Two weeks ago we discussed Florida’s possible “road to nowhere” which Senator J.D. Alexander pushed through the legislature. At a time of budget shortfalls throughout Florida, Alexander is pushing a road project unprecedented in the history of the state. While the Department of Transportation seeks to needed raise revenue by pushing toll express lanes in major urban areas throughout the state, Rick Scott and J.D. Alexander advocate a road to nowhere whose initial construction would be paid for on the backs of urban commuters.
It wasn’t that long ago that a corrupt Democratic Speaker of the House pushed through a similar project which many years later is the biggest transportation boondoggle in the history of the state. Bo Johnson of Milton had worked his way up to the speakership often times voting a more liberal line than his conservative constituents.
The Garcon Point Bridge is arguably the most wasteful road project in the history of the state. As Florida’s transportation needs were mounting due to remarkable growth in the 1990s, one project was put above all by the House Speaker: a bridge over the East Bay section of Pensacola Bay connecting the two disconnected portions of Speaker Johnson’s home county of Santa Rosa. Initial projections were that 7,500 cars would use the bridge on a daily basis in 2000.
In theory this sounds like it was a good idea to bring a needed highway to a part of the state often forgotten by policy makers. But the reality is in 2011, the bridge still only averaged 3,900 cars daily despite robust growth in the area. The toll rates may have to be increased on the bridge to offset the continued costs of operating the bridge. The bridge itself has been in financial trouble since its completion.
Johnson was the last Speaker to enjoy a large Democratic majority in the chamber. His successor, Peter Rudy Wallace, a principled Harvard educated liberal from St Petersburg had to fend off a possible rebellion among conservative north Florida legislators in 1994 before becoming Speaker. Once he became Speaker, Wallace was often outvoted by a conservative coalition of north Florida/rural Democrats and Republicans who took the majority outright two years later.
Johnson, eventually went to jail for tax evasion continuing what has become a infamous trend among significant northwest Florida law makers.
Northwest Florida has made a positive impact on Florida’s recent history by producing one of the best Governor’s to serve in the history of our nation: Reuben Askew. But more often than not, the region has produced high-profile corrupt legislators. Bob Sikes was a longtime Democratic Congressman from the region who quit congress in the late 1970s embroiled in scandal. W.D. Childers who served for 30 years in the State Senate went to jail in 2005 but later had his conviction overturned in 2010. Childers was known as the “banty rooster” largely because of the amount of pork he brought home. More recently, Ray Sansom became Speaker of the House but last three months in the job as the Republican Conference in the House ousted him amidst scandal and replaced him with Larry Cretel. It should be noted that while Sansom was facing pressure from Republicans for his ethical lapses, Florida’s Democrats were largely silent and impotent on the matter which reflects the lack of moral courage we’ve come to expect from our state’s party leadership.
But Bo Johnson’s “Bridge to Nowhere” takes the cake. It is unfortunate because the Western Panhandle deserves its fair share of state dollars and investment but often times powerful lawmakers have abused this need to bring projects like the Garcon Point Bridge to the area at the expense of the rest of the state. Let us hope this proves to be a lesson that policy makers heed when considering the fate of the Heartland Parkway and other similar sweetheart projects.