The Mid Bay Bridge takes its toll

If you work in Destin and live north of the bay, you probably use the Mid Bay Bridge. The bridge costs you $3 a day, or $15 a week, or $780 a year.

That is a significant sum of money, and about half of all people who use the bridge have the Sunpass system implying they have regular business on the Emerald Coast. Just imagine if the bridge tolls were reduced to 50 cents or so, mainly to maintain and operate the bridge. People would keep in their pocket a yearly amount equal to the individual Federal tax rebate.

So why doesn’t that happen?

Tolls are about government priorities, and, like most government bureaucracies, the Mid Bay Bridge Authority (MBBA) is focused on expansion. They expanded the toll plaza, they want to expand the access road from SR20 to the bridge, and periodically the idea of a second span gets floated in the press. Growth is so American and seems to be what matters to the MBBA, not necessarily the most bridge for the least cost.

Bridge use has gone down the last two years, and future traffic will probably be less. So is this focus on growth wise? Times are hard in the USA, and they are going to get harder. Growth plans that expect an increase in automobile traffic like we’ve seen in the USA for the last 50 years fly in the face of permanently higher fuel prices and a weaker economy. There is a real chance of having the tolls support more road than we need.

But reducing debt and passing on the savings to the public is guaranteed to be the most bridge for the least cost. A review of how bridge money has been used shows that paying off debt has not been a priority. As of 2007, the MBBA accumulated $155 million in current bond debts. In the previous 14 years of operation they paid off $10 million in bonds plus $15 million loaned to it by the Okaloosa County Commissioners. They have also made $117 million in interest payments.

At the same time, the MBBA collected $413 million in total revenue, and are now sitting on $93 million in cash and investments.

Considering the bridge cost only $67 million to build in the first place, and recently had a $6.5 million toll booth expansion, the MBBA seems to be accumulating a nice nest egg at your expense.

Paying off debt and reducing tolls is in the County’s best interest. Besides the obvious benefit of everyone paying less, there would probably be a boost to local business as people have more money to spend on stuff they like instead of an extra tax to get to work. Visitors here would have extra money to spend on businesses that line the route. An additional benefit would be less funding in general for the government bureaucracy that, as any Libertarian knows, would hinder other unnecessary growth.

The residents of Okaloosa County are far from powerless in this matter. The MBBA must submit its operating budget every year to the Board of County Commissioners for approval. Paraphrasing the amendments to the Florida statutes (FS 86-465 and FS 88-542), the County Commissioners may increase or reduce the total amount requested under the provisions of the bridge budget as the County Commission deems advisable. Let your commissioner know that lower tolls are better than expansions that will take decades to pay for.

After all, the only thing worse than having to pay a high toll is for your kids to pay a higher one for underused roads.

Peter J. Blome

(Peter J. Blome is a retired military officer and Secretary of the Libertarian Party of Okaloosa County. He can be contacted at blomep@cox.net)