TRN Weekly Review: Week of Jan. 29-Feb. 4, 2023

Florida Governor Proposed A Multibillion Dollar Plan To Accelerate Major Highway Projects

Florida Politics reported, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R) on Monday announced a “$7 billion infrastructure plan that, if approved by lawmakers, could speed up 20 different road projects mainly in Central and South Florida. Called “Moving Florida Forward,” the Governor’s plan calls for spending $4 billion and borrowing the additional money to accelerate construction of the roads. Without the added funding, DeSantis said, some of the roads wouldn’t be built for another 20 years.” Most of the funding will come from the state’s general revenue surplus, but DeSantis said he will also add $134 million to Florida DOT’s budget over four years. The 20 targeted projects include an I-4 expansion that includes new express lanes between US 27 and Champions Gate ($635 million), a similar I-4 expansion from Champions Gate to Osceola Parkway ($1.45 billion), and a Poinciana Parkway extension connector from CR 532 to SR 429 ($1.32 billion).

In a news release from the governor’s office, FDOT Secretary Jared Perdue said his department has already “worked closely with communities and our partners through the years to plan and prepare these projects for construction. Receiving this funding will allow the vision of each project to become a reality in the immediate future. . . .”

On Wednesday, DeSantis (R) unveiled a $114.8 billion FY 2024 budget framework that included a $14.7 billion annual appropriation for Florida DOT, $13.4 billion of which would be allocated to the five-year State Transportation Work Program. An FDOT news release noted that the proposed budget figure does not include the additional funding DeSantis wants given to the department through the Moving Florida Forward initiative.

Florida DOT Unveiled Plans For Turnpike Widening In Broward County

WLRN reported, at recent public meetings, Florida DOT unveiled plans to widen a segment of Florida’s Turnpike mainline (SR 91) by adding auxiliary lanes between SR 821 and SR 818 in Broward County. The Transportation Systems Management and Operations project will “repurpose the shoulders of the Turnpike into drivable lanes from Miramar Parkway to Griffin Road” in order to improve mobility and safety, especially around ramps. WLRN noted, “The surrounding area saw 1,328 crashes from 2014-2018, according to the FDOT presentation. Those crashes resulted in two fatalities and 242 injuries.” The project is still in design, but three years of construction are expected to start in 2024. Management will reportedly be split between Kimley-Horn and American Consulting. FDOT called the project an “interim solution” and noted, “Traffic predictions indicate that an ultimate widening will be needed along this corridor in the near future.”

Court Decision Unlocked A Half-Billion Dollars For Bay Area Transportation Projects

The Mercury News reported, Bay Area transportation planners “are breathing a collective sigh of relief” over the California Supreme Court’s dismissal of an appeal by a taxpayer organization that unsuccessfully challenged a 2018 voter referendum authorizing a series of toll bridge rate hikes. The ruling means $545 million in toll revenue previously tied up in escrow does not need to be refunded to motorists and is available to be spent for its intended purpose, which is to fund large-scale transit and highway projects in the region. A representative of the Bay Area Council, a business organization that led support for the referendum, commented, “This is the largest regional measure that’s been passed in Bay Area history. The voters who passed this measure are already paying for the tolls and now they can finally start to reap the benefits.”

These are some of the toll industry developments TRN covered last week. If you’re not a subscriber to Daily News Briefs, click here for a free, 14-day trial. Read the news as it happens every weekday.

Harris County Lawmakers Approved A Plan To Reduce Some HCTRA Toll Rates

Houston Chronicle reported, on Tuesday, Harris County commissioners unanimously approved a policy change that will eventually reduce by 10 percent county toll rates paid by two-axle vehicle drivers with EZ TAG. The action “marks the first-ever decrease in HCTRA [Harris County Toll Road Authority] rates, and the first change in tolls since September 2015.” The new rates will take effect in September, “once HCTRA finalizes the details and then changes all of its internal billing systems to levy the lower prices.” According to authority staff, the move will reduce revenue by an estimated $894 million over ten years but not affect debt repayment or planned construction of new walking and cycling trails. Frequent commuters (who use EZ TAG) could save $10.00 or more a month following the reduction, which will not apply to rates paid by customers using TxTag or other ETC system transponders. The small minority of motorists who still don’t use a transponder or go online to pay tolls will actually see their costs rise, since HCTRA is shifting the expense of issuing mail invoices onto them. The article looked at the rationale for the new rate structure and concern that it may lead to congestion on HCTRA tollways.

Colorado DOT Postponed The Start Of Central 70 Express Tolling

The Denver Post reported, Colorado DOT has postponed the scheduled February 28 start of tolling on its new Central 70 express lanes. A department spokesman said the tolling system contractor, Electronic Transaction Consultants (ETC), “has run into ‘software issues’ and other challenges as it prepares the equipment.” He added, “Our hope is to [start tolling] before spring. We might end up considerably sooner than that, but we’re just in a holding pattern at the moment.” The Post reported last month that the Colorado Transportation Investment Office board approved the facility’s toll rates. Drivers are enjoying free use of the lanes while toll system testing takes place.

North Carolina Lawmaker Said He Is Considering Legislation To Toll I-95

“North Carolina State Senator Tom McInnis (R) is considering proposing a bill that could turn I-95 into a toll turnpike,” WNCN reported. McInnis chairs the senate’s transportation and transportation appropriations committees. The revenue would be used to fund updates and maintenance on the state’s entire stretch of the highway. North Carolina is currently expanding I-95 to eight lanes on one segment near Fayetteville. Most of that work is funded through fuel taxes, which increased this year by two cents, reaching 40.5 cents. NCDOT’s 2016 I-95 Planning and Finance Study evaluated various financing models for I-95, and concluded that tolling “would best allow NCDOT to address the long-term needs of the corridor in a timely manner.”

New Jersey Turnpike Added 40 Positions As Part Of A 2023 Budget Amendment reported, at their Tuesday, January 31, meeting, New Jersey Turnpike Authority (NJTA) commissioners voted unanimously to amend their 2023 budget and add 40 new employees. The decision “would bring the Turnpike Authority workforce to 2,170, the largest increase in several years. The change adds 29 new positions to maintenance and six to the operations department and provides ‘additional staffing in targeted locations during overnight hours.’ It restores 32 maintenance positions lost between 2019 and 2021 through a 2020 reorganization, when the Maintenance Department was merged with the Operations Department, and 14 maintenance employees were transferred to engineering and 17 to State Police, according to [2021] budget documents.” NJTA staff said a $15 million anticipated increase in the authority’s investment income due to rising interest rates will more than cover the annual cost of the new hires, for which $5.2 million was included in the amended budget.

Colorado Expects Major Work On Two I-25 Express Sections To Finish By March 2024

Coloradoan reported, major construction of the Johnstown-to-Fort Collins leg of Colorado DOT’s years-long, $750-million I-25 North Express Lanes Project is due for completion by mid-December. Work on the Johnstown-to-Berthoud stretch will take three months longer, until March 2024. “Interstate 25 toll testing and integration of the Johnstown to Fort Collins segment are expected to take place in the first half of 2024.” The article looked at the progress of construction on four segments of the project, as well as the work scheduled for this year.

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TCA Boards Approved Bond Buybacks To Achieve Early Debt Retirement Savings

During their joint January meeting, the boards of the Transportation Corridor Agencies approved an open market bond buyback program that will use unrestricted cash for the purchase and retirement of bonds “that investors have publicly offered to sell, as well as reaching out to limited investors who may want to sell their bonds.” The program will allow both of TCA’s constituent agencies to buy bonds “at attractive prices” and pay them off early with immediate savings. A resolution adopted by both boards permits the chief financial officer to purchase and retire bonds “within specified savings parameters for a cumulative not-to-exceed amount of $100 million per Agency. Staff will provide quarterly results on the progress of the program.”

Threats Against OK Turnpike Officials Motivated Contractors To Launch Support Campaign

The Association of Oklahoma General Contractors’ campaign drumming up support for the ACCESS Oklahoma turnpike expansion initiative is partly a response to vitriolic opposition to the $5 billion plan, The Oklahoman reports. The association’s executive director, cited “one expletive-filled message sent to Joe Echelle, deputy director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, [which] suggested people would be coming for him and that his ‘days are numbered.’” Echelle confirmed that he’s received multiple threats related to the controversial proposal. As of Wednesday, however, the state’s Public Safety Department said “the matter is not under active investigation.” A member of the grassroots group Pike Off OTA, which is at the forefront of opposition to expansion, denied the organization’s involvement in any threats. The article provided a recap and update on the status of the beleaguered project, as well as several current bills that would introduce new legislative oversight of turnpike projects.

New Law Compels New Jersey Toll Agencies To Check Account Records Before Issuing Violations reported, a bill that became law on Thursday requires the New Jersey Turnpike Authority (which operates the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway) and the South Jersey Expressway Authority (operator of the Atlantic City Expressway) to check whether a driver has a valid E-ZPass account before issuing an electronic toll violation notice. The measure also imposes responsibilities on E-ZPass customers and officials intended to ensure that account records are kept up to date. The law’s chief advocate, Senator Declan O’Scanlon (R-13), acknowledged that the toll agencies were already supposed to make account checks as a matter of policy. However, he said legislation was required because of administrative lapses that led to thousands of E-ZPass holders in good standing receiving violation notices that included penalty fees.

Industry People Made News

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Dorothy Abreu, “the banker Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed as chairwoman of the [Illinois Tollway authority] board of directors less than a year ago, is stepping down. Abreu, a senior vice president for PNC, said the ‘demanding role’ of the tollway position contributed to health issues and that she is leaving to ‘focus on my health and focus on my family.’” Abreu was appointed in February 2022 after an internal power struggle led to the departure of her predecessor, Will Evans, and the authority’s executive director, José Alvarez. In a press release, Governor Pritzker (D) expressed appreciation for Abreu’s service and named authority vice chair Jim Connolly the board’s interim leader.

Newport Beach, CA, Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill and Laguna Hills, CA, Mayor Janine Heft were unanimously reappointed as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency (SJHTCA). The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency (F/ETCA) board unanimously elected San Juan Capistrano City Council Member John Taylor as chair and Mission Viejo Mayor Pro Tem Trish Kelley as vice chair for 2023. The SJHTCA board seated two new members: Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley (who serves jointly on the F/ETCA board) and Laguna Niguel City Council Member Stephanie Oddo. New appointees to the F/ETCA board were Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken, Orange City Council Member Denis Bilodeau and Yorba Linda City Council Member Dr. Beth Haney.

COWI North America announced that John Westphal, PE, joined the engineering firm’s Southeast Transportation team as head of section and associate project director. He is tasked with developing COWI staff and generating business opportunities in the southeast US. Westphal came to COWI from S&ME, Inc. He previously managed the Construction Structures Section of Florida DOT’s Office of Construction.

Recent Rate Hikes Haven’t Reduced Detroit-Windsor Tunnel Traffic

CBC News reported, “Traffic volumes at the Windsor-Detroit tunnel last month are nearing pre-pandemic levels despite a toll increase of 25 [Canadian] cents for Detroit-bound traffic. . . . According to Carolyn Brown, chief executive officer of Windsor-Detroit Borderlink, the operator of the Windsor half of the tunnel, it handled 309,000 vehicles in January 2019, and last month, 274,000 vehicles made the trip both ways.” Although the operator of the facility’s US side also increased tolls (by US$1.00 on January 15) “Brown doesn’t see the toll increases as a deterrent to travel.” Brown noted that the tunnel is still the least expensive option for crossing the Detroit River, and motorists from both sides of the border can obtain significant discounts by opening a Nexpress electronic toll payment account.

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