What A Deal
On October 1st the Mid Bay Bridge Authority (MBBA) will raise tolls on the Bridge and Bypass so that a round trip from Crestview to Destin will cost a “non frequent” user $12. If a person uses the bridge more than 40 times a month, their toll stays at $7 round trip, but if they use it 39 times or less using Sunpass, they’ll pay $9. Just a few years ago people would have scoffed at the notion of such high tolls. Perhaps we all should be thankful they aren’t higher.
When the government is called upon to provide services, which should always be the last resort, they should provide the greatest amount at the least cost. What Okaloosa has now are tolls that cost workers who use the Bridge and Bypass even part time at least a $1000 a year. That isn’t chump change, nor does it help economic growth. How did something as simple as managing a bridge get so out of hand?
First, from early on, and in typical government fashion, the Bridge Authority relied on debt instead of using cash. The bridge was originally built for $65 million dollars, but after 20 years Bridge Authority debt now officially stands at a whopping $285 million. For at least a decade the cost of the bridge operators was deferred as debt with the State of Florida. Every new road spur and toll booth was funded with debt, as was the Bypass road. All of that debt was funded with bonds issued under the exclusive control of the MBBA, the value of which now sit perilously just above junk. This coming October’s toll increase is directly linked to keeping bond ratings up for the bond issue that happened this past May.
Next, in the crucial years just before Bypass construction, the MBBA seemed to have bought into the idea that the number of cars using the bridge would grow to the sky. No one in authority seemed to ask “What if there are fewer cars?” The volume of cars using the bridge peaked around 2006. Since then, the average yearly number of cars is about one million less than at the peak. It’s doubtful that the new tolls will make more people want to use the bridge.
Then came the blind eye by the only government agency given any responsibility by law to oversee the MBBA, the Okaloosa County Commission. It’s routine for them to not ask a single question about the MBBA operating budget, even though they have this power. Furthermore, many years ago, the past County Legal Advisor, John Dowd, interpreted that law to mean that only the MBBA Executive Director’s office budget was subject to County oversight. Figuratively speaking, he said the County Commission could only argue over how many secretaries the MBBA has. As questionable a legal opinion as that is, that is only about $800,000 out of an $18 million dollar yearly budget. To whom is the remaining $17 million accountable? No one but the MBBA themselves. By the way, the past Executive Director got paid at least $250,000 a year for his services from the MBBA budget.
Taken altogether, you have a lot of borrowed money being financed by a smaller number of vehicles crossing the bridge, run by a government agency that is essentially responsible to no one, that used over-optimistic growth projections, being pressured by outside bond underwriters demanding higher tolls to service debt on new bonds, and backed up by a County Commission that never asks any questions. Is it any wonder why tolls went up?
What’s clear is the MBBA is unaccountable. In the meantime, the average Okaloosa citizen will painfully pay for this unaccountability with their labor, not just now, but forever. What a deal.
Pity. Everyone in Okaloosa would have been better off if the Bridge Authority simply focused on paying off its debts. Imagine how the local economy would be helped if it cost 50 cents instead of $8 to go back and forth cross the bridge each day.
Now that would have been the real bargain.
Pete Blome is a retired military officer and Chair of the Northwest Florida Libertarian Party