Florida's Turnpike is using its money prudently in straitened times, getting more value for its dollars and delivering a great service to residents and visitors alike. John O'Hanlon speaks to chief operating officer Jennifer Olson and director of planning and production Will Sloup A turnpike is nothing more than a road financed by tolls paid by its users. Though the original cost of building Florida's Turnpike was met by long-term bonds, its revenue today comes from tolls collected on the 460- mile statewide system and from concession sales- more than $ 700 million annually. Toll roads help meet Florida's transportation needs by providing and operating roadways financed by toll dollars, which are in addition to the roadways built and maintained by other districts funded by gas- tax dollars. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is structured as one of the eight districts within the Department of Transportation, but it is radically different from its sister districts, explains chief operating officer Jennifer Olson. " We are a system- related rather than a geographical district and operate across six of the other districts. We coordinate with them in matters affecting their areas." FTE also differs from the others in that only 10 percent of the people working on its operations are state employees; the other 90 percent are employed by contractors or consultants- for example, the people who actually collect the tolls. Florida's growth has been severely impacted by the recession. The state has suffered more job losses and foreclosures than most, and the rate of economic growth on the highway system tends to mirror that of the state as a whole, says director of planning and production Will Sloup. " Because of that, our management has really focused on efficiencies in the last year, cutting the cost of motoring for the general public as well as the cost of running the system. One objective has been to exercise fiscal prudence in the downturn so that when business starts to ramp up again we'll have a sound basis to fund future projects." Tourism has been hit as much as commerce, Sloup continues. For the second year running, the turnpike Florida's Turnpike Enterprise NOVEMBER 09 www. bus- ex. com 159 mile
160 www. bus- ex. com NOVEMBER 09 has seen a decrease in traffic, with a corresponding decrease in revenue. " We've had to make adjustments to our work program to reduce our expenditures to keep in line with our revenues, just like any other business in the country." One strategy has been that, rather than shelving major upgrades completely, FTE has focused on key components of these upgrades. " We've been looking at things like minor interchange improvements, intersections, auxiliary lanes and improvement between interchanges in high- traffic areas. These are significant improvements that can help traffic flow in advance of the main projects coming back." Sloup emphasizes the balancing act that has been necessary as funds have dried up; however, the recession has produced some opportunities too. The whole construction industry has entered a buyer's market, so the Turnpike system has been able to do more with less. " The dollars we do have are going farther," says Olson. " We've been getting very good prices on our construction bids. We had to reduce our five- year work program by $ 2 billion, but with the $ 2.3 billion we have left we can do more. I think having more bidders creates a much more competitive atmosphere; contractors are bidding with much tighter margins, and we've seen the benefit of very competitive prices." For the first time the Turnpike has received ARRA ( American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) funding for one of its projects. Stimulus dollars have been allocated to the electronic tolling system on the Homestead Extension project around Miami, one of the highest traffic levels on the system. Traffic slowing down at the toll plazas and accelerating away from them creates a lot of pollution and has a significant effect on congestion, says Olson. " We're aiming to cut cash out completely so that all the tolling on that stretch will take place automatically." This can be done either through FDOT's prepaid toll program, SunPass, controlled by a transponder in the car or a windshield sticker, or through toll- by- plate, in which a picture is taken of the license plate, after which a bill is automatically generated and sent to the driver. As Olson describes it, this is a win- win- win project. The customers love it because they don't have to stop, the Turnpike saves by not needing the infrastructure associated with cash collection, and the environment benefits from maintaining an even flow of traffic. There's an additional bonus, too: " After we introduced open- road tolling, we found we had a decrease in crashes by 50 percent. We're excited to know these elements will save money that we can spend on other improvements, and that customers will also be able to save money as well as having the satisfaction of knowing they're reducing greenhouse gases. In the future we won't need to build toll booths and thus we can reduce our footprint. In one project alone we can save $ 60 million by going electronic."