9 Investigates Expressway Authority profits

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ORLANDO, Fla. - Less than a year after toll rates went up across central Florida, the Orlando-Orange County Express Authority is reaping the rewards, taking in tens of millions of dollars in profits, 9 Investigates has learned.

Investigative reporter Christopher Heath dug into the profit margin for the Express Authority and discovered a $58 million profit last year. So, Heath asked why motorists are paying more tolls if the expressway is collecting that much more money?

But first he spoke to Chris Bruno, a local business owner, who said he spends close to $2,000 a month on tolls as he drives the area's toll roads for work.

Bruno builds pools and said his monthly toll costs are passed on directly to his customers.

Bruno drives just one of the 120,000 vehicles that travel along the East-West Expressway (SR-408) between Interstate 4 and SR-417 each week.

All that toll money is adding up fast, Heath learned. But how fast?

Consider that the Express Authority is currently operating at a 30 percent profit margin. That's twice the profit margin the lucrative pharmaceutical industry enjoys and three times the margin of the oil industry.

"Well, it's a lot of money," said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, an Express Authority board member. "You've got too many people that are held hostage to the 408."

The Express Authority now averages a $532,000-per-mile profit for its toll roads.

Despite the extra cash coming in, tolls will not go away or decrease. The existing bonds signed by the authority do not allow it to lower or eliminate tolls.

"Our bond covenants don't allow free movement," said Authority board chairman Walter Ketcham. "We're prohibited from doing that."

"It's not healthy at all," said Bruno. "We have to adjust the cost of the pools we build for our driving expenses."

Express Authority officials said the added toll revenue is used to pay down the cost of projects, paying cash instead of buying bonds and saving money in the long-term.

In general, Heath found toll roads in Florida are big money-makers. The statewide turnpike system made $268 million last year, which works out to a greater per-mile profit than even the Express Authority.

It's all money motorists paid for the privilege of driving along Florida's growing network of toll roads.

States like New York, Colorado and Connecticut have removed tolls from some roads, but that is by far the exception, not the rule.

One of the oldest toll roads in the U.S., the Pennsylvania Turnpike, was built in 1940 and is still charging tolls.