May 19, 2009 / 9:43 PM / 10 years ago

Florida puts "Alligator Alley" leasing plan on hold

TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - Plans to lease Florida’s “Alligator Alley” to private operators are now on hold after no bidders stepped up to take over the 78-mile stretch of toll road through the Everglades, transport officials said Tuesday.

Smoke from fires in the Everglades can be seen in the distance near a boat ramp off of Florida's Alligator Alley in an undated file photo. REUTERS/Colin Braley

The Florida decision is the latest in a string of proposed high-profile privatizations of U.S. public facilities to unwind.

Chicago gave up on a $2.25 billion Midway Airport lease deal because of financing difficulties, and opponents stopped a $12.8 billion turnpike privatization in Pennsylvania.

In Florida, following months of haggling and controversy, the state Department of Transportation called off a public hearing set for May 29 after a Monday deadline elapsed without a single proposal to privatize the road linking Naples on the state’s Gulf coast to Fort Lauderdale on the Atlantic.

Tight credit and mounting opposition to the deal may have proved too much as deadlines came and went.

A state DOT spokesman said on Tuesday the agency was surprised by the lack of participation and weren’t told bidders got cold feet.

“We didn’t get that type of feedback,” said DOT spokesman Dick Kane.

State Sen. Dave Aronberg, a vocal critic of the planned privatization, hailed the DOT’s setback. The proposal was misguided, posed homeland security issues and compromised the state’s revenue generating capacity, he said.

“This was a bad deal from the beginning,” Aronberg said. “It should never have gotten this far.”

In April 2008 the Florida DOT put the roadway up for lease as a way to generate revenue for the cash-strapped state.

Eight firms responded to the initial request for bids, including companies from Spain, Italy and Portugal. The list dropped to six after additional requirements were imposed.

The bidding deadline, originally set for December 15, was repeatedly moved back as bidders reeled from a global credit meltdown that left them unable to obtain financing.

One consumer group lauded the deadline’s passing, saying the state should not turn state-run toll roads into profit-generating operations for private business.

“By privatizing roadways, officials hand over significant control over regional transportation policy to individuals who are accountable to their shareholders rather than the public,” said Brad Ashwell, advocate for the Florida Public Interest Research Group. “The public should retain control over decisions about transportation planning and management.”

Reporting by Michael Peltier, additional reporting by Michael Connor in Miami; Editing by Padraic Cassidy

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