Franklin County may be on the verge of getting its first toll road in nearly 30 years, part of a plan to help fund the ongoing maintenance needs of Alligator Drive, one of its most vulnerable and costly stretches of road.
At their Feb. 20 meeting, county commissioners voted unanimously to authorize the expenditure of up to $20,000 for the second phase of feasibility study on placing a state-of-the art toll booth on Alligator Drive, at some point after it veers south off of U.S. 98 into the heart of Alligator Point.
The move was spearheaded by the Alligator Point Taxpayers Association (APTA), which had hired Clary Consulting to take the first step in a study of a possible fee for using the road, which has required an estimated $3.7 million in repairs, due to storm damage, dating back to 1985.
After an introduction from Alligator Point real estate agent Paul Parker, Gene Branagan, Clary’s senior vice president, outlined details of a white paper that the consulting firm had prepared for APTA.
Parker said that APTA has considered several options, and was seeking guidance on a possible toll road instead of some sort of tax or fee on area property owners.
“It seems like a fair way instead of putting all the financial responsibility on property owners,” said Parker. “Shouldn’t they (visitors) have to share in the cost of maintaining a very expensive road?”
He stressed that Clary’s preliminary white paper gave lots to consider, but that it was too soon to say that there was a consensus within APTA behind how to proceed. “We’re not endorsing the idea that a toll road is the best way to go,” Parker said.
In his presentation, Branagan said that because Alligator Drive is a county road, commissioners had the legal authority to enact tolls, and could use the revenue to supplement the traditional method of using federal disaster money to address periodic storm damage from coastal flooding and washouts from Apalachee Bay.
“The options are to continue to same approach as the past to pursue FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assistance to repair the roadway, which requires local matching funds and…. takes an extended time to accomplish,” read the white paper, noting it has been more than 15 months since Hurricane Hermine destroyed an 1,100-foot stretch of the road.
The county is about to repair that stretch using $3.2 million in FEMA money. Had the state not cut in half the county’s matching fund responsibility, from 12.5 to 6.25 percent, the $450,000 match would have entirely depleted the Bald Point Trust Fund. As it stands now, the county will only have to spend about $225,000 on the project.
“(Tolling) can generate funds to ‘harden’ the sections of Alligator Drive most subject to coastal flooding and washout and then to help repair these segments in a more timely manner to keep the roadway open,” read the report.
Branagan said a toll structure could be created in which frequent users such as residents receive a significant discount and a set toll rate would apply to visitors that make infrequent trips.
The structure would be entirely electronic, with no toll booths, using instead a “gantry” that spans the roadway and has electronic readers that either reads the SunPass transponder in each car, or snaps a picture of the vehicle’s registration tag so that the toll is collected via “Toll-by-Plate” post billing.
Branagan’s report acknowledged some cons in the tolling proposal.
“The bottom line is you are tolling a roadway that has never had a toll before, (which) will impose a fee on all residents that live on Alligator Point beyond the toll point that previously did not have a user fee to drive on the roadway,” read the paper. “This can create public concern and should be addressed with the residents to determine their concerns.
“This challenge needs to be carefully evaluated to determine the best mix of frequent user discounts and the toll for infrequent users to help ensure adequate toll revenues are generated,” it read.
Clary’s white paper did not estimate what the toll would be, and made only preliminary findings regarding the cost of putting in the system, estimating it would cost about $1.4 million to build the facility. The annual cost for the toll facility financed over 30 years would be approximately $75,000 a year.
The commissioners agreed to fund a further feasibility study, out of the Bald Point Trust Fund, but were far from sold on the toll road idea.
“I don’t think it’s going to have the traffic,” said Chairman Smokey Parrish. “If it costs them $10-$12 every time they want to go home, that ain’t going to work.”
Commissioner Cheryl Sanders said she was told by engineers that it could take as many as 35,000 to 45,000 trips a day to justify enacting a toll road, and that the county would have to be responsible for the bonding mechanism to finance the cost, although Branagan questioned those assumptions.
Commissioner Ricky Jones noted that over half the cost would be to operate the facility, and that the eventual overall cost could run as high as $2.7 million.
By Tuesday’s county commission meeting, there were further questions raised on the proposal, including from Alligator Point resident Allan Feifer, who said that APTA is looking into what could be a lower-cost method of using a guard gate to collect the tolls.
Former County Planner Alan Pierce told commissioners that the cost of additional studies could well exceed the initial $20,000 that has been authorized. “I believe the board thinks this study will be conclusive on proposed toll rates, and this is not the case,” he said, noting that the study will analyze already collected data that will be run through a series of computer models.
He said the only available traffic data has been collected by the Florida Department of Transportation where traffic turns off of U.S. 98.
“There is no data further down where Bald Point and Alligator Drive split, nor are there counts on residents, day trippers, renters, boat traffic, etc.,” he said.
Pierce said collecting reliable data would be a lengthy process, and that an accurate model could require an investment of up to $100,000. He said where a gantry, or a guard gate, would be put up is also a concern. If it were to be put up right after Alligator Drive veers off from U.S. 98, it would mean that all visitors to Bald Point State Park would have to pay the toll.
“If they (the state park) oppose a toll road then the toll gate will be essentially moved down to the split between Bald Point and Alligator Point, and the only traffic subject to the toll road would be Alligator Point,” he said. “While I don’t have data to support my opinion, I believe there will not be enough traffic on Alligator Point to support the cost of a toll gantry, and to provide additional revenue to help maintain the road.
“If the park strenuously objects to a toll road then the study will not be providing a meaningful toll rate,” Pierce said. “I believe we should get a confirmation from the park on their opinion of a toll road before we proceed.”
The commissioners voted to have Pierce attend an upcoming APTA meeting on Saturday, to gauge the views of Alligator Point residents.
“There’s a lot of unknowns with this. I try to be supportive of this, but I’m real concerned with this,” said Sanders. “It looks like to me they (Alligator Point) are wanting to be a gated community.”
She estimated there are about 300 homes west of “the break.”
“I don’t how high a toll is going to help that much,” Sanders said.
Pierce said his rough estimates is that it could cost about $1,700 a year per car, while a MSBU (Municipal Services Benefit Unit), which would apply to all property owners and would run about $500 per year.
“ A toll only captures people who use their property,” he said. “I’m trying to maximize the number who pay.”