Published in the Destin Log, April 26, 2010 4:36 PM
In a month or two, the Okaloosa County Commission will cast its annual vote about one of the largest government financial enterprises in the county, the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority Budget.
The Mid-Bay Bridge, and the authority that runs it, are no minor matter. The tolls cost a regular bridge user $3 a day, or $15 a week, or $780 a year — even more if you are a visitor or do not use the SunPass system. This is a significant expense for anyone.
A key factor in this discussion is that the Bridge Authority financial report is “dependent to Okaloosa County” but the county decided sometime in the past to not include it in general purpose financial statements. This is because of accounting differences between the county and the Bridge Authority.
If it were included, the current Bridge Authority debt would represent more than a doubling of the total county commission liabilities, from $130.4 million to $291 million dollars. Future debts caused by funding the $190 million dollar road expansion currently under construction can only get bigger.
The key question to be asked about the road expansion is “will future road traffic justify such costs?”
I do not think so.
The idea that vehicular traffic will appreciably grow in the future is a flawed concept. It has fallen four years in a row.
America is undergoing fundamental economic change. The country as a whole is overburdened with a mountain of debt. Federal taxation is set to explode over the coming year.
The recession will continue to put a damper on summer vacation traffic, and fuel is likely to permanently go up in price in both real and nominal terms, which will reduce vehicular business and vacation traffic.
Furthermore, who knows what effect new auto regulations will have on people using their cars? Future government regulation of vehicles will probably make them more expensive, making them less available, and further reducing money left over for vacations and business travel.
The purpose of any government agency is to provide a service that the private sector cannot provide and to do so at the least cost. The best government services are those that are debt free and cost the user little.
Instead of adopting a strategy of keeping costs to a minimum, paying off debt, and then passing on the savings to those who work and use the bridge, the Bridge Authority has opted for a strategy of expansion.
It will prove to be a costly mistake, with greater debt and higher tolls in our future.
I ask you to consider:
•The bridge cost $67 million to build.
•$12 million dollars has been spent on tollbooth and access road expansions already.
•The bridge and road infrastructure costs roughly $3 million a year to operate and maintain.
•It takes in roughly $12 million dollars a year in tolls.
•It pays roughly $6 million dollars a year in interest payments, leaving $3 million a year to be used for capital projects that will cost $190 million.
If the Bridge Authority road expansion plans continue, there will be bigger government debts funded by fewer people paying tolls.
Mid-Bay Bridge Traffic will not be able to support the debts that the Bridge Authority is currently accumulating, at least not without another toll increase.
Instead of this situation, I propose the Bridge Authority finances be organized to pay off debt and lower tolls.
Had the bridge authority been organized in the past to pay off debt, it is conceivable the tolls could have been as small as 50 cents one way instead of the $1.50 they are now. This would have paid for operations and maintenance and even the accumulation of a prudent emergency fund.
I urge the BCC to review and make a determination about stopping the Capital Improvements Project, and save thousands of users the extra costs associated with high bridge tolls.
There is a real chance of having more road than we need.
The County needs to change assumptions about growth. Reorganize the Bridge Authority finances to pay off debt. Turn the bridge into a low-cost service to the county.
Remember, the only thing worse than having to pay a high toll, is for your kids to pay a higher one for underused roads.
Pete Blome is a Niceville resident and chairman of the Libertarian Party of Okaloosa County. The group’s Web site is libertarianpoc.org