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The Southwest Florida Expressway Authority meets at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Bonita Springs City Council chambers, 9101 Bonita Beach Road..
NAPLES — The future of the agency that’s considering adding toll lanes to Interstate 75 is back up for debate when the Southwest Florida Expressway Authority meets again Wednesday after a hiatus.
Since the economy has slowed significantly in Southwest Florida, Expressway Authority Chairman William Barton said, growing traffic demands in the area have been pushed way into the future.
Two complications to just disbanding the authority, however, are that it was set up by the Legislature and it is carrying $1.9 million of loan debt.
During a past meeting, the authority board learned that Southwest Florida isn’t expected to return to 2007 traffic levels until 2015 to 2017.
“We obviously don’t want to continue to spend taxpayers’ money,” Barton said.
To move forward, Barton said, the authority will discuss several options for the future when it meets at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the Bonita Springs City Council chambers, 9101 Bonita Beach Road.
The authority was set up by the Legislature in 2005 to look into putting additional toll lanes along I-75.
Now, if the authority board wants to ask the Legislature to dissolve the authority, Lee and Collier commissioner representatives would have to submit a written letter to the Legislature, Barton said.
Other options include leaving the authority in existence. If so, the authority is required to meet at least once a year and approve a budget, Barton said.
Another choice would be to have the authority go into a form of hibernation.
Barton said he didn’t know the specifics on the hibernation option, but an attorney would explain what these are during Wednesday’s meeting.
Barton said he didn’t know if the authority board would come to a decision Wednesday.
The authority was conceived before funding was found by the Florida Department of Transportation to increase the lanes on I-75 from four lanes to six lanes. With I-75 widened, Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta said, it has negated the need for the authority.
“Where do you go with an authority that has all the lanes it needs for a perceived future?” said Coletta, who represents the Collier County Commission on the authority.
However, at issue is an outstanding loan debt of about $1.9 million to the Florida Department of Transportation through the Toll Facilities Revolving Trust Fund, as well as loans from Lee and Collier county governments, when the authority got started.
About $1 million is owed to DOT, $775,000 to Lee County government and $150,000 to Collier County government, said Amy Davies, the Fort Myers office leader for consultant Wilbur Smith Associates.
Wilbur Smith Associates is the general engineering contractor that provides staff services to the authority.
According to minutes of a Dec. 9, 2009, meeting, Davies told authority members the Toll Facilities Revolving Trust Fund agreement requires that the authority start paying the loan by the seventh year.
Yet the authority has no project, and DOT, which has a member on the board, is aware of the in-limbo status of the authority.
“FDOT will be assisting the (authority) in coordinating ... on a revised repayment schedule, an extension of the loan, or request FDOT to forgive this debt,” Davies said during the December 2009 meeting.
Barton said it’s unlikely the authority could start paying back loans “because it has no assets or income.”
“I would like a successful end that would not leave any financial costs to the county,” Coletta said.
The authority board will be asked to adopt a 2010 budget.
In 2008, plans went from the original goal of widening the interstate to 10 lanes from Fort Myers to Naples, collecting tolls on lanes seven through 10 and using the proceeds to pay for the work to toll lanes 5 through 10 instead.
Collier commissioners opposed the idea of collecting tolls on the two extra lanes the state already was building using taxpayers’ money.
“It made no sense at all,” Coletta said.