By Giovanna da Silva
Florida boasts the highest number of toll roads in the country. Until last April, state and local governments owned and operated all of Florida toll roads. Tallahassee’s Orchard Pond Parkway challenged this precedent, however, opening to the general public in 2017 and becoming the first privately constructed and operated toll road in Florida.
Financing new road projects can be difficult for state and local governments, as the federal Highway Trust Fund often experiences budget shortages. According to the Heritage Foundation, the Highway Trust Fund pays for one-fourth of public highway spending. In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Cato Institute’s director of tax policy studies Chris Edwards advocated for private-public partnerships, the repeal of regulations that prohibit tolls on interstate highways, and the privatization of state transportation to reform highway funding and offset budget gaps. Many cities in Florida resort to building toll roads to fund road maintenance. With the help of the private sector, toll roads can mitigate gaps in road funding on the federal and state levels. The success of Orchard Pond Parkway can serve as a model for increased public-private partnerships within Florida and the rest of the nation.
The Orchard Pond Parkway is a 5.2 mile two-lane toll road that spans North Meridian and Old Bainbridge roads and runs parallel to the existing Orchard Pond dirt road. The parkway helps alleviate traffic in the Northeast area of the city and reduces travel time to the Tallahassee International Airport.
Road construction began January of 2015. Jeff Phipps, Tallahassee resident and owner of the land, opened the road to the public on April 18, 2016. Phipps contracted M of Tallahassee Inc., to build the road and construction costs totaled around $17 million. He took out a 30-year loan from the Florida Department of Transportation of $13.5 million and invested $3 million of his own money to finance construction. Phipps is leasing the road from Leon County to operate and maintain for 99 years. After this period, Leon County will assume sole ownership of the road. Toll revenues go towards upkeep and paying off the loan.
Phipps designed the road to minimize its environmental impact. He used 45,000 pounds of recycled concrete to build the road and incorporated wildlife crossings such as ecopassages, culverts, and other passageways to allow animals of different sizes to safely travel under or alongside the road. To reduce traffic noise, he leveled the road and constructed a 20-foot berm. He also built an accompanying pedestrian-friendly bike trail on the old Orchard Pond dirt road. Additionally, Phipps plans to sell a large part of his land to the state for conservation.
“By building it [the parkway] myself,” he said in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat, “I hope I can do a better job than if it had been done (by a government agency) on a tight budget. We’ll be able to save more trees and do more for wildlife.”
Use of the road has steadily increased since its opening. Phipps initially estimated traffic to be between 500 and 1,000 cars per day. It now averages 1,5000 to 1,650 cars on weekdays and 1,050 and 1,250 on weekends. The toll is $1.69, reduced to $1.19 for drivers with SunPass cards.
Based on current projections, Florida’s population is expected to grow from the current 20 million to roughly 23 to 27 million by 2035. This increase will likely place pressure on roads and public transportation infrastructure. Public-private partnerships such as the successful Orchard Pond Parkway project may be the solution to road construction and maintenance amidst budget shortages and population growth.