JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Toll roads are back in Jacksonville for the first time since 1988, despite the fight local voters put up to get rid of them.
Action News Jax investigative reporter Ben Becker worked to uncover a deal that not even local lawmakers knew about.
There are over 700 miles of toll roads and express lanes in Florida, and they bring in nearly $1 billion a year.
Phase one of the First Coast Expressway cost taxpayers about $437 million, but that money comes from a state bond program that will be paid back through tolls.
In 1988, Jacksonville voters got rid of tolls in exchange for a half-cent sales tax, but local referendums don't apply to FDOT.
Becker spent the past month digging into how the agency spends taxpayer dollars and found multimillion-dollar contracts to advertise with sports teams, including the Jaguars. Records show SunPass spent $2.3 million with the Jags back in 2015. But that's not all: The Orlando Magic got slightly more than $2 million, $2 million went to both Orlando soccer teams and SunPass spent about a million dollars advertising with the Florida State athletics department.
That's nearly $6.5 million to advertise a state agency with no competition.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise runs every FDOT-owned and operated toll road. When Action News Jax asked for an interview, the Executive Director and CEO Paul Wai refused.
Action News Jax reporter Ben Becker then drove 2 hours to the headquarters in Orlando, Wai never showed up to work.
After getting no answers in Orlando, Action News Jax then went to Tallahassee to speak with lawmakers and ask them about Sunpass and its spending.
Fleming Island Sen. Rob Bradley said he had never heard of the Sunpass advertisement contracts. Although he was not critical of the agency, he did have something to say about its CEO refusing an on-camera interview: "That's not acceptable for somebody to refuse to answer questions from somebody like yourself who has questions about expenditures."
Three weeks later and Sunpass still hasn't answered our questions about spending.
Senate minority leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville questions why Sunpass needs to advertise at all, "The sign is there on the interstate. That is your marketing."
Traditionally, governments use a gas tax to pay for new roads, but cars are more fuel efficient and revenues are down.
Cox Media Group