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Tolling Points

When Hurricane Irma Hit, Florida’s Toll Roads Were Ready

Bill Cramer

There are moments when resilience means more than battening down the hatches and protecting people from a deadly storm like Hurricane Irma.

If you happen to operate the roadways that are a path to survival for hundreds of thousands of people trying to evacuate ahead of the weather, you also need the financial resilience to absorb the revenue loss that inevitably results.

That’s what happened when tolls were suspended by Governor Scott on Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise during the pre-Irma evacuation, and in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. The agency came through the test with flying colors.

Depth of Experience

It didn’t hurt that Florida’s Turnpike had seen it all before. When IBTTA convened a workshop on adaptation, resilience, and the lessons learned from Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it brought together two groups—the tolling executives from New York and New Jersey who had lived through the crisis, and their colleagues from Florida who were already old hands at hurricane response.

Maria Connolly – FTE Maintenance Engineer:

As Hurricane Irma approached, we implemented various emergency evacuation support plans.  These plans incorporated lessons learned from previous hurricanes including the very active hurricane seasons in the mid 2000’s.  The key to success is being adaptable and flexible which allowed us to make necessary adjustments based on current conditions.

That’s because the role of highways, including tolled highways, is always the same, wherever and whenever disaster strikes: they’re the last infrastructure people rely on as they depart the danger zone, and the essential link for first responders and material assigned to help with the clean-up.

All in a Day’s Work

Florida’s Turnpike’s response to Hurricane Irma showed that, for the best tolling agencies, emergency response is all in a day’s work.

Paul Wai – FTE Director of Transportation Operations:

Before and after Hurricane Irma, families, emergency responders, utility crews, and supply trucks using Florida’s Turnpike reached their destinations, because the 312-mile Turnpike mainline, eight Turnpike Service Plazas and Gas Stations, and interchanges were open to traffic.  Although open to traffic is all in a day’s work, every day, having a Category 5 Hurricane targeting most of the state, increases the sense of urgency, stress, and expectations.  Florida’s Turnpike and associated services were open to traffic because the entire FTE organization including the dedicated Florida Highway Patrol Troop K were focused on keeping traffic moving safely.

The $3 million per day in lost revenue—a total of $45 million, when all was said and done—had no adverse effect on system operations or ongoing work programs, “as impacts such as toll suspensions due to a hurricane are taken into consideration during the annual budgeting process,” spokesperson Chad Huff told Jacksonville’s News4JAX TV.

“Governor [Rick] Scott's top priority was to keep people safe as our state faced the threat of Hurricane Irma and to ensure Floridians had no reason to not evacuate if they were in evacuation zones,” Huff wrote. “Suspending tolls was critical to helping Floridians travel safely and quickly during the largest ever evacuation in U.S. history.”

More broadly, Moody’s Investor Service affirmed that Florida’s infrastructure debt issuers had the prior experience to maintain their creditworthiness in the face of the storm. The list included five toll roads that had enough cash on hand to manage an average 2,200 days of operating expenses.

“These transportation entities will be negatively affected by disruptions to operations and losses of revenue in the short run,” Moody’s wrote in a Sept 11 client note that it later shared with media. “However, these issuers will generally be able to sustain their long-term credit quality.”

Click here for more on tolling agencies’ adaptation and resilience in response to severe weather.


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