CHICAGO--(BUSINESS WIRE)--Fitch Ratings has assigned a 'BBB+' rating to the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, Florida's (the authority) approximately $195.6 million series 2015A 1st senior lien tax-exempt bonds and $45.3 million series 2015B 1st senior lien taxable bonds and a 'BBB' rating to the $38 million 2nd senior lien tax-exempt bonds. Fitch also affirms the 'BBB+' rating on the outstanding senior lien bonds and the 'BBB' rating on the outstanding springing lien bonds. The authority expects to restructure their existing $97.8 million senior lien bonds and $154.7 million springing lien bonds into the new 1st senior and 2nd senior liens.
The Rating Outlook on all bonds is Stable.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
The rating reflects a small standalone facility with an improved debt structure under the assumed restructuring resulting in significantly lower annual debt service requirements, thus reducing the need for periodic toll increases to match the increasing annual debt service obligations as seen in the previous structure. The bridge's financial performance has been generally positive due to low elasticity to toll increases, the addition of a tolled limited access highway, and the responsibility of only administrative expenses as the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is responsible for operating and capital expenses.
Revenue Risk - Volume: Weaker
Important Evacuation Link Exposed to Leisure and Military: Mid-Bay Bridge (the bridge) and the Walter Francis Spence Parkway (the parkway) serve as important transportation links for commuters and tourists and also serve as a key emergency and natural disaster evacuation route from the southern beach areas in Florida's Okaloosa and Walton Counties. The rating also considers the area's heavy dependence on local military operations, exposure to discretionary travel as well as some competition. Ongoing and anticipated future infusion of military personnel and their families at Eglin Air Force Base (Eglin AFB) somewhat offsets this risk through the related need for growth in traffic capacity.
Revenue Risk - Price: Midrange
Moderate Economic Rate-Making Flexibility: Management has historically implemented toll increases to support increased debt and has proactively planned for future toll increasing to meet its escalating debt service requirements. With the refinancing transaction, the authority has added a toll policy to the resolution setting forth its intention to maintain at least 1.5 times (x) coverage on the 1st senior lien bonds and 1.3x coverage on the 2nd senior lien bonds.
Infrastructure Development/Renewal: Stronger
Infrastructure Renewal: A lease-purchase agreement with FDOT provides for a strong legal framework and an economic gross lien on toll revenues to bondholders, enhancing stand-alone credit quality. FDOT is obligated to cover operating expenses and renewal and rehabilitation advances for the life of the debt, which includes deeply subordinated repayment terms. The authority's capital plan is fully financed with the existing bond proceeds.
Debt Structure: 1st senior - Stronger, 2nd senior - Midrange
Fixed-Rate, Multi-Tier Capital Structure: After the restructuring, debt service escalates to maximum annual debt service (MADS) of $18.5 million in 2019 which is significantly lower than the current structure of escalating debt service to MADS of $24.7 million in 2023, but extends the maturity five years to 2045. The 2nd senior lien benefits from a stronger rate covenant of 1.2x over the previous 1.15x on the springing lien bonds.
Moderate Leverage and Adequate Reserves: Above average leverage including 1st senior and 2nd senior lien debt on a net debt-to-cash flow available for debt service basis (at 13.5x) is somewhat explained by authority's lack of unrestricted liquidity due to the narrowness of obligations. FDOT covers operating and capital expenses with Mid-Bay reimbursing FDOT on a subordinated basis to debt service, thus Mid-Bay does not accumulate cash like most other facilities in Fitch's portfolio. Post-refinancing the authority will only have a $2 million general fund, $18.5 million debt service reserve fund, and $133 thousand in unrestricted cash.
Peer Group: The bridge's peer group includes toll roads with similar traffic levels such as Alligator Alley, FL ('A+'/Stable Outlook) and Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel District, VA ('A-'/Stable Outlook). However, Mid-Bay has substantially higher leverage and lower coverage than its peers.
Negative - Traffic Contraction: Due to the small service area and moderate leisure component, traffic is susceptible to economic factors on both the general area and the military base, directly impacting coverage levels.
Positive - Better than expected elasticity to the fiscal 2016 toll increase would improve operating margins and lead to a material reduction in overall leverage and higher coverage.
The authority expects to restructure the outstanding senior lien and springing lien bonds into 1st senior and 2nd senior lien tiers. Overall leverage remains the same, but a higher portion of the overall debt load (86%) will be on the 1st senior piece as compared to the prior structure (39%). Along with a final maturity extension of five years to 2045, MADS will decline 25% to $18.5 million, reducing the authority's need for heavy toll increases to meet debt obligations. With this issuance, the authority is implementing a toll policy to manage coverage levels at 1.5x on the 1st senior and 1.3x on the 2nd senior while also planning to implement a toll increase for the beginning of fiscal year (FY) 2016 (ended Sept. 30) to meet this policy.
FY 2014 toll revenues increased by 14.3% to $18.1 million and traffic increased 28.6% to 8.5 million as a result of the parkway opening in January 2014. The parkway traffic was in-line with management's expectation, but the bridge's traffic came in nearly 14% under forecast due to an over-projection of the induced traffic from the parkway. Fiscal year to date through five months traffic is up 33% and revenue is up 21.5%.
Per indenture calculation (net of administrative expenses only), senior debt service coverage ratio (DSCR) was 2.64x, and combined senior and springing lien coverage was 1.36x in FY 2014, an increase from 2.38x but a decline from 1.69x, respectively, as debt service obligations increased.
The Fitch base case assumes a toll increase of $0.50, per the traffic consultant's expectations, average traffic growth of 1.7% through 2045 resulting in average revenue growth of 1.9% from 2015 to 2045. Under this scenario, average 1st senior DSCR of 1.80x with a minimum of 1.50x, and average 2nd senior coverage of 1.56x with a minimum of 1.30x. The Fitch rating case forecasts greater elasticity in the FY 2016 toll increase on traffic as well as reduced long term traffic forecasts. In this scenario, to maintain the toll policy, an additional toll increase is anticipated in 2020 leading to average revenue growth of 1.7%. The rating case average 1st senior DSCR is 1.68x with a minimum of 1.51x, and average 2nd senior coverage is 1.45x with a minimum of 1.31x.
Under a lease purchase agreement with the authority, FDOT pays operating and maintenance (O&M) expenses for the Mid-Bay system and remits all tolls collected to the authority as lease payments. The agreement remains in effect until all outstanding 1st senior and 2nd senior lien bonds have been repaid and all obligations owed to FDOT by the authority have been fully discharged, at which point FDOT will own the bridge.
The Mid-Bay Bridge Authority operates the 3.6 mile long Mid-Bay Bridge (State Road [SR] 293) across the Choctawatchee Bay and approaches on the northern and southern sides of the bridge. The bridge connects SR 20 with U.S. Highway 98 east of Destin, FL and provides a more direct route to tourists and residents between northern and southern Okaloosa and Walton counties. The facility was recently expanded at the beginning of January 2014, with an 11-mile limited access highway from the bridge toll plaza (at the north end of the bridge), north and west around Niceville to SR 85. The parkway serves as a link between Interstate 10 and intercept SR 85 and SR 285 traffic before reaching SR 20 in Niceville.
The 1st senior and 2nd senior lien revenue bonds are all secured by a gross pledge of revenues of the authority, after administrative expenses only, including all funds and accounts established under the resolution, and related investment earnings. The 2nd senior lien debt service repayment will be subordinate to the 1st senior lien obligations.
Additional information is available at 'www.fitchratings.com'.
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
--'Rating Criteria for Infrastructure and Project Finance' (July 11, 2012);
--'Rating Criteria for Toll Roads, Bridges, and Tunnels' (Aug. 20, 2014).
Applicable Criteria and Related Research:
Rating Criteria for Infrastructure and Project Finance
Rating Criteria for Toll Roads, Bridges and Tunnels