By Lloyd Dunkelberger
THE NEWS SERICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE — A new proposal to pay $51 million in cash to buy “Bo’s Bridge,” a controversial span in the Panhandle, emerged Monday in the House.
In a 16-0 vote, the Government Accountability Committee approved a bill (HB 1281) that would pay bondholders about 38 cents for every $1 of the $135 million owed on the Garcon Point Bridge, a 3.5-mile toll facility located near Pensacola.
The bill would also cut the toll rate from $3.75 for a one-way trip to $2 on the span, which is widely known as Bo’s Bridge, after former House Speaker Bolley “Bo” Johnson, who pushed the project. The bridge ended up in default because not enough motorists use the facility.
Rep. Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican sponsoring the bill, offered the cash plan as a replacement for an original proposal, which would have given the state the option of acquiring the span from the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority by issuing new bonds through the Florida Turnpike. The bonds would have been based on more realistic projections of bridge traffic and toll revenue.
The new plan seeks to acquire the bridge by taking the $135 million owed, as of last July, and then deducting a $7.9 million loan from the state and some $25 million in operations and maintenance costs that have been covered by the state Department of Transportation.
That would leave $102 million, with Williamson saying the state would pay half of that, or $51 million.
The state would pay for the bridge by taking the $51 million “off the top” of funding for the Department of Transportation’s annual work program, which pays for projects in seven transportation districts across the state, Williamson said.
He said the money transferred from the work program would be paid back over a number of years from tolls, which would also have to cover the annual operations and maintenance costs for the bridge, which are now around $1.5 million.
“Over the next 20, 25 years this will look like it’s revenue neutral,” Williamson said. “But it’s going to take time. It’s almost like taking a loan from parents and paying it back.”
Williamson said he advanced the cash plan Monday in an amendment because the original bill was stalling with the Florida Turnpike bond option.
He said one of the keys to the new plan is the toll-rate reduction. The bill would cut the toll to $2 for a minimum of two years and then allow gradual increases.
After two years, the toll could be increased to $2.50, and then every two years after that it could increase by no more than 25 cents every two years. All the toll increases would be preceded by a public hearing.
Williamson said the toll cut was “kind of reset” to get more motorists to use the bridge.
“Over time it’s trying to find that specific spot where the tolls are high enough where you generate enough money to pay for operations and maintenance and hopefully pay $3 (million) to $4 million back towards the work (program) each year,” Williamson said. “But the tolls are also low enough where the ridership is there and the bridge is being used by the local public.”
Williamson’s bill is now ready to go to the House floor A Senate bill (SB 1436) is awaiting a hearing in the Appropriations Committee. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, includes a bond option for acquiring the bridge.