Traffic gridlock: Critics say pricey, exclusive toll lanes (“Lexus Lanes”) hurt the poor. Will it change with a new governor?

By: - July 24, 2018 8:00 am
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Vexing traffic congestion seems to be an issue in all of Florida’s major urban regions, yet it has not received much attention from the seven major candidates for governor this campaign season.

Plenty of people have criticism for Gov. Rick Scott’s approach, which saw the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) over the past eight years focusing on adding more expensive – and exclusive – toll lanes to roadways, rather than expanding public transportation options.

They are nicknamed “Lexus Lanes,” because they allow drivers who have the money to pay to get out of regular traffic. By paying a toll fee – during rush hour in Miami, for example, it costs $10.50 one way –  drivers can use the special “express lanes.”

The backlash against express toll lanes has been brewing around Florida for years, with critics in the Tampa Bay area and in Marion County’s rolling horse country arguing against adding more.

“All (Scott) wanted was toll roads to move the wealthy,” Hillsborough County Democratic County Commissioner Pat Kemp complained about Scott’s transportation record.

Even music celebrity Luther Campbell (of the rap group 2 Live Crew) weighed in in a column he wrote for the Miami New-Times:

“Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise and the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority are highway robbers preying on predominantly poor motorists struggling to keep a roof over their heads, put food on their table and take care of their families,” he charged, referring to planned toll lanes on a proposed extension of Miami-Dade’s busiest toll expressway, State Road 836.

According to a spokesman, FDOT has numerous existing express lane projects going on in the state, including the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County, the 95 Express in Miami and Dade Counties, the 75 Express in western Broward and northwest Miami-Dade, and the I-595 Express in Southeast Florida. Nine other projects are under construction that would add more than 100 miles of express lanes to Florida’s highways, says FDOT spokesman Timothy Jacques. Even more express toll lanes are part of regional projects.

While public transit advocates bemoan the acceleration of Lexus Lanes under Scott, the truth is that the impetus for toll lanes began under Gov. Jeb Bush and was led by a private citizen, Bob Poole, from the libertarian Reason Foundation. Poole came up with the concept of dividing motorists into separate lanes while living in Orange County, California in the late 1980s, and was later tapped to bring the concept into Florida.

“They’re a good thing because we have serious congestion,” Poole told the Phoenix, specifically alluding to the four major regions where traffic problems are the greatest – South Florida, Orlando, the Tampa Bay area and Jacksonville. “If you can’t solve (congestion) for everybody, at least give them an escape valve. There’s an option,” he says.

Ananth Presad led FDOT during Scott’s first term. He bristles at the contention that the state only funds road construction, saying state dollars also go to buses and regional transit authorities, which offer various solutions for traffic gridlock. And he brings up the state’s significant contribution to SunRail, the commuter rail system which the state owns and operates in Orlando.

“The thought process was, ‘Hey, I-4 is going to be under construction. People are going to be tired of that. They’ll get on a new train, we thought (and) from a timing standpoint, it’s going to be good.”

Those expectations haven’t met reality yet, he conceded.

“SunRail is a great service, but it only has 3,000 to 4,000 riders a day vs. I-4, (which) has 180,000 cars a day.”

So now that Scott is out of office due to term limits, how do the candidates hoping to replace him stand on the issue of traffic gridlock and what to do about it?

The two Republicans vying to replace Scott as governor – Adam Putnam and Ron DeSantis – didn’t return phone calls to the Phoenix to talk about their plans to deal with Florida’s traffic congestion.

All five Democratic gubernatorial candidates did outline their transportation policies:

– Candidate Andrew Gillum – now Tallahassee mayor – says Florida’s transportation priorities will definitely be different if he is elected this fall.

“We’ve got to expand the thinking of FDOT to recognize that our transportation funding has got to go beyond just more asphalt and lane miles,” he said. “We’re not going to asphalt our way out of congestion. We’ve got to start to look at multimodal forms of transportation and FDOT has to include that part as its mandate.”

“Multimodal” means that states and cities work on several different kinds of transportation that serve many purposes – it might include trains, bike lanes, busses, carpooling and ride-sharing, for example.

– Candidate Gwen Graham, former U.S. Representative, also has been critical of the emphasis on express toll roads and says that she would work towards “improving roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure to relieve our congested highways, improve our quality of life, and attract new businesses to our state.”

– Candidate Phil Levine (former mayor of Miami Beach) charges that under Gov. Scott, “public transportation took a backseat to politics.”

“Our transportation infrastructure ties directly into our state economy and the health of our environment. Constant construction can hurt local economies—an issue we’re currently seeing that is hampering small businesses on Flagler Street in Miami-Dade County. Not investing in mass transit options and building more and more roads, leads to more cars, which means more traffic and emissions—this isn’t a sustainable or responsible long-term approach to life in the sunshine state.”

– Candidate Chris King, a Central Florida businessman, calls Florida’s transportation system “broken” and says adding so many express lanes “rewards those who can afford to pay with faster speeds.”

“I’d favor designating express lanes as HOV lanes to encourage carpooling, ride-sharing and public transit to take more cars off the road,” King says.

– Candidate Jeff Greene, a billionaire businessman from Palm Beach, is the only one of the Democrats who says he would keep Lexus Lanes in place. But he would offer a somewhat hybrid approach.

“I’m in favor using tolled express ‘Lexus Lanes’ as a means to the end. They’re a great way to finance road work through public-private partnerships, but should be converted to HOV (high occupancy/carpool) lanes once the costs have been covered. I believe our public roads should work for everyone – not just for those who can afford to pay their way out of traffic.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has spent the past 18 years covering news and politics in the Sunshine State, most recently with FloridaPolitics.com. He worked for five years as the political editor of Creative Loafing in Tampa, and before that he was the assistant news director at WMNF radio, where he served as creator/anchor/producer of the hour-long WMNF Evening News. A San Francisco native, Mitch began his career at KPFA Radio in Berkeley in the 1990's.

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