A growing nationwide trend toward toll roads could see more of them rolling out in Florida.
Under a new federal program that allows selected interstate highways to be reconstructed with tolls, Virginia will add tolls along the I-95 corridor and Missouri will toll its stretch of I-70.
Gov. Rick Scott hailed the extension of toll lanes on I-95 into Broward County last year, saying the move benefits all motorists.
"It took the rush-hour traffic for the nontolled lanes from 25 mph to 45 (mph). So for people not paying the toll it was a big benefit [too]," Scott said in a series of radio interviews last year.
"We're going to start doing that across the state," the governor said.
On cue, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad says he wants a private company to build four middle toll lanes on I-4 through Orlando. Under his plan, the company would operate the lanes for 30 years.
The number of free lanes on the heavily traveled stretch would remain the same, officials said.
With little or no public appetite for raising gasoline taxes -- the main source for highway funding -- tolls appear to be taking the inside track.
A recent Reason Foundation poll has found that people are more willing to pay tolls than increased fuel taxes, by a margin of 58 percent to 28 percent.
The newly formed U.S. Tolling Coalition says many interstates are nearing the end of their 50-year design life, and that upgrades are needed.
The prospect of more toll revenue has, naturally, spawned conflicting ideas over who should control the money. Two recent studies argued for diametrically opposed models.
One, from a cost-saving task force commissioned by Scott, recommends a consolidation of toll road authorities in the state.
Matt Falconer, a member of the Government Efficiency Task Force, calls the current arrangement a debt-ridden "Ponzi scheme" with inefficiencies that could lead to $10 tolls.
The second study, by the libertarian-oriented Reason Foundation, said toll agencies should be freed from FDOT supervision "so they can better meet local needs."
Florida has long been a national leader with its local tolling authority model, said Robert Poole, one of the principal authors of the Reason study. Other states, like Texas, embrace this model, and for Florida to create a bigger government bureaucracy would be a mistake.
The study disputed claims that consolidation will net as much as $24 million in annual cost reductions. Reason said most of those savings have already been realized through collaboration among local authorities and contracting with private-sector vendors.
The Reason study, funded through a grant from Associated Industries of Florida, argued that greater autonomy for local toll authorities would foster "strong, self-supporting urban toll agencies and level the playing field for all tolling agencies."
Skeptics of the consolidation model worry that it would boost borrowing capacity to $5 billion and give a centralized authority undue latitude to embark on controversial or nonessential toll projects, such as state Sen. J.D. Alexander's long-sought Heartland Parkway running south from Polk County.
Suspicious of previous attempts at toll-authority consolidation, critics estimate Heartland would cost two to three times more than the $1.8 billion Wekiva Parkway around Orlando.
Whichever model moves forward, Scott said Florida can designate toll lanes on federal highways as long as the state adds a new lane.
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.