The Biggest Unseen Problem In The County

For years now, the Libertarians in Okaloosa County have been alone pointing out the fiscal mess that is the Mid Bay Bridge Authority.

It is a monstrous case of our County Commissioners shirking their supervisory duty according to the law, of a bridge authority thinking trees will grow forever to the sky, and then the state getting involved and spreading the pain over every taxpayer in Florida. Everyone in the Government was thinking of themselves, but no one was thinking about those that use the bridge. The bridge user will now have to pay, and pay, and pay.

But most people don’t see it. Non-bridge users don’t care. Neither does the Tea Party which is rapidly becoming a booster club to give venues for Republicans to focus on anything but what is important.

And it isn’t like the Bridge is a minor program. With the exception of federal projects at Eglin AFB, the Mid Bay Bridge is by far the single most expensive program going in the County. When the Bypass construction is finished, the Authority will have $350 million dollars in debt on its books. That’s a whopping debt for a county of 180,000 people.

Years ago our County Commission decided to exclude the MBBA from its financial statements because of accounting differences between the bridge and the County. Of course, this change did have the effect of making it look like the County had no role in the Bridge budget.

But the law, 2000-411, gave supervision of the operational budget to the Board of County Commissioners. That’s why they have to vote on a bridge budget every year. Mr. Jim Vest, Executive Director for the Bridge, has claimed that this is a mere $700,000 out of a $13 million dollar budget. He thinks nobody except the Bridge Authority, unsupervised by either the County or the Governor, should oversee the remainder. THe BCC goes along with it.

In any case, the BCC has routinely rubberstamped Bridge Authority Budgets with no discussion at all.

With such power, it is no surprise the Bridge Authority thought it could do whatever it wanted.

The Bridge was built cheaply and quickly in 1994. Instead of paying off debt, and passing the savings on to the public, the MBBA decided to continuously expand.

On average, they added $10 million in debt every year since construction started.

The new Bridge Bypass can only be fiscally sustainable if vehicle traffic kept growing every year. But traffic has gone down for five years in a row. I think it will decrease more in the future. The Authority will now have to use all of its current income just to pay interest on its debt. That means more toll hikes are coming in the future.

Don’t believe me? Fitch’s Bond Service rates MBBA bonds at an abysmal BBB, one step above junk for all the reasons I just spelled out.

According to Rep. Brad Drake of Defuniak Springs, we have MBBA Executive Directors, who are paid $200,000 a year for this poor performance.

Now the State of Florida is proposing to eliminate any toll discounts for Sunpass users as it prepares to take over operation of the bridge.

And we have the people of Okaloosa who will have to pay $9, roundtrip, forever, to get from Crestview to Destin.

Senator Gaetz says a State takeover will save the State of Florida $24 million dollars, but those are phony savings. The toll payer will see nothing but higher tolls.

A state takeover will only widen the pool of payers for the debt to all the people in Florida, who had nothing to do with this mess.

In the meantime, the Mid Bay Bridge becomes a never ending cash cow for the bottomless pit of Florida State finance.

There is probably no chance anymore that this money problem can be fixed. But, in my opinion, heads should roll over this matter.

The Board of Directors of the MBBA should be fired by the Governor.

The Executive Directors should be fired by the Board of Directors.

And the County Commissioners should be fired by the people of Okaloosa for making 18,000 people a day pay through the nose for government incompetence.

A Loaded Hummer Stretch Limo

On the surface, the Mid Bay Bridge Authority bypass looks like a good idea.

In place of a two lane residential road first laid down in the 1950’s, the bypass user will have a modern highway complete with automated toll booths promising a speedy ride from highway 85 all the way to the Mid Bay Bridge. If you use the Sunpass system, you will never have to take your wallet out to pay a toll. It will look and feel like progress.

Of course, it isn’t.

Throughout its entire life the Mid Bay Bridge Authority has been increasing tolls while increasing its debt, even as vehicle traffic was going down. They average $10 million in new debt every year since they were created. For the last four years vehicle traffic on the bridge has been declining, and I think this trend will continue. Meanwhile, the Board of County Commissioners have been rubberstamping the budgets of the MBBA with not even a minute’s worth of debate, even though the law (Laws of Florida, Ch 2000-411, Section 6, part (c)) says they have the ultimate power of budget review, change and approval.

To my mind, this is all wrong, and not what government is supposed to be about. Government, when it is necessary, should strive to provide the most public service at the least public cost.

The best thing government planners could have done for Okaloosa was to plan to pay off debts and pass on the savings to the citizens. The bridge toll could cost as little as $1 per day (operations, maintenance and a rainy day fund) if there were no debt service to pay. That would really help the people who need the bridge in good economic times or bad. Instead, this bridge and bypass system is going to require high tolls forever.

When I say high, I mean eye popping high. When all is said and done with the bypass, a bridge that cost $67 million dollars to build in 1994 will have more than $350 million in debt laid on it, and that doesn’t even include future costs for ideas like a second span. It will cost you $5.50 to travel the bypass and bridge roundtrip. That’s $1430 per year for a regular commuter, which is higher than a lot of folks property taxes. There is no plan to ever pay off this project, or even to reduce the tolls.

In April of 2010, MBBA Executive Director Jim Vest told me at least $42 million in contracts were already awarded for road construction. Robert Kellner, Project Principal Engineer, told the Okaloosa Citizens Alliance that the process of awarding contracts to finish future portions of the project have been speeded up to take advantage of decreased construction costs during this recession. It was recently announced an additional $48.7 million dollars in contracts have been awarded. Terminating all contracts already awarded would probably add millions in penalty costs that bridge users would ultimately have to pay in extra tolls, but finishing the project will cost even more millions that bridge users will still also have to pay.

In other words, stopping the project will cost everyone more, and completing the project will cost everyone more. There is no happy ending to this tale.

It seems nobody thought “What if bridge traffic goes down? Can we still afford this?”

It seems nobody asked “Why don’t we just pay down bridge debt and make it cheap for people to use?”

It seems no County Commissioner or the MBBA had a clear vision of what government is supposed to be about. They were sent out to buy a Ford Fiesta and came home with a loaded Hummer stretch limo, payments courtesy of John Q. Public.

Exactly how is the MBBA going to pay the debt service on $350 million in construction debt with fewer cars using the bridge? How can they make this work without increasing tolls again in the future?

They can’t. Another magnificent folly brought to you by unlimited government.