Senator Broxson on Garcon Point Bridge: ‘We’re In A Dead-Locked Position’
Garcon Point Bridge’s toll will be increased to $5, and it could happen any day, says state Sen. Doug Broxson.
The senator says there needs to be a 10-day notice to the state to implement systematic changes such as signage. At press time, Broxson said, to his knowledge, the state has not been given the notice.
In December, a Tallahassee judge ruled that bondholders of the bridge are allowed to raise usage fees in order to help pay the bridge’s debt, which is more than $100 million.
The 3.5-mile, two-lane bridge was constructed in 1999, and funded by $94 million in bonds from private investors, but it has failed to meet revenue expectations. The state maintains and operates the bridge, and the revenue repays a group of bondholders, explained Broxson.
After four increases over the last 20 years, the bridge toll has been $3.75 since 2011. The toll increase stems from a 2014 study from FTI Consulting, which indicated that Sunpass tolls should be increased to $4 and cash tolls to $5 as well as reducing the Sunpass discount for heavy users from 50% to 25%.
Broxson said it could make sense to reduce tolls and entice more users, but that’s not the route bondholders want to take.
“Traffic studies across the U.S. show if you raise a toll you may get some drop off, but eventually enough will come back,” he said.
In 2018, the bridge had more than 2 million users, said John O’Brien, public affairs manager at FDOT. During the summer months, there are approximately 200,000 vehicles, and in the winter, users drop to 150,000, he added.
Comparatively, the Mid-Bay Bridge, connecting Niceville to Destin with a $4 toll, has more than 10.3 million annual users, according to 2017.
In 2018, state Rep. Jayer Williamson and Broxson filed legislation that would’ve allowed the state to acquire the bridge and lower the tolls, but it got “bogged down” in the House and the idea was abandoned, Broxson said.
The last of the six-member Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority board resigned in 2014. Santa Rosa County and past governors have tried to appoint new board members to no avail, said Broxson.
The second part of the lawsuit between bondholders and FDOT seeks back damages exceeding $75 million in lost revenue when trustees say the bridge toll should have been implemented in 2014 and 2017. The judge has yet to make a ruling on that issue.
Broxson said it made “logical sense” to settle with bondholders and work toward getting control of the bridge. But any decision needs to be unanimous among the bondholders.
“There’s always been a resentment that the state would bail out bondholders,” he added. “I’ve made multiple trips to try and negotiate without producing much result. It’s the public using a privately-owned structure. We’re in a dead-locked position.”
As a voice for Escambia, Santa Rosa, and Okaloosa counties, Broxson said he’s frustrated at the situation, especially with traffic woes piling up on U.S. 98. More vehicles commuting from Santa Rosa County to Escambia might find it quicker to use the bridge, but some can’t justify the price.
A Facebook page “I Won’t Use the Garcon Point Bridge” was created in 2010, to protest the toll rates. The page shares news related to the bridge and advocates people to not use it.
Donnie Salter is the page’s creator. For 18 years, he commuted from Pace to Gulf Breeze, and while the bridge was the better option, he tried multiple different routes just to avoid the toll. Now, he happily works from home and hasn’t used the bridge in over a year. He said he would’ve used it both ways to commute to work if the toll was $2 — he’d even use it today just to go to the beach.
“(And) maybe just to go to the Gulf Breeze Walmart because it's so nice,” he added. “There has been a lot of growth in the Midway area, and so many people live in Pace. The convenience of the Garcon Point Bridge is probably at its peak right now, in my opinion.”