Florida: Road bill should be shelved - Clarifying efforts not enough to save proposal this session

Florida Capital News

Florida - 4/15/03 - Legislation creating a Southwest Florida Transportation Authority almost got in under the radar this session without being adequately discussed or understood by local officials and the public.

It's a lesson in the need for local legislation to be thoroughly vetted in public by our legislative delegation, especially when it is linked to special interests and sets up potentially powerful new agencies.

As proposed, the authority could, in the view of some critics, usurp the role of local elected officials in Lee and Collier counties in planning and building key highway projects.

If local officials are left out, so is the public. Even if that was not the intention and would not be the result of the legislation as drafted, there is too much confusion and concern about this proposal. It should be withdrawn for this legislative session and brought back next year for more careful consideration.

HB 257 and its Senate companion would give the authority sweeping power to build toll roads and expressways in Lee and Collier counties, including the power to select highway routes, condemn property and issue bonds to raise construction money.

The sponsor of the legislation in the House, Rep. Mike Davis, R-Naples, says it was not meant to circumvent local elected officials. He says it was always intended that county commissioners in Lee and Collier would have to approve any project sponsored by the authority.

But Davis is nevertheless revising the bill's language to make that "crystal clear."

Davis is also clarifying language in the bill to eliminate any confusion over whether the county commissioners on the authority's governing board are voting members.

The bill calls for a governing board of seven voting members, including one county commissioner from Lee and one from Collier. Two other members from each county would be appointed by the governor. The seventh member is the state highway department's district supervisor.

This clarification needs to be done prior to the legislative session, not during it. Some commissioners are so unhappy about the flap that they won't be content with adjustments.

"This doesn't need just tweaking," said Lee County Commissioner Andy Coy. "This needs to be buried."

"My input is kill this thing right now," said Coy's fellow commissioner, Bob Janes.

The legislation was drafted by the Southwest Florida Transportation Initiative, which has done some good work bringing together private and public interests to lobby for more and faster road money for the region.

But the initiative is composed largely of representatives of the development and building industries and the people who work for them. That gave rise to the suspicion that business interests were trying to create an authority that would build the roads they want, where they want them, to promote development.

Legislation creating a toll road authority may be a good idea, a good tool to have in meeting the region's transportation needs. But this proposal was not thoroughly debated or understood either by the legislative delegation or by local county commissioners. It needs to be.

Urge our legislators to delay this proposal until next year.


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