City commissioners are considering bringing back bridge tolls on the Treasure Island Causeway.
TREASURE ISLAND – City commissioners hope to determine soon if it is legal to again collect tolls on the Treasure Island Causeway bridges.
After a discussion that lasted more than an hour on May 6, commissioners decided to have legal representatives from a pair of engineering consulting firms – URS Corp. Southern and Michael Baker Jr., Inc. – determine if a return to tolls would violate the original agreement that provided the city with the funding to build the bridges.
After extensive negotiations with the late Congressman Bill Young, the city received $50 million in federal funding for the project that was funneled through state sources. The stipulation to receiving the funds was the removal of tolls.
The city eliminated a $1 toll when the first span of the bridge opened in June 2006. However, in recent months the city has found the bascule bridge needs to be repainted and a number of the pistons used to raise and lower the bridge have needed repair or replacement.
The city has about $1 million worth of expenses currently on the bridges and has about $400,000 in funds earmarked for bridge maintenance. In early January, Mayor Bob Minning told commissioners that he and City Manager Reid Silverboard were discussing ideas to increase revenue without increasing the tax rate. One of the ideas discussed was returning the bascule bridge to a toll bridge.
Should the consulting firms determine a return to tolls is legal, the city would likely ask one of the two to move forward with a feasibility study on the return of tolls or other ideas on how to raise revenue for the bridge.
Former city commissioner Ed Gayton was part of the city’s decision to accept the $50 million in funds for the bridge in 2003-04. He called the deal with Young a gentleman’s agreement, or a quid pro quo agreement.
“It was explained to the city commission then by (former) city manager Chuck Coward that the $50 million grant was a quid pro quo agreement,” Gayton said. “It’s a contract. How are we supposed to get out of that contract? If you think a gentleman’s agreement is something you don’t have to live up to, then you have to live with yourself.”
Gayton suggested giving the $50 million back if the city wants to return to tolls.
“Lastly,” Gayton said, “is it legal to charge people who have already paid for that bridge another tax to use that bridge?”
City resident Marie Barba said she was disappointed the commission didn’t get a presentation from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. City leaders considered the option recently as a possible means to save about $1.5 million a year in law enforcement expense but decided to stay with the Treasure Island Police Department instead.
“We need dollars and we need money,” said Barba. “I don’t want to see a toll on our bridge but I don’t think we have any other choice.”
Silverboard said Coward told commissioners 11 years ago it would cost the city about $935,000 per year (in lost revenue and maintenance costs) to operate the bridge once tolls were lifted.
“He tried to give the bridge to the state,” said Silverboard, “and he tried to give one of the bridges and the causeway to the city of St. Pete.”
Both parties said thanks, but no thanks.
“What did we agree to by taking this money?” asked Commissioner Carol Coward. “This is part of our history. Why haven’t we looked at this before we got here?”
Silverboard said it is purely a political decision that the City Commission will have to address, sooner or later.
“You can do it through tolls or some other revenue producing source,” Silverboard said. “That’s the issue you have because you have about $1 million in expenses for the bridge that we need to do.”
Commissioner Phil Collins was part of the decision-making process in 2004 and said the city had three options then. They were to raise the millage rate, raise tolls to $150 per car on an annual pass and charge tolls or accept the grant from the federal government.
“I said I would not support putting tolls back on the bridge if we signed this and got the grant money,” said Collins. “I still stand by that now. I have to live with what makes me comfortable.”
Bildz was also part of the equation in 2004 after getting elected a couple weeks earlier.
“I also remember part of this conversation,” Bildz said. “(Former Mayor) Mary Maloof said ask for another earmark when we need maintenance done. Then two years later there are no more earmarks.
“I would be in favor of seeing if this (going back to tolls) is legally possible or not,” Bildz added. “I would think it would be easy to figure it out quickly.”
Bildz said when 7,000 (Treasure Island residents) have to keep up maintenance on the bridge, “it just seems wrong.”
Commissioner Tim Ramsberger said he didn’t favor an increase in taxes.
“If we don’t have revenue streams, we’re going to be paying more taxes and I’m not going to vote for more taxes,” Ramsberger said. “This is a basic issue of revenue vs. expenses. I think it’s worthwhile pursuing whether we have room legally (to charge tolls again).”
Jerry Dabkowski, vice president of Michael Baker Inc., was specific but said there are other options the city might want to consider once the legality issue is settled.
“Transportation has changed and tolling has changed (in the last decade),” Dabkowski said. “But I think the legal end is the area you should go to first.”
Further discussion on the concept is expected on May 20.