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FLORIDA TAXWATCH INTERVIEW BY CRG PRESIDENT MIKE WILLIS

FLORIDA TAXWATCH INTERVIEW BY CRG PRESIDENT MIKE WILLIS

Executive Vice President Robert Weissert Answers Questions About the Suncoast Connector aka Toll Road

Hello, I’m Mike Willis, president of Citizens of Responsible Government for Jefferson County (CRG), and I’m pleased to welcome Robert Weissert, executive vice president and special counsel to the CEO of Florida TaxWatch.  Recently, Florida Taxwatch released an in-depth report titled, The Suncoast Connector: What We Still Need to Know.  In this report, TaxWatch outlines concerns about the proposed the Suncoast Connector or toll road currently being lobbied by M-CORES and the Florida Department of Transportation. 

Robert Weissert

What’s important to note as we go into this interview is when Florida TaxWatch speaks out on public policies or legislative issues, the organization gets the full attention of reporters, Florida Legislators, and the Governor. So, this interview is greatly appreciated and timely.

I would like to ask our supporters and readers to please share this important interview with neighbors, friends, and coworkers to educate citizens on the invasive nature of this unwanted toll road. 

WILLIS: Robert thank you for taking time today to discuss your report for our supporters in Jefferson County and frankly, across the state.  We have a statewide network of likeminded Floridians who are opposed to this unsubstantiated and arbitrary proposal of a project that’s infamously known to us as the toll road.   My first question is straight forward: Why did Florida TaxWatch take on this report?

WEISSERT: The M-CORES project is the largest expansion of Florida’s Turnpike system in the system’s history.  In total, the three segments would add 320 miles of toll roads to Florida system which is only 498 miles in total.   

Two of those segments are in Central Florida and South Florida running through some pretty populous areas, so while there are still questions about those road segments and some concerns at the local and statewide level, the financial viability of those toll roads is not one of the major concerns; however, the Suncoast Connector runs through some pretty rural areas and the new toll road will need traffic in order to generate the revenue to pay the bonds used to build it.  So, Florida TaxWatch undertook this analysis because of specific questions around the Suncoast Connector related to economic and financial feasibility. 

Generally, Florida TaxWatch supports state investment in transportation infrastructure as well as long-term infrastructure plans anticipating future needs, and there are many positive goals of the M-CORES project, but the question is about the financial prudence of the investment in the Suncoast Connector as a bond-financed toll road. 

This analysis raises serious concerns about whether this road is fiscally viable and whether it is a wise investment for the taxpayers. In this case we could be talking about between $4 billion and $10 billion in bonds to build this road and the question remains whether enough people are going to use it to generate the revenue to pay off those bonds; if that’s not the case then building the Suncoast Connector would be putting the whole turnpike system in financial jeopardy, and ultimately the taxpayers as well.

The mission of TaxWatch going back more than 40 years is government accountability and making sure the taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely and effectively.  When the state is contemplating a toll road that may not be financially viable, then it is absolutely our mission to not only look into that issue but to help raise public awareness about the fact that this may be a financially risky investment and question if it may not be the right thing for Florida and for the state’s taxpayers.

WILLIS:  The lack of data is truly concerning.  What issues does this independent analysis by Florida TaxWatch reveal about this project ?

WEISSERT:  The analysis finds that it is highly questionable that ridership on the Suncoast Connector would be sufficient to pay off the bonds in the statutorily required time frame.

  • Although no official cost estimates have been developed for the road since the route for the Suncoast Connector (as well as the other roads) have yet to be established, Florida TaxWatch’s analysis finds that construction of the Suncoast Connector could range in cost from a low of $4 billion to a high of $10.5 billion – or between $25 million and $70 million per mile.
  • Assuming the cost falls at the midpoint of Florida TaxWatch’s estimated range and only 70 percent of total costs are bonded, the Suncoast Connector would need to generate $2.37 million in toll revenue per mile to satisfy projected bond costs, which is 10 percent more than the average revenue per mile of the entire Florida Turnpike System. However, the Turnpike has an average Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled per lane mile that is 8 times more than US 19. This raises doubts about the project’s ability to pay for itself.
  • At the highpoint estimate, it would require 60 percent more in revenue per mile than the Turnpike average; the only segment close in size to the Suncoast Connector—the 155-mile Ticket System going from Palm Beach County to Osceola County—brings in $1.19 million per mile, half as much as the Suncoast Connector would need at the mid-point estimate.

Additionally, while the other two road segments of the M-CORES project – or at least similar ones – have been examined before, a toll road through the Suncoast Corridor all the way to Georgia has not.  Essentially, this is a process issue but the planning process matters a lot. 

A close analysis of the Suncoast Connector also raises a number of issues that have not been addressed as it relates to the proper long term transportation planning process, specifically working with local and regional governments and through the Florida Department of Transportation’s normal needs analysis to identify a demonstrated transportation need, and incorporating a financial feasibility study that factors in existing and future use of the current corridor and the probability that new construction could be self-financing under the Florida Turnpike statutory requirements. The Florida Department of Transportation will still perform all the required analyses, but the law has already mandated it be built and funding has already begun. The Florida transportation process, including a development of needs assessment, is still the law, but M-CORES gives people the knowledge that major transportation projects can be mandated through the Legislature without first going through the normal process,  Hopefully, this will not happen again.

Overall, the analysis makes clear that the proposed Suncoast Connector is a big gamble unless the proper process has been followed and all the questions answered properly and satisfactorily.  The potential cost of not following the process to ensure the state makes sound decisions, jeopardizes important transportation projects across the state – i.e., projects that did go through the planning process and now may suffer as a result of the need to subsidize this project.

WILLIS:  Let’s unpack a bit of what you said regarding the lack of economic data supporting this proposal, as well as the lack of self-sustaining revenue. You don’t have to look hard to see this is an arbitrary solution searching for a problem that isn’t there.  Do you agree?

WEISSERT: The question of how much it will cost to build and whether people are going to use this road are really the paramount questions for an organization like TaxWatch in order to ensure the fiscal stability of the turnpike system and the state as well.  There are examples of where the legislature has decided to build toll roads that were not based on a clear need but based on their prerogative as lawmakers. 

One example is the Garçon Point Bridge.  That toll road has not generated sufficient revenues to pay the bonds and the project is more than $100 million in debt on the bond.  Basically, the legislature decided to put a bridge where there was not sufficient demand in traffic for a toll bridge and now the project is unable to generate revenues needed to pay back the bonds.  In fact, a judge recently ordered that the toll be increased to $5 to cross that bridge just to try to make up for failing revenues.

Normally, studies are done before a project is approved to, among other things, show that there is sufficient demand for a new toll corridor and that it will generate the revenue to pay back the bonds.  In this case, some of those were circumvented.  It is certainly within the prerogative of the legislature to build this road, but this analysis looks at whether it is a financially sound decision.

Furthermore, bond ratings are not as much about the amount of the bonds as the ability for pay for them.  Florida has good bond ratings because total outstanding state debt has been decreasing since 2011 and the legislature has been mostly fiscally conservative.  However, the current pandemic carries risk.  Toll revenue has fallen considerably since the COVID-19 crisis began in Florida, so the feasibility studies will be especially important in determining risk.  If traffic projections are low and state revenue continues to fall, the ratings for the new bonds could be lower, which will cost taxpayers and toll payers more. 

It is only fair to point out that moving people around the state is a legitimate concern.  Florida has major traffic issues in lots of parts of the state, and specifically to the Suncoast Parkway, there are congestion and mobility problems on Interstate 75 (I-75).  There been extensive studies on options to relieve congestion on I-75.  Some of those recommendations have been about widening the interstate (essentially adding more traffic lanes) but there are other suggestions about building alternative north-south roadways.  The potential advantage of an additional route is that if there’s something that closes down I-75 even temporarily, the alternative route would allow movement still where simply more lanes on I-75 does not really solve that problem. 

Additionally, congestion on that I-75 route not only affects moving people, which is vital for many reasons including evacuation, but also moving goods, so traffic and congestion does have a major economic impact on Florida’s economy.  However, the Suncoast Connector itself is probably not the most direct solution to the problems with congestion on I-75 but it should be noted that it is a real issue.

But overall, borrowing billions of dollars to build a toll-road that is underutilized should be a concern to all Floridians, not just those in the region where the corridor will exist, because a fiscally unsound project puts the entire statewide turnpike system at risk and ultimately costs all Floridians.

WILLIS:  Robert, so far, small-business owners and community leaders in Jefferson County have been successful in defending against well-funded special interests that support the toll road effort. We certainly feel like we’re fighting from the Alamo, but we’re maintaining our perimeter. Can you dial in a bit more about how local economies will suffer from the toll road and what it will do to jobs in towns like Monticello and Perry? 

WEISSERT:  Not specifically.  The route for the Suncoast Connector has not yet been determined so we do not even know whether it will run through some of these communities or around them. Either way, it could have a significant economic impact, both potentially positive and negative. Certainly, if communities are bypassed then that would be economically negative, but bringing in additional people could be economically positive.

Generally, the transportation needs of a high-speed, limited access road to move people through the corridor as quickly as possible seems a bit at odds with the other stated purpose—economic development of the corridor’s rural communities.  I-10 has been used as an example of how a high-speed road doesn’t always lead to economic growth, and cutting off communities can even hurt. On the other hand, new access could lead to sprawl or other potentially negative consequences on the land and people, but ultimately that was not the focus of this TaxWatch report. This report focused on the fiscal and financial viability of the Suncoast connector as a toll road.

WILLIS:  This begs the question once the toll road is operational, does it truly create desirable jobs or are they mostly going to be fast food establishments located in remote areas?  In other words, is there a positive or negative impact to jobs? 

WEISSERT: Again, I think it’s difficult to say because it partially depends on what the ultimate route would be and it depends on what our communities are looking for whether they will be able to capitalize on that increased traffic and the other elements of the M-CORES project like broadband access and other infrastructure, but overall those questions were outside the scope of this analysis.  But if the road doesn’t lead to growth and capital investment in the communities, there won’t be more jobs.

WILLIS:  Can a downtown business community continue to thrive and prosper, if a toll road bypass diverts its daily traffic away to the expressway?  This is something that MCORES has been particularly good at avoiding in their public meetings. I’m sure you know the reason why, they don’t want to shoot themselves in the foot, right? 

WEISSERT: Again, look at 1-10. The idea that bypassing communities will hurt has been raised by task force members and the public, but perhaps the real reason supporters are avoiding the issue is they, and nobody else, knows what this road will look like.  These questions about economic development and traffic projections are not answerable yet and that’s the point.  They should be answered before the project is approved.

WILLIS:  You have statewide reputation and knowledge base, so I would like to get your perspective on CRG.  What has been your impression of those of us in Jefferson County fighting back the Goliath?  Do you think they expect such a pushback? 

WEISSERT: Florida TaxWatch for more than 40 years has been the eyes and ears of taxpayers in Tallahassee, but nothing is as powerful as informed and engaged citizens, so I think anytime citizens are coming together to advocate for what they feel is best for their community, it’s always the most powerful tool in in a representative democracy like we have. Florida TaxWatch is honored to provide the facts and evidence-based analysis but certainly anytime the citizens come together and advocate for their point of view, that’s a positive thing. It’s so it’s always good to see engaged and informed electorate advocating for themselves and for their community.

WILLIS:  I greatly appreciate that assessment, Robert.  Tell me more about Florida Taxwatch and how business leaders can get involved from a local level?

WEISSERT: Florida TaxWatch is a non-partisan nonprofit public policy research institute and we are funded entirely by donor contributions; we take no state government money or local government money and we function so well not only because of the financial support but because of all the involvement and partnership with local business and community leaders around the state. I would certainly encourage everyone to go to our website at www.floridataxwatch.org to learn more about Florida TaxWatch and see all of our research on a variety of issues impacting Florida taxpayers and to contact us if you want to get involved or especially if you want to help us do the work that we do on behalf of the taxpayers Florida through a financial contribution.

WILLIS:  Is there anything that I failed to ask or mention that you want to end our interview with?

WEISSERT:  The Suncoast Connector is not a fait accompli – the route has not even been determined yet and no asphalt has been laid, so there is certainly still time for input and for alterations and ultimately the plan to either change or be completely abandoned. The biggest issue here is for people to stay engaged, informed, and involved as this project moves forward. This TaxWatch analysis has really jumpstarted an important part of the conversation about the fiscal viability of the toll road, but that conversation will continue, and there are other aspects of this project that deserve consideration and I know the CRG continues to argue against it.  Ultimately, citizens who are impacted staying engaged and involved as a positive thing

WILLIS:  Thank you Robert for your time and insights.  We hope that our government leaders will reevaluate the toll road nonsense, at least the section that threatens Jefferson County, and understand that rural communities also make not just Florida great, but America even greater. 

For more information go to our website www.JeffCoFL.org

ABOUT FLORIDA TAXWATCH

As an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog and taxpayer research institute for more than forty years and the trusted eyes and ears of Florida taxpayers, Florida TaxWatch works to improve the productivity and accountability of Florida government. Its research recommends productivity enhancements and explains the statewide impact of fiscal and economic policies and practices on citizens and businesses. Florida TaxWatch is supported by its membership via voluntary, tax-deductible donations and private grants, and does not accept government funding. Donations provide a solid, lasting foundation that has enabled Florida TaxWatch to bring about a more effective, responsive government that is more accountable to, and productive for, the citizens it serves since 1979. For more information, please visit www.floridataxwatch.org.

Robert Weissert, EVP of Florida Taxwatch

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