|Traffic slump takes toll on major roads|
|Written by Marjorie Holt|
|Tuesday, January 27 2009|
January 27, 2009
Traffic continues to fall on greater Orlando toll roads -- yet another sign of the region's deepening economic crisis.
Tolls paid to drive on the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority's network of highways have dropped 8 percent in the past year, and agency managers do not expect a turnaround any time soon.
The authority, which operates 100 miles of toll roads, decided Monday to cut its budget by almost 11 percent to make ends meet. Even more reductions could be in store if traffic decreases further.
"Happy, happy, joy, joy," authority chairman Rich Crotty said sarcastically.
Traffic and revenue have been falling year over year since March. Crotty and agency analysts peg the drops more to job losses than gas prices, which peaked last year at more than $4 a gallon but have since fallen below $2. The jobless rate in greater Orlando, meanwhile, has steadily risen to 7.7 percent.
"It's the economy across the board, with an emphasis on unemployment," said Crotty, who is also Orange County's mayor.
People, he said, do not drive as much when they do not have a job. As proof, he pointed to a chart, compiled by traffic consultant HNTB, showing traffic consistently remaining below last year's numbers even as the price of gasoline fell to near $1.50 a gallon, before rising this month.
Traffic also is declining on Colonial Drive, or State Road 50, which runs roughly parallel to the authority's most popular toll road, State Road 408, also known as the East-West Expressway. Traffic on Colonial has fallen an average of 5 percent on the west side and almost 11 percent on the east side.
Traffic on S.R. 408 is down about 5.4 percent. To compensate for the loss of income -- annual toll collections are expected to drop from $206 million last fiscal year to $188.6 million this fiscal year -- the authority has cut the equivalent of 65 full-time toll-taker jobs; postponed hiring administrators; reduced mowing and trash pickups; and delayed some projects, including buying land and building a new $25 million toll plaza planned for the BeachLine Expressway. Overall, the authority is cutting its operating budget by almost 11 percent, from $49.2 million to $43.9 million.
Crotty maintains that drivers will not notice the changes, though lines at cash-only toll booths undoubtedly will grow because fewer will be open. Nearly 70 percent of drivers use transponders, which electronically debit tolls to a prepaid account.
More cuts could be in the offing because authority income is falling close to a level that bond holders say cannot be crossed. The authority pays nearly $121 million in annual payments on bonds sold to build and maintain roads and toll plazas.
If income drops too low, the authority could be held in default, meaning the debt holders could demand repayment or assume management of the authority as part of a restructuring plan.
Tolls also could be increased, but Crotty and other board members have been loathe to even discuss the possibility.
In other action, the authority rehired director Mike Snyder, signing him to his second five-year contract. Snyder, 61, is getting a $2,000 raise -- bumping his annual salary to $247,500 -- but lost his $7,200-a-year car allowance. If fired, Snyder would receive 32 weeks of salary.
Copyright © 2009, Orlando Sentinel
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