Hearing set for Santa Rosa toll bridge

A Leon County circuit judge has scheduled a hearing next week on a request that he order the Florida Department of Transportation to increase tolls on a financially troubled Panhandle bridge. Circuit Judge John Cooper will hear arguments Feb. 26 on the request by UMB Bank, which represents bondholders who argue toll increases are needed to meet financial obligations for the Garcon Point Bridge.

UMB Bank filed a lawsuit in 2018 because bonds used to finance the bridge, which spans part of Pensacola Bay, were in default. Cooper in December directed the Department of Transportation to raise tolls. But it did not do so by Feb. 1, leading UMB Bank to go back to Cooper to request an order.

The dispute stems from about $95 million in bonds that the state-created Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority issued in 1996 to pay for construction of the bridge, which has been known in Tallahassee as “Bo’s Bridge” because it was championed by former House Speaker Bo Johnson of Milton. The bridge opened in 1999, but toll income has been inadequate to meet the financial obligations, a situation that has been complicated because the bridge authority has been effectively defunct since 2014, according to court documents.