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Inside "Florida's Toll Lane Boom"


As part of our End of the Road series, we’ve reported extensively on the so-called “Lexus Lanes” on I-95. In the 95 express lanes drivers can pay a toll to get around regular gridlock traffic. That toll varies based on how many car are piling into the express lanes at that moment. The more demand, the higher the toll -- to keep things moving.

The lanes were the first of their kind in Florida, but a new report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting says 95 Express is the future for Florida’s highways.

We spoke with reporter Eric Barton about his story: Florida’s Toll Lane Boom.

You write that over the next decade or so, the state’s tolled express lanes will become one of the largest infrastructure projects in Florida history. Potentially more expensive than even the Kennedy Space Center. How is that even possible?

Yeah, that’s right. The difficult part is that nobody has ever really totaled this up. And a lot of these express lane projects are included in other highway projects so it’s really hard to figure out exactly how much it’s going to cost. But the estimates put it somewhere around three to six billion dollars.

And we’re talking about lanes like we see on 95 -- and the new ones on 595 Express. And locally we know the Palmetto is getting some express lanes, 75. But this is a state-wide initiative really.

Yeah, that’s right. One of the biggest ones is in Orlando. The whole length of I-4 in Orlando will have these lanes. Jacksonville’s getting a couple. Tampa’s getting at least one. By the end of this, pretty much every major city in Florida will have one.

A big part of your investigation was the seeming conflicts of interest you found. What did you find?

Yeah, so there are many connections when you look at who handled the approvals here. [Governor] Rick Scott received campaign funding from companies that build these lanes. He put in a Department of Transportation Secretary [Ananth Prasad] who used to work for a company that builds these lanes. And when he came in he and Rick Scott had developed a plan to green-light these projects quickly. And so some of them went to [Prasad’s] former employer.

And we should say, you spoke with Secretary Ananth Prasad for your story. What did he tell you?

Yeah, he says-- He has worked on and off for FDOT for 20 years. And so he says a couple of the years that he worked for this construction company isn’t going to cloud his decision on this issue. And he sees these lanes as the answer to mass transit in Florida.

FDOT’s own numbers indicate that the 95 Express lanes, at least, seem to be working out for people whether or not they’re actually using the express lanes. One report shows rush hour traffic -- in all lanes -- moving as much as twice as fast after the express lanes were installed. Do we know what the effectiveness of the express lane concept is overall?

Yeah, that’s a really good question. So the only real reports we have on this were produced by either FDOT or a consultant hired by FDOT who does receive money from some of the companies who build these lanes. So you have to couch the numbers. But all of the reports that have been produced claim that more cars are being moved. They did add a lane on 95. So it’s possible it’s just -- they added a lane. But the supporters of this say because of the efficiency of these lanes that they can move more cars quicker.

I-95 Express was part of a bigger federal program to reduce congestion. FDOT has told me that they had to apply to be part of this program. And the fact that they could make it happen so quickly was part of the reason FDOT’s proposal was so attractive.

Yeah, you know it’s interesting. I had a planner in South Florida tell me that he has never seen government working at the speed at which they have worked on these lanes. FDOT can approve this pretty much without any real local say. But the FDOT secretary told me: Look, this is how highway construction works. People don’t vote on this. And that’s fair. We don’t. We never really have a vote on highway construction. But when you’re talking about six billion dollars, I’m imagining there are a lot of commuters out there who would like to have a vote on it.

Eric Barton is a freelance reporter and wrote the story “Florida’s Toll Lane Boom” for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

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