Commentary

Florida’s boondoggle bridge carries a curse for all who touch it

The politics of the Garcon Point Bridge have been always been sketchy

August 12, 2021 7:00 am

The Garcon Point Bridge. Credit: Andy Layton via Flickr

For years, I have heard that the only constants in this life are death and taxes, but I suspect this is not true. I think there’s at least one other constant, at least in my life — the Garcon Point Bridge.

I have been writing about this Panhandle boondoggle for more than 20 years.

Every time I’ve written a story about it, I have been convinced that that would be the last. Then something else happened that made me shake my head and start writing another bridge story. I’ve gotten more mileage out of that bridge than the motorists who usually drive over it.

I wrote about how the bridge was built using phony figures. How its construction violated environmental regulations. How, despite assurances it would pay for itself, the bridge eventually went broke. And of course, how it was built at the behest of a powerful politician who wound up behind bars.

It’s as if there’s a curse on the bridge that ruins everyone who touches it.

There are lots of environmental topics I could write about this week. I could tell you all about the completion, after 22 years, of a $1 billion project to restore the Kissimmee River by the same folks who messed it up in the first place.

Or I could discuss the state Department of Environmental Protection filing a lawsuit against the owners of the Piney Point phosphate plant for not doing things that the DEP failed to do when the state owned that property.

Or I could tell you the heartwarming tale of how a deaf science teacher won one of the prizes in this year’s python roundup and got a snakeskin to show off to his students.

But something new has happened involving that dadgum bridge, and I feel compelled to write about it instead, one more time.

Here’s what happened: Gov Ron DeSantis announced he wants to buy it.

Apparently, that bridge up in Brooklyn wasn’t for sale so he decided to settle for this one. I’m guessing no one has warned him about the curse.

‘A Better Way to Go’

This part sounds like one of the outlandish bedtime stories I used to spin for my kids, but it’s true: Once upon a time, Democrats controlled Florida’s government the way Republicans do now, and they got just as drunk on power as some in the GOP do today.

Bolley “Bo” Johnson. Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida

One power-drunk Democrat in particular is key to this story. From 1992 to 1994, the speaker of the Florida House was a soft-spoken but steely-eyed Milton real estate broker and developer with a rather elaborate hairstyle named Bolley “Bo” Johnson (I mean that was the politician’s name, not the name of his swirling ’do).

Johnson was the son of a former Santa Rosa County commissioner who died of a heart attack just days after being charged with hiring a hit man to kill one of his political rivals. In the Panhandle, politics tends to be a blood sport.

In the late 1980s, Garcon (pronounced GAR-sohn) Point was an isolated, rural area, as was the stretch of peninsula across Pensacola Bay from it. Johnson could foresee development erupting there if only a bridge could connect the two spots for easy access to Interstate 10 and U.S. 98. Oh, and by the way, Rep. Johnson had an interest in some land on one side.

Johnson used his clout to push such a bridge. By “push,” I don’t mean he told people, “Hey, I think this bridge thing is a good idea.”

What I mean is that he got a bill passed creating the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority and then arranged to waive state rules to get the authority an $8.5 million startup loan from the state. The limit on such loans was supposed to be $500,000.

The Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority hired a company called URS Greiner Woodward Clyde of San Francisco to produce traffic projections for the proposed bridge. The traffic estimates were crucial. The bridge was supposed to be financed by selling bonds — in other words, borrowing money — that would be paid back using tolls.

The authority wanted figures that would show the bridge would be a sure-fire moneymaker. Sure enough, URS predicted the 3.5-mile bridge would quickly attract 7,500 motorists a day, enough to easily pay back the $95 million the authority borrowed.

The authority’s own financial adviser, a savvy moneyman named Joe Mooney who had worked in the region for decades, didn’t buy it. As my kids like to say, he called “shenanigans” on the URS figures.

The authority members promptly fired Mooney and plunged ahead with what was now being called “Bo’s Bridge,” although the line the authority preferred was, “A Better Way to Go.”

Eventually, it came out that URS had based its projections for Bo’s Bridge on the amount of traffic using a bridge in the next county, one that leads to the popular beach resort of Destin. There was no Destin at the end of the Garcon Point Bridge, just a few subdivisions on a barrier island that at the time was under a moratorium on new septic tanks, limiting growth.

“We now know that,” a URS vice president harrumphed when I interviewed him in 2000 about the disastrously wrong projections. “I don’t think the Garcon Point Bridge will ever get back to the forecast we made for it in 1996.”

Last year, according to the Florida Department of Transportation, the bridge that the governor wants to buy was serving 6,000 motorists a day — well below the URS projections of the 1990s. It’s still not paying for itself.

The broke bridge

The company that built Bo’s Bridge, Odebrecht-Metric, finished in record time, thus earning a bonus. But then came the Curse of Bo’s Bridge.

The company had been able to go so fast because its crews had dumped a lot of their construction debris directly into the bay instead of disposing of it properly. Anglers fishing beneath the bridge reported that sometimes the concrete chunks just barely missed their heads.

The company and three of its supervisors pleaded guilty to environmental crimes that damaged the bay. The corporation agreed to pay a total of $4 million in fines and restitution.

The bridge’s designer, Figg Engineering of Tallahassee, deployed inspectors to make sure it was built properly. Somehow, they never reported the dumping. (If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Figg was blamed for the 2018 Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapse that killed six people.)

The curse continued: When Bo’s Bridge opened in 1999, its biggest fan couldn’t make the ribbon-cutting. He was headed to prison.

That week, Johnson and his wife were convicted of filing false tax returns to cover the fact that Johnson was getting paid under the table by companies doing business with the state, including Anderson Columbia Paving, one of the state’s major road contractors.

By 2001, the bridge authority was swimming in so much red ink the Legislature voted for a $1 million bailout, but then-Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it.

To pay back its bondholders, the authority started dipping into reserves, and soon those were gone. The bridge authority became the latest victim of the curse in 2011, defaulting on its bonds.

The authority members quit for fear they would be held responsible for what went wrong. Meanwhile, the bridge was seized by the people who bought the bonds — sort of like a bank seizing a foreclosed home, if cars drove through it occasionally.

The DOT continued operating the bridge for the hundreds of bondholders, even though the state is also a creditor. As of June 30, the bridge’s owner owes the taxpayers nearly $40 million, according to DOT spokeswoman Beth Frady.

In 2017, the Legislature ordered the DOT to report on whether the state could buy the bridge, but wary lawmakers failed to pursue the purchase.

The bondholders have not been happy with how the DOT has run the bridge for them. The DOT had not raised the toll since 2011, so the bridge just kept falling further behind on its debts.

When the bondholders asked the state to bump up the toll, then-Gov. Rick Scott insisted he had no legal control over that. The bondholders sued, and in 2019 persuaded a judge to order the state to boost the toll to $5 a car, the highest in Florida. As you might guess, that makes the bridge even less popular with potential customers.

Who wants to pay $10 a day to cross a bridge both ways? It would be worse than dealing with some wizened Monty Python troll asking obscure questions before you could cross.

State Sen. Doug Broxson, a Panhandle Republican representing Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and part of Okaloosa County. Credit: Florida Senate website.

The state senator for that area, Doug Broxson, said at the time, “I regret the fact that we have no power to dictate to the owners of the bridge the future toll and use of that bridge.”

The $5 toll was to go into effect in February — but then Hurricane Sally sideswiped the Panhandle and seemed to cut Bo’s Bridge a break. Construction barges got loose during the storm and slammed into the far more popular Pensacola Bay Bridge, damaging it.

During the eight months that bridge was out of commission, the DOT routed traffic down to the Garcon Point Bridge. Suddenly 30,000 people a day were creeping across it and cursing the traffic jams on the roads around it.

“At least the bridge made money,” you say. And I say, “HA!”

Because this was an emergency situation, the governor suspended those $5 tolls. As a result, Broxson told me this week, the bondholders “say we owe them money” — perhaps $40 million.

This is the point at which DeSantis swooped in on July 28 to pose for photos at the toll collection gate and announce a move so unusual I half-expected Gomer Pyle to jump out and yell, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!

DeSantis said that: A) regardless of what a judge ruled, he was ordering the DOT to drop the toll to $2.75 per car, which is bound to tick off the bondholders again; and B) he was ordering the DOT to negotiate a deal with those ticked-off bondholder to buy their bridge, even though the Legislature hasn’t authorized that.

He then left without answering questions from reporters, a typical DeSantis move when he has no answers to offer. I suspect this is just another DeSantis stunt, like threatening to cut off the salaries of school board members who defy him on making students wear masks.

When I asked Broxson if there was any appetite in the Legislature for buying this accursed structure, he said, “There’s an appetite among some legislators.” (Did I mention that the road going over the bridge is named for Broxson’s brother and father?). When I asked whether DeSantis has the power to lower the tolls, he said he couldn’t answer.

When I asked how DeSantis can get back the $40 million owed to the DOT, the senator joked that that’s what the toll decrease does: “I think the governor takes the position that they owe us more money than we owe them, and so I guess he’s using this as a way to pay it back in installments.” I have done the math and trust me when I say that’s going to take a whoooole lot of installments before the taxpayers get their money.

That’s who’s really suffered the most from the Curse of Bo’s Bridge — the poor taxpayers, who have had to put up with politicians who never seem to have their best interests at heart. I guess hoping for a change in attitude with the change in parties is, as they say, a bridge too far.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2020, is Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther. The Florida Heritage Book Festival recently named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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