If you like the toll lanes on Interstate 95 that let drivers pay for a faster ride while the motorized masses look on in envy, get ready for more — lots more.
In the next decade, Florida’s biggest cities will add toll lanes to the state’s busiest expressways. One hundred sixty-nine miles of toll lanes will arrive across the state in a series of projects that will be under construction until 2021, adding multiple toll lanes in South Florida, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville.
No one knows exactly how much it will cost. Maybe as little as $3 billion. Maybe double that.
What’s clear is that when the toll lanes are complete, they will be one of the largest infrastructure projects in state history.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
An analysis by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting shows that the toll lane projects got rolling in earnest thanks to state-funded reports produced by a think tank funded in part by toll lane developers. The work is being done under the supervision of Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad. He used to work for one of the state’s largest toll lane builders before approving billions of dollars in toll lane projects, some of which have gone to his former employer.
Prasad says toll lanes effectively create a free-market highway system, where only those who use them have to pay for them. “It’s about trying to efficiently move traffic,” Prasad said. “It’s about how we use existing lanes most efficiently.”
Imported From L.A.
The idea of dividing a highway into free lanes and separate toll lanes might not exist if Bob Poole hadn’t moved from Santa Barbara, California, to Los Angeles in 1986. Poole started the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, and when he relocated, he realized just how bad traffic could be.
Poole, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer, published a paper in 1988 that proposed separating one or two lanes of traffic into an area where commuters would pay a toll to travel faster. Tolls would vary according to traffic conditions, with supply and demand assuring that the toll lanes would always stay moving.
Then-California Gov. George Deukmejian liked the idea so much that he pushed through plans to add toll lanes to State Route 91 east of Los Angeles. It had an immediate impact on commutes, Poole recalls.
“People were suddenly able to go the speed limit on one of the most congested highways in the country,” Poole said.
Since then, toll lanes have spread to many of the nation’s major cities, including Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis and Miami, which saw lanes added to I-95 in 2008 from south of State Road 112 to the Golden Glades Interchange. Work is underway to extend them north to Central Broward, and eventually even farther.
Motorists pay 50 cents to $10.50 to ride in the express lanes, depending on traffic volume on the seven-mile stretch in Miami-Dade County. Contrary to what many people think, the cost is not a reflection of congestion in the free lanes, but is pegged to the number of vehicles using the toll lanes. The more cars that come in, the higher the toll.
FDOT says the setup has accelerated the commute on I-95, and not just in the express lanes. The regular lanes also move faster today, the department says.
The Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, which operates toll roads in the county, has its own plans to add lanes reserved for those willing to pay extra. On the drawing board: proposals for added-toll express lanes on State Roads 836, 112 and 874, along with the Snapper Creek Expressway and the Gratigny Parkway.
Similar lanes are coming to the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike.
In most places, they have reduced commute times for those who pay the toll, and in some instances even for drivers in the free lanes.
The idea of adding toll lanes in Florida didn’t arrive until 2001. That’s when FDOT called Poole and asked for his help. Poole began working as a consultant for the state, and in 2003 moved to Plantation.
The state hired Poole to study the viability of toll lanes in South Florida. In 2008 he published a 38-page report, A Managed Lanes Vision for South Florida, which would become a primer for toll lane plans across the state.
The report spelled out a future with toll lanes throughout the Miami metro area by 2030. Poole imagined an 852-mile toll lane network that could eliminate about one-third of the region’s wasted hours spent in congestion. The report does not estimate the cost of all those toll lanes, but based on present-day estimates, the cost would be about $22 billion.
In total, the state paid Poole $34,905 for his report and other work, according to the FDOT. That is in addition to the $200,000 yearly salary he makes from the Reason Foundation, according to tax documents.
After Scott’s election in 2011, the governor tapped Poole as a transportation advisor for his transition team. A year later, Poole wrote a second report that envisioned a future of toll lanes intersecting Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. That report was funded by the Reason Foundation, not the state.
Poole’s Reason Foundation receives funding from several companies that stand to benefit from the toll lane projects he has proposed. The think tank has accepted money from oil companies, car manufacturers and several construction companies that build toll lanes.
Among them is ACS Infrastructure Development, an international corporation with an office in Coral Gables. The company now manages the Interstate 595 reversible toll lanes and is building toll lanes on Interstate 75.
Poole says the money given to his think tank is irrelevant. “We do the work we do because it makes sense,” he said. “We have never done a project because someone has given us money.”
After Scott’s election, the governor brought in Prasad as secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
Prasad had been a longtime employee of FDOT. He left in 2008 to join HNTB, a Kansas City-based construction company that specializes in infrastructure projects, including toll lanes. Prasad spent two years as a vice president in HNTB’s office in Tallahassee, in charge of relations with FDOT on multiple state-funded projects. (Prasad did not oversee HNTB projects during his first stint at FDOT, and did not work on the I-95 improvements or other Florida toll projects during his stint with the company, a spokesman for FDOT said.)
HNTB has deep ties politically in Florida. Its political action committee amassed $397,000 in contributions since 2013. It contributes to mostly conservative candidates, including $25,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $25,000 to a political action committee that is working to reelect Scott.
Poole told the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that the toll lanes could cost as much as $6 billion. He cautioned that the amount could rise significantly if the lanes include flyovers, bridge repairs and other infrastructure upgrades.
At those prices, the toll lanes would become one of the largest infrastructure projects in Florida history, said James Clark, a historian and lecturer at the University of Central Florida.
In an interview, Prasad said he had the governor’s full support for the projects as long as they did not raise taxes. The plans are generally funded through bonds that are paid off by the tolls that are collected. Those bonds will multiply the costs of the projects. In Broward County, the Interstate 595 toll lanes were part of a $1.8 billion project; when the bonds are paid off in 10 years, it will cost about $4 billion more.
Prasad said his only motivation for approving toll lane projects is that they are the best way to move traffic quickly. Asked about whether his time at HNTB might have influenced his support of toll lanes, Prasad said: “Two years at a transportation firm doesn’t trump 20-plus years with the DOT. That is a far-fetched theory.”
Asked for Scott’s comment, his press secretary, John Tupps, emailed this response: “Governor Scott is proud to have invested a record $10.1 billion to improve Florida’s transportation infrastructure in the It’s Your Money Tax Cut Budget.”
Florida’s Toll Lane Future
In at least one instance, the completed plans looked far different than what was promised to local transportation officials.
In Miami, original FDOT designs of the I-95 toll lanes called for multiple exits and entrances, allowing commuters throughout Miami-Dade’s northern corridor to access the lanes. When built, they included entrances and exits only at the far ends of the lanes, meaning they largely benefit commuters traveling to or from Broward County.
Joe Quinty, a regional planner with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority in Pompano Beach, likened it to a bait and switch. “It's completely different from what was approved, and I can't believe people in Miami-Dade aren't up in arms about it,” Quinty said.
In Jacksonville, the state is building a pair of toll lane projects that will total 29 miles. The plans come despite a referendum Jacksonville voters passed in 1988 to rid the city’s highways of tolls in exchange for a half-cent sales tax. FDOT administrators say the state is not bound by the local referendum.
Some critics of toll projects claim they create “Lexus lanes,” where rich drivers get to speed past those who can’t afford the tolls.
That claim seems to be supported by a state-issued report on toll lane drivers, which found that 87 percent of motorists who use the lanes most frequently have an annual household income of more than $76,000. Of those, the people who use the lanes most frequently have household incomes of at least $150,000, three times the median household income in Florida.
Poole says the average cars driven by toll-lane drivers are affordable — Toyotas, Hondas and Chevys. He says the lanes give all drivers a chance to get somewhere when they’re in a hurry.
As for whether the money being spent on toll lanes could be used on mass transit, Prasad, the transportation secretary, says commuter rail lines don’t do enough to ease highway congestion.
“People say, ‘What about me? I’m stuck in traffic today?’” Prasad said. “Those who are against this do not have to use them. The consumer is ultimately in control.”
Eric Barton can be reached at email@example.com. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.
Florida Toll Lanes by the Numbers
I-95 Express Lanes Phase 1
Cost: $122 million
Length: 10 miles
Description: The state’s first express lanes extend from downtown Miami north to the Broward County line. Tolls range from 50 cents to $10.50, depending on traffic.
Cost: $1.8 billion
Length: 10 ½ miles
Description: Reversible toll lanes from Fort Lauderdale to west Broward County charge fees based on traffic conditions. Operated by a private contractor, I 595 Express LLC. Project included vast upgrades beyond the toll lanes, including improvements to 2 ½ miles of the Florida’s Turnpike.
I-95 Express Lanes Phase 2
Cost: $112 million
Length: 14 miles
Description: Extending existing express lanes from the Golden Glades Interchange in Miami-Dade County to Broward Boulevard in Broward County.
Scheduled to open: April 2015
Cost: $244 million
Length: 13 miles, from West Flagler Street to Northwest 154th Street in Miami
Description: Project will connect other Miami highway express lanes.
Scheduled to open: 2017
Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike
Cost: $186 million
Length: 18 miles, from Tallahassee Road to State Road 836
Description: Express lanes project will include overall widening and improvement projects.
Scheduled to open: First phase, 2017; second phase, 2018
I-95 Express Lanes Phase 3
Cost: $901.6 million (estimate)
Length: 29 miles
Description: Extending express lanes from Broward Boulevard to Linton Boulevard in Palm Beach County and multiple other highway improvements.
Scheduled to open: A portion will open in 2019; the rest is to be determined
I-75 Express Lanes
Cost: $481 million
Length: 15 miles
Description: Four toll lanes from Northwest 170 Street in Miami-Dade County to I-595 in Broward County. Includes other general highway improvements.
Scheduled to open: 2019