plans can be controversial. In Texas, for example, legislators wary of an influx of new toll roads — especially tolls that would profit a private business — are trying to limit Perry's ability to cut deals. In Florida, the legislature's Democrats warn that companies who lease and build new toll toads will only worry about their bottom line, and that will encourage sprawl.

"`Private companies will` only look to high-growth areas," says state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. "There's no strategic purpose in growth management."

Randolph says the House bill doesn't prevent companies from inserting "non-compete" clauses into their contracts with the Florida Department of Transportation that would prohibit the state or local governments from improving roads around new toll roads. A non-compete clause in California led a company to sue the state for fixing deteriorating roads. He also worries that the "leases" won't be leases at all; they'll be permits that allow private companies to work on state land, perhaps for free.

None of that is spelled out in the bill. A House staffer who worked on the legislation — speaking on background — says contracts will be negotiated case by case, including how much the companies will pay for leases and how profits will be divvied between the company and the state. Each new road will be approved by FDOT on state land, meaning they won't deviate from the state's growth management plan, the staffer says. As for non-compete clauses, the staffer says the bill's authors intentionally omitted any mention of them. Under the staffer's interpretation, that's an implicit disapproval, though it's possible a company could try to negotiate such a clause with FDOT.

The bill will enable the state to use eminent domain powers to seize land that essentially will be turned over to a private contractor for profit, though the state will own the land and FDOT will have to follow the same eminent domain guidelines as any other acquisition.

Randolph highlights one other potential problem: Whatever money the state makes from these private toll roads could be spent anywhere in the state. Today, when you throw a quarter in the bucket on State Road 408, the money stays within the region. The money the state gets from private companies won't have to stay local, which Randolph says will only encourage transportation officials to build roads in rural areas that don't need them.

"It's a way to circumvent growth management laws," he says.

It was unclear by press time if a companion bill to House Bill 7033 would make it through the state Senate in the final week of the legislative session.

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