A few months ago, I spoke with Alan Grayson about his thinking about running for his old Orlando congressional seat. He was putting together the parameters of a campaign in his mind and didn’t seem interested in doing anything “by the book.” When has Alan Grayson ever don anything "by the book?" Although he has one of the most outstanding records of any member of Congress in the last couple of decades, he didn’t just want to run on his record. And although he was ahead of his time on issue after issue after issue— from auditing the Fed, increasing (not just defending) Social Security benefits and campaign finance reform to adding dental, visual and hearing healthcare to Medicare— he didn’t want to run on ideas, even his own ideas— that have now become part of liberal dogma and that are more long-term and aspirational than something he could do for his constituents now.
So he came up with that campaign raison d'être up top: “Lower tolls, lower taxes, lower rent.” Previously I had heard plenty of political leaders talking about lowering taxes on the middle and working class and shifting the burden towards the very wealthy to making the system more equitable and, in effect, that is just what Grayson was proposing, like getting rid of the unfair tax on Social Security income. And the ideas he has about how to bring down rents in Orlando— like making rent tax deductible— are already being coopted by other politicians.
But it was the lowering tolls that intrigued me most. I don’t recall another congressional candidate having ever run on that. “Florida,” he says on his website, “has the highest tolls in America! It’s Highway Robbery!” And it isn’t just a local issue. “The Florida Department of Transportation and local leaders will be seeking billions of dollars in federal money to build the next phase of I-4 expansion from Kirkman Road to the Polk County line on the westbound side, and Lake Mary to Deltona on the eastbound side. As it stands today, there are tolls planned for all of those new lanes, just like the ‘express lanes’ that have opened through the center of Orlando… We already paid for these roads through the gas tax; now they want us to pay for them again through tolls. These new I-4 ‘Lexus lanes’ must be completely free to all users. Almost all federal highways around the country are toll-free; why not ours?” But it is his approach to existing tolls that caught my attention, “tolls were originally designed to pay the bonds for the road issued in 1971. That was more than 50 years ago, and those bonds have been long since paid off.”
Last week, with corporate media ignoring it, the West Orlando News decided to take a look at that part of Grayson’s platform as well. “Grayson,” they wrote, “has a reputation of getting things done during his time in Congress and he was able to return a lot of federal resources to his district. When it comes to ending tolls for Central Florida drivers, he says he won’t even wait until November to start working on it. ‘The tolls should be eliminated immediately,’ Grayson told West Orlando News. ‘I will start trying even before the November election, and I won’t let up until it’s done.’”
Saying that tolls are an “extremely regressive way to pay for roads,” Grayson takes aim with some arguments from the Central Florida Expressway Authority in his detailed approach to end what he says over-charges local residents for their commute. He also said “the current system simply is a rip-off.”
So how would a member of Congress from Orlando end the tolls on SR-408? Grayson’s approach would be methodical but he’s also ready to escalate to get results.
“I would first approach the Expressway authority by letter to lay out the case for ending tolls on SR-408, as I did once before when I was in Congress,” Grayson said. “Then I would meet individually with each Board member, and offer to testify before the Board. If that were unsuccessful, then I would offer a bill and an amendment in Congress withholding federal transportation funds from states that impose tolls on roads that are fully paid-for.”
He also insists toll revenues on SR-408 are not needed to maintain the road. The Central Florida Expressway Authority told West Orlando News “to build and maintain our 125-mile expressway system, CFX relies on bonds supported by the tolls.” Grayson disagrees and laid out his reasons.
“According to the Expressway annual budget, its revenues are $514 million per year, and its costs are $286 million per year,” Grayson said. “The difference, i.e., $228 million, is what drivers are overcharged each year. This roughly $200 per year for every driver in Orange and Osceola Counties, whether they use the toll roads or not. On top of this, the Expressway has more than $700 million in accumulated overcharges from previous years that just sits there. The cost of maintaining SR-408 is approximately $2 million a year (i.e., one CFX road out of 9, and $18 million spent each year on maintenance). The money sitting in some dormant account from previous overcharges would be enough to pay SR-408 maintenance costs for the next 350 years. In fact, just the interest on those previous overcharges is more than adequate, forever.”
Grayson also said the notion that that much money would be needed for “maintenance” is quite implausible. He noted that every driver must pay $1 to $2 just to get on and off SR-408, and as much as $5.75 more while on it. “In fact, the actual cost per driver of road maintenance on SR-408 is less than a penny,” he claimed.
CFX also said that revenues from expressways like SR-408 stay local, reinvested into local projects in Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties. And, with the Board’s recent approval of a $4 billion five-year work plan, CFX is projected to create approximately 52,000 jobs in Central Florida and contribute $4.6 billion in economic activity. But Grayson is against the CFX expansion plan and says it is more important to save Orlando voters from paying for “roads 25 miles away that they will never use.”
“Regarding CFX’s expansion plan, which would cost $3,000 for every person in Orange and Osceola Counties, I’m against it,” Grayson told West Orlando News. “Essentially, CFX is building roads to nowhere. The traffic on the Daniel Webster Parkway, which Webster named after himself and which cost $70 million, is so low that CFX doesn’t even disclose it at its website. The only part of this expansion plan that has anything to do with the Congressional district is the proposed 1.5-mile extension of SR-414 on the Seminole border, which only a tiny fraction of people in the district would ever use, and that extension also is just unnecessary. If a road is worth building, then CFX can sell the bonds to pay for that road. If it’s not, then at least under the current regime, it should not be built. There is no logical rationale to charge people in downtown Orlando for roads 25 miles away that they will never use.”
In Central Florida politics, voters don’t often hear candidates openly speak about transportation alternatives like this. Grayson has made it a platform issue.
“I should add that tolls, in general, are an extremely regressive way to pay for roads, and that Florida has the highest tolls in America,” Grayson said. “I think that it’s a horrible idea to charge people up to $15.50 just to commute to work each day. For people earning the minimum wage, that’s a 20% tax. Regardless of whether one agrees with that or not, the current system simply is a rip-off, a way to divert $228 million each year out of our pockets to some bank account somewhere else that creates no jobs in Orlando, and purchases no goods and services in Orlando. It’s theft.”
Grayson is also assuring voters the system would not “collapse,” saying “each time a CFX toll road has been built— all 8 of them— the bondholders have been ensured that the revenue from that road would pay for the bonds for that road, until the bonds were paid off. That’s what the bondholders themselves require.”
“Since SR-408 bonds were paid off decades ago, their revenue is not needed anymore,” he continued. “It’s simplistic to say that ‘bonds [are] supported by the tolls;’ each bond for each road is supposed to be supported by the tolls from that road, which doesn’t apply to SR-408 anymore. It would be more accurate to say that SR-408 is the major over-charger in the system, rather than that it’s the major revenue generator in the system.”
The primary for the open FL-10 seat is crowded with a range of Democratic candidates, from a standard variety careerist state legislator (Randolph Bracy) to a crypto-captured fraud (Maxwell Frost). There is no one else remotely like Alan Grayson running. If you want to contribute to his campaign, please click here... or on the graphic below.