Commentary

The Florida DOT’s latest ‘Billionaire Boulevard’ plan has rural FL outraged

Contrary to what Ron DeSantis thinks, roads are a political statement

November 18, 2021 7:00 am

Goethe State Forest in Levy County. The state DOT would like to run a highway through it. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last month, because of Halloween, TV was full of horror movies, including one cleverly titled “Halloween.”

That one, released in 1978, featured a frightened young woman, played by scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, fleeing a masked and murderous psycho named Michael Myers, whose dialogue consisted of him breathing very loudly.

At the film’s climax — do I really need yell SPOILER ALERT here for a 43-year-old movie?  — Donald Pleasence saves her by shooting the homicidal maniac six times. The killer falls off a balcony, apparently to his death. But when Pleasence looks for his body, it’s gone. That’s how we wound up with approximately 437 sequels, remakes, and reboots with titles like “Halloween 29: Michael Myers vs. the Lord of the Dance.”

I was reminded of the never-say-die saga of Michael Myers the other day when I got a call from a very angry lady from Levy County who was upset about the M-CORES toll roads.

But wait, I said, the Legislature killed off those expensive and ridiculous roads to nowhere! They (figuratively) got shot and fell off the balcony!

Turns out they only killed two-thirds of it. One road, like Michael Myers, somehow survived the execution, crawled away to recuperate, and is now getting ready to kill again.

I am talking about the Northern Turnpike Extension, which is supposed to branch off from the Florida Turnpike in Wildwood and head north toward some as-yet-unnamed terminus. At least two of the potential routes show it cutting through Levy County.

The Levy County routes steamroll right through the longleaf pine flatwoods and swamps of the 58,000-acre Goethe State Forest, as well as smashing a hole in the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross-Florida Greenway, a currently unbroken 110-mile linear park that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean.

“They’re trying to sneak this in through the back door!” said Robbie Blake, the 75-year-old Levy County activist who called me.

She and a lot of other Levy County residents just found out about these highway routes over the weekend. They heard about it when notices from the Florida Department of Transportation told them about a pair of informational meetings on Dec. 7 (Chiefland) and Dec. 9 (Lecanto).

Blake, who’s a member of Citizens for an Enlightened Electorate, pointed out that the Levy County Commission had voted last year to reject any new toll roads cutting through its rolling hills and forests. Yet here was the DOT touting plans to do just that.

“It’s like a fricking slap in the face!” she told me, then added, “Excuse my language.”

‘A road is a road’

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg lit up the right-wing gasbagosphere by pointing out that a provision in the infrastructure bill would subsidize efforts to repair the damage suffered by minority communities when a road or bridge disrupted their neighborhoods.

He was referring to how powerful planner Robert Moses employed new roads and bridges to limit opportunities for non-white New York residents, as recounted in Robert A. Caro’s award-winning biography, “The Power Broker.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Among those Fox-centric pols who responded with derision was Gov. Ron DeSantis, allegedly a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law, who said, “I heard some stuff, some weird stuff from the Secretary of Transportation trying to make this about social issues. To me, a road’s a road.”

For such a supposedly educated fellow, our governor sure says a lot of stuff that sounds, well, let’s be charitable and call it “naïve.” Anyone with a lick of sense knows there’s more to any highway than “a road’s a road.” Building a road requires making choices. Where does it go? Who benefits from it? Who’s hurt by it?

I learned about the politics of road-building growing up in the Panhandle. We had a wily Escambia County commissioner named Grady Albritton who some people dubbed “the King of the County.” He was so powerful because he controlled the road crews in his district and he knew how to use that to swap favors.

One man in Albritton’s rural district promised his whole family would vote for his reelection as long as the commissioner paved the red clay road in front of his house, so he did. County crews showed up and paved a one-mile stretch directly in front of the man’s house. It sounds ridiculous, but that was enough to nail down his family’s votes.

In a broader sense, the choices we make for highway routes demonstrate what we value as a society. What do we want to save? What are we okay with destroying?

For instance, in 2016, when the Florida DOT went ahead with building an extension for the lightly-used Suncoast Parkway, they cut through the Withlacoochee State Forest and obliterated the site of an ancient turpentine camp named Etna which was on the National Register of Historic Places. That told everyone the DOT doesn’t value either forests or history.

Then, because a history-minded group led by Robert Roscow sued them for paving over Etna, the DOT tried to make up for wiping out that Citrus County site by building a mock Etna. But according to Roscow, they built it in Hernando County, not Citrus. (Maybe instead of “DOT” we should call it the “D’Oh!-OT.”)

That showed the agency cares enough about bad publicity to pay lip service to replicating history, but not to actually preserving it.

Or look at what happened in 2018, when the DOT planned to build something called the Coastal Connector, a toll road to link that pointless Suncoast Parkway extension to I-75. Its proposed route ran straight through a part of Marion County that’s been dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World,” home to Florida’s $2.6 billion equine industry.

Angry horse farm owners thundered like a herd of stampeding stallions. How dare then-Gov. Rick Scott ruin their pastures by ramming a strip of asphalt through them!

Scott loved toll roads almost as much as he loves his Navy ballcap, but he clearly didn’t like this ruckus. The DOT secretary wrote a letter saying they would abandon their Coastal Connector plans and instead work on making Interstate 75 better.

The agency concluded that the Coastal Connector wasn’t worth building because the value of that highway paled in comparison to placating a bunch of well-to-do landowners who have been known to make campaign contributions. The road — which clearly meant so much more than “just a road” — lost out.

Given how pretty those horse farms are, and how little green space we tend to save in Florida, I’m glad those equine enthusiasts won. They won again a year later, when the Florida Legislature forced the DOT to start planning for the three toll roads known as M-CORES. The agency agreed once again to treat the horse farm area as off-limits.

But now here comes the Northern Turnpike Extension, and more choices to make.

The ‘growing need’ of our state

If you don’t know the history of M-CORES, here’s the “Reader’s Digest” version: The then-Senate president, Bill Galvano, met with some people who build roads, the Florida Transportation Builders Association, after they gave his political action committee a big campaign contribution.

Then, in a move even a dung beetle would call “stinky,” Galvano announced that he had had a brilliant idea: Florida should build a bunch of expensive roads that the DOT didn’t have on any of its maps, and it should do this really fast. The toll roads would “help” rural areas develop so as to accommodate all the new people moving into Florida.

Bill Galvano
Former Florida Senate President Bill Galvano Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

The rest of the Legislature kowtowed to Galvano’s clout and in 2019 approved the bill creating the M-CORES. The initials stand for “Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance,” although I think of the program as “Money Can Overcome Reservations about Evil Sprawl.”

DeSantis signed this waste of taxpayer dollars into law with a comment that sounded more like something you’d hear from dopey old Gomer down at the fillin’ station rather than an Ivy League grad, “I think we need new roads in Florida to get around.”

But the three task forces formed to make recommendations on the M-CORES highways all reported they couldn’t find any purpose served by them. The southernmost road would have demolished habitat for our official state animal, the panther. Meanwhile, rural northern counties — including Levy — said they had no interest in allowing big, sprawl-causing toll roads to plow through their rural landscape. They basically wanted to stay the way they were.

Meanwhile, reporters dug up the one real beneficiary of all this asphalt: a billionaire named Thomas Peterffy. He just happened to be a Mar-A-Lago member and a DeSantis contributor, and he also just happened to own 561,000 acres in Lafayette, Dixie, and Taylor counties that are ripe for development. Critics dubbed the M-CORES “Billionaire Boulevards.”

But when the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the M-CORES price tag suddenly seemed too high and the state made another choice. At the behest of Senate Transportation Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, a Republican from Stuart, the Legislature repealed the toll road bill Galvano had wanted so badly. DeSantis signed the repeal into law without saying one word about his apparently contradictory stance.

Harrell’s bill didn’t lay a finger on the leg of M-CORES known as the Northern Turnpike Extension, which was declared to be “in the strategic interest of the state.” The senator explained this by saying, “We have over a thousand people a day moving to the beautiful Sunshine State.” She claimed her bill “builds on the task force recommendations. … It allows us to address congestion on I-75 and really look at our rural roads … to address the growing needs of our state.”

This is a specious argument, given that the task forces found no need for any of the roads, and the DOT has previously committed to improving I-75. The real “growing need” in our state is to save some green space from being wiped out, not for another toll road. Florida already has more miles of toll roads than any other state.

Folks in Levy County tell me they suspect the real aim here is to provide a highway for Peterffy and other developers. A road is a choice, you see, and clearly the Legislature and DOT were choosing to value pavement and development over the things that make life in Levy County appealing.

Around 100 people waving signs showed up for the Levy County Commission meeting Tuesday to object to the Northern Turnpike Extension, even though that road wasn’t on the commission agenda. I talked to one of them, Laura Parks Catlow, 64, a former travel industry employee, who said the route runs right through her property.

The commissioners told the crowd they just found out about the DOT’s plans, too, she said, and they appeared to be just as ticked off as their constituents.

One commissioner told them the DOT had threatened to withhold $16 million from Levy County for opposing M-CORES, but the commission did it anyway and planned to oppose this new threat, too.

The commissioners promised to write to the governor and the DOT demanding an explanation of this latest outrage, Catlow said. I sure hope both of them make the choice to respond, so they can make the people of Levy County understand why they are choosing to do a taxpayer-funded favor for a billionaire that obliterates the local folks’ property.

If I were a violent person, I’d recommend the opponents of the Northern Turnpike Extension show up for the DOT “informational sessions” toting a pistol and pump six bullets through the maps showing the routes.

But six bullets didn’t end Michael Myers, and I doubt it would end this latest M-CORES monstrosity. There is something about clueless Florida politicians and greedy developers that forever combines to rank asphalt as more important than saving trees and swamps and farms, so all I can say is: Stay tuned to see how this sequel turns out!

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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