By Jim Turner
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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis wants court-ordered toll rates to be cut nearly 50 percent on Northwest Florida’s controversial Garcon Point Bridge, which he would like the state to acquire.
Appearing with lawmakers at the bridge’s toll plaza on Wednesday, DeSantis directed the state Department of Transportation’s Turnpike Enterprise to reach a settlement with bondholders who financed the span across a section of Pensacola Bay in the 1990s.
Bondholders in recent years have been locked in a legal battle with the Department of Transportation about tolls not producing enough revenue to pay off the $95 million in bonds and interest. A Leon County circuit judge in late 2019 ordered toll increases, which took effect in early 2020.
Under DeSantis’ plan, toll rates would go from $5 for cash-paying customers to $2.75 and from $4.50 to $2.30 for drivers with SunPass transponders. After announcing the plan Wednesday, DeSantis left without taking questions from reporters.
Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said it could take several weeks for toll rates to be lowered as part of a long-range acquisition plan that would include the Legislature eventually putting the changes into law.
“Over the next few weeks, we’ll be doing the necessary reprogramming of IT systems to properly incorporate the new toll schedule, as well as obviously new signs,” Thibault said. “We will also be training our toll collectors and customer service representatives on the new rates.”
State officials did not provide a price tag for the state to acquire the bridge. But Department of Transportation spokeswoman Beth Frady said in an email Wednesday that while “legal remedies” are always a possibility to acquire the structure, the “FDOT believes strongly that there is a shared desire by both parties to negotiate a settlement.”
Frady said the turnpike system’s strong credit profile should allow the agency to refinance outstanding debt on the bridge, while the new toll rates should be enough to operate and maintain the bridge. She said the toll increases had been needed to pay bondholders, not for operation and maintenance of the bridge.
Frady also said the acquisition cost will be mixed into the department’s annual work program “like any other capital project.”
The Legislature in 1992 created the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority, which had authority to build the bridge and issue bonds. The bridge was known in Tallahassee as “Bo’s Bridge” because it was championed by former state House Speaker Bo Johnson of Milton.
The authority issued the bonds in 1996, with the bridge opening in 1999. But the bridge had inadequate toll revenue, a problem that was eventually complicated by the fact that the authority effectively became defunct in 2014. The Department of Transportation has managed the bridge.
UMB Bank, a trustee for bondholders, filed a lawsuit in December 2018 against the Department of Transportation to try to force increased revenues. A year later, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that the department should raise tolls from $3.75, which had been the amount since 2011.
A court document filed last year by UMB Bank attorneys said the amount owed on the bonds was about $134.9 million as of July, 1, 2018, and that the amount had continued to increase.
Though tolls were raised in early 2020 after Cooper’s order, the sides began battling again after the state waived the tolls while the Pensacola Bay Bridge was under repairs following Hurricane Sally in September. The state argued that the tolls needed to be waived because motorists had to take the Garcon Point Bridge during the Pensacola Bay Bridge repairs.
But the bondholders argued in court that the tolls were suspended for too long. The tolls were reinstated in mid-June.
DeSantis alluded to the Pensacola Bay Bridge repairs as he announced the Garcon Point toll reduction Wednesday.
“We believe it’s good to provide this relief to the folks here in Northwest Florida,” DeSantis said. “We understand the difficulty that many had commuting. We were happy that the Pensacola Bay Bridge is back. But we also know that $5 is a lot. And so, we’re doing this and hopefully be able to get this whole bridge situation finally stabilized.”
Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said the governor’s proposal would spur economic development in the region as the toll bridge connects U.S. 98 east of Gulf Breeze with Interstate 10 west of Milton.
“You’ve never seen me cry in public. But this is so big,” Broxson said. “This bridge is 30 years old. In 1992, there was a plan to put the bridge together on an ill-conceived traffic study that generated hardship for investors, and certainly for the citizens of this county.”