Reduction of Garcon Point Bridge tolls delayed as negotiations proceed
It’s been more than six months since Gov. Ron DeSantis had a news conference in front of the Garcon Point Bridge to announce reduced tolls.
“Five dollars is just too much to pay for the more than 6,000 drivers that use the Garcon Point Bridge every day,” the governor said in a news release from July 28, 2021, just after the news conference.
The tolls are to be reduced from $4.50 to $2.30 for Sunpass customers and from $5 to $2.75 for cash customers. To keep the tolls low, the governor said he directed the Department of Transportation to reach a settlement with Garcon Point trustees and bondholders to purchase the bridge and transfer control to Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.
There was no timeline promised, but Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said the goal was to have the reduced rates in place “within a couple of weeks” of the July 28 announcement.
Yet, the tolls still remain.
When approved, the new rates will be consistent with other FDOT tolls across the state, said Beth Frady, communications director with the Florida Department of Transportation, in an email to WUWF.
“The department is currently in formal negotiations with the bondholders and is hopeful to have an update soon as negotiations progress,” she added. “All of this is in consultation with the Legislature.”
State Sen. Doug Broxson, who represents Escambia and Santa Rosa County, where the bridge is located, has tried for years to negotiate with the bridge bondholders to find a solution. In 2018, he and Rep. Jayer Williamson filed legislation that would’ve allowed the state to acquire the bridge and lower tolls, but it got buried in the House. Since the governor’s announcement, Broxson said he has called the transportation department and said they are still trying to reach a compromise.
“Price is the issue,” he said.
Broxson said the state and bridge bondholders have a nondisclosure agreement and he does not know the asking price of the bridge.
The governor may not have been aware of how complicated the issue is when he made the promise to reduce tolls in a short period of time, Broxson admitted over the phone at the start of the 2022 Legislative session. The state and bondholders have been dead-locked for years.
The privately owned bridge was constructed for $95 million in 1999 and with authorization pushed through by former Florida House Speaker Bolley “Bo” Johnson, D-Milton. It never made the money it was projected to make based on what Broxson called an “ill-conceived” traffic study. By 2011, the bridge authority defaulted on its bonds.
In the past 20 years, the tolls for the bridge kept increasing and were up to $3.75 before they were increased again to $5 in 2020.
“People say ‘reduce the tolls and double the traffic’ but studies show drivers will still come back after an increase,” Broxson said.
Ridership of the bridge has never met expectations. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, in FY 2019 there were an average of 6,000 customers per day and 2.2 million total transactions. In 2020, there was an average of 5,300 customers per day and 2 million total transactions. In 2021, the bridge saw more traffic, but not revenue after the Pensacola Bay Bridge was out of commission when a barge collided with it during Hurricane Sally.
“In FY2021, there was an average of 22,300 customers per day, which represented 8.2 million transactions,” explained Alecia Collins, deputy communications director for the Florida Department of Transportation. “Nearly 7,700,000 of those were non-revenue. Extensive structural damage to the Pensacola Bay Bridge due to the barge collision during Hurricane Sally prompted a nine-month toll suspension. The Garcon Point Bridge served as a temporary detour route, resulting in significantly higher total transactions and non-revenue transactions, specifically.”
Broxson said bondholders claim they are owed $130 million.
“It’s difficult (for the state) to pay $35 million more than what the bridge costs,” said Broxson.
The toll reduction is a long time coming. And whenever it does go into effect, it will make a difference for people in Northwest Florida, said State Rep. Jayer Williamson. He represents most of Santa Rosa County in the Legislature.
“That bridge has had an excess toll for years and now we’re rolling these toll rates back, really 20 years,” he said recently. “That’s going to put more money back into my constituents’ pockets and if you look at somebody who uses that bridge every day you’d be putting a paycheck or two paychecks back in their pocket because of this, and they can spend it on things they need to spend it on and not a commute."