Hurricane toll suspension fuels battle
By Jim Saunders
News Service of Florida
Bondholders last week asked a circuit judge to quickly order the Florida Department of Transportation to reinstate toll collections on a controversial Panhandle bridge where tolls have been suspended since a September hurricane.
The department has not collected tolls on the Garcon Point Bridge since Hurricane Sally damaged and forced the shutdown of the Pensacola Bay Bridge. The tolls on the Garcon Point Bridge, which spans part of Pensacola Bay and is being used as a detour route, have been suspended at least through Jan. 12.
Representatives of bondholders have battled the state for years about inadequate toll revenue on the Garcon Point Bridge and said in a filing last Monday in Leon County circuit court that the department has “yet again thumbed its nose at its obligations.”
Circuit Judge John Cooper forced the department early this year to increase tolls on the bridge amid the legal wrangling.
“Now, the department has completely suspended tolls on the bridge under the guise of a ‘Hurricane Sally emergency,’ even though the ‘emergency’ lasted only two or three days,” attorneys for UMB Bank, the trustee for bondholders, said in the filing. “Not only is the department not collecting the increased tolls on the bridge (as directed by this court), it is now allowing completely scot-free use of the bridge for three months and counting.”
In suspending the tolls, the department has cited executive orders issued by Gov. Ron DeSantis that declared a state of emergency in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties because of Hurricane Sally, which made landfall Sept. 16 in Alabama and caused heavy damage in the Pensacola area. DeSantis on Nov. 13 issued an order extending the state of emergency for an additional 60 days.
It is relatively common for the state to suspend tolls because of hurricanes, as it tries to help with such things as evacuations. But in asking Cooper this week for an “expedited ruling” to reinstate tolls on the Garcon Point Bridge, attorneys for UMB Bank argued that such a suspension should not continue for months.
The underlying battle about toll revenue stems from about $95 million in bonds that the state-created Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority issued in 1996 to build the bridge — known in Tallahassee as “Bo’s Bridge” because it was championed by former state House Speaker Bo Johnson of Milton.
The bridge opened in 1999, and inadequate toll revenue was complicated by the fact that the bridge authority has been effectively defunct since 2014, according to court documents.
Under a lease-purchase arrangement, the Department of Transportation operated and maintained the bridge for the authority and remitted tolls to the bondholders. UMB Bank said in court papers that bondholders were owed $134.9 million as of July 1, 2018, a number that has continued to grow.
UMB Bank filed a lawsuit in December 2018, and a year later Cooper ruled that the department should raise tolls. The department did so on March 1, for example, tolls going from $3.75 to $4.50 for two-axle vehicles when motorists use the SunPass system and to $5 for motorists who pay cash.
Cooper, however, ruled in November that the department could not be forced to pay damages to bondholders. That has prompted UMB Bank to appeal the damages issue to the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Attorneys for the bondholders amended the lawsuit this fall to address the issue of the Hurricane Sally toll suspension. While asking Cooper to quickly order reinstatement of tolls, the court filing Monday also indicated bondholders would try eventually to get reimbursed for lost tolls because of the suspension.
In a footnote, the attorneys wrote that the reason for the filing was to “stop the bleeding and get a quick determination of whether the department is currently authorized to continue suspending tolls on the bridge.”