In the early 19th century the Transcendentalist poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, sadly finding himself in Tallahassee, observed the city was“a grotesque place, rapidly settled by public officers, land speculators and desperados” before quickly getting out of the den of mendacity while he still had a few pennies left in his pocket.
That is not exactly a carefully crafted lyrical couplet from such a gifted wordsmith, but accurate nonetheless. About the only thing that has changed since Emerson’s time in Tallahassee is that the checks have gotten bigger.
It is especially true when you consider that Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which came into office on a wave of antispending tea party anger toward big government, has embarked on a multibillion-dollar toll road expansion without public hearings or the slightest interest in what the great unwashed who are expected to pay for all this cement think about the idea.
There are so many obtuse conflicts of interest associated with Scott’s Road to Fleece-o that this deal could be a bonus episode of Boardwalk Empire.
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As Eric Barton of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting has reported, over the next decade the state will spend at least $3 billion to create a 169-mile network of enhanced toll roads in Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando and Tampa. If you navigate the perpetual Tampa I-275/I-4 construction maze of detours, shifting lanes, flashing advisories and guys leaning on their shovels, expect more, probably until you die.
Now you might think such a massive infrastructure project would include public input, if for no other reason other than to offer the appearance that government has some interest in the public’s opinion.
Regardless of how you feel about the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum, at least the residents of the county are being given a voice to determine their public transportation future.
Alas, Scott and his Renfield of asphalt, Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, already knew all they needed to know about expanding toll roads. Why bother the great unwashed with silly stuff like taxation without representation?
The genesis for the exclusive toll roads can be traced to a think tank in part funded by (you'll never guess this one) toll lane developers. It also didn’t hurt that before he became the state’s gridlock czar, Prasad was schmoozing FDOT as a Tallahassee vice president with Kansas City-based HNTB, one of the largest toll road builders, which will ultimately benefit from the pay-as-you-go byways. Aren’t coincidences amazing?
It was libertarian Reason Foundation founder Bob Poole who can claim to be the Godfather of Toll in Florida, after a 38-page manifesto he wrote titled “A Managed Lanes Vision for South Florida” (can’t wait for the movie version) was embraced by Scott and Prasad as the answer to picking the pockets of Florida’s drivers.
From there Poole became a Tallahassee version of Being There’s Chauncey Gardiner to Scott and Prasad as he cranked out additional reports proposing 579 miles of new toll lanes that would cost an estimated $11.4 billion. At this rate, it might cost you $10 on your SunPass just to pull into your driveway.
But these were hardly reasoned scholarly studies on the efficacy of toll roads, considering that the Reason Foundation, where Poole hauls down his own tariff of $200,000 a year thinking thoughts in a tank, receives a chunk of its funding from oil companies, car manufactures and construction firms specializing in toll road building. Or that the proposed 169 miles of Florida toll roads that would average out to about $1,183.43 per thought.
When the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting started asking about all these apparent footsie-wootsie conflicts of interest, everyone got suitably indignantly huffy. That suggests that in Tallahassee, cronyism means never having to say you’re a sorry idea-du-jour for hire.
Poole insisted all the transit/toll road special interest money flowing into the Reason Foundation had zero effect on all that cogitating going on in his think tank. “We do the work we do because it makes sense.” Or perhaps cents?
Prasad insisted his sole, Simon Pure motivation in pushing for enhanced toll lanes that could benefit his former employer is to improve traffic flow. You might deduce Prasad was channeling his inner Curly Howard that he was but a“victim of coicumstance!”
And what of Scott? He wasn’t talking. It might have taken too much of a toll on his time.
Daniel Ruth writes for the Tampa Bay Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org