The Phoenix Flyer

Ignoring pleas for more scrutiny and local control, Republicans advance multi-billion dollar toll road plan

By: - April 30, 2019 3:59 pm

U.S. 98; Wikimedia Commons.

The Republican-led Florida Legislature barreled ahead Tuesday on its plan to create the largest state highway construction project since the 1950s – a toll road network that would cost billions. Republicans rejected attempts by Democrats to give locals veto power over where the road corridors would go and resisted attempts to give the broad plan more scrutiny by elected officials.

The toll road bill is a top priority for Republican Florida Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton. Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone called it “the worst environmental bill that I have seen in 20 years.”

It’s clear that Republican lawmakers are steamrolling the massive project. It passed the state Senate 37-1 last week with no debate. The House will have one more vote this week before sending the bill to Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In House debate Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Margaret Good, who represents an area south and east of Sarasota, tried to get lawmakers to pass an amendment to protect wetlands in the project’s path. It failed. She proposed an amendment that would have required the state to protect lands in the project path that are already set aside for conservation. It failed.

Republican lawmakers rejected amendments that would have:

-Given local governments notice of where the roadways would go through their areas.

-Given local governments the chance to approve or reject the location of interchanges in their areas.

-Put an expert from the state’s Florida Natural Areas Inventory on the roadway task forces to watch for ecological impacts.

-Bring the project back before the Legislature for final approval before its planned construction in 2022.

“We don’t know where the roads are going to go exactly or what they are going to cost exactly,” Good said in asking lawmakers to agree to have the toll road plan come back before lawmakers once the routes are known. “We should look at this one more time before we start building.”

The exact corridor for the toll roads isn’t yet mapped out for the public. But, generally, the plan calls for:

– A “Suncoast Connector” highway to extend the Suncoast Parkway from north of Tampa up to North Florida’s Jefferson County, along the Georgia border.

– A highway to link Polk County to Collier County, the “Southwest Central Florida Corridor.”

– A “Northern Turnpike connector” to extend the Florida Turnpike northwest from I-75 in Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway on the state’s west coast.

The legislation creates task forces made up of state and local officials to plan the corridors over the next 14 months. It envisions construction starting in 2022 and the roads open by 2030 – all without further legislative approval, other than to approve annual budget allocations. The state Department of Transportation would be in charge, and would coordinate with other state agencies, including those that oversee wildlife and the environment.

The plan calls for $45 million next year, $90 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, about $135 million the year after that and a recurring amount of $140 million starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. The money would be spent on planning the massive project; billions more would be bonded to fund the toll roads.

Galvano’s toll road plan has support from the state’s developers and road builders, and the bill is being shepherded by state Sen. Tom Lee, a Tampa-area home builder.  As the Phoenix earlier reported, one main toll road route, through North Central Florida, would benefit Florida’s richest man.

Both Galvano and Lee deny knowing the man, Thomas Peterffy. Peterffy is a Republican donor to Gov. Ron DeSantis who has a mansion on Palm Beach’s Billionaire’s Row and is a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. He owns tens of thousands of acres of already master-planned land in North-Central Florida,  and claimed in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times this month that he knows nothing about the highway project. The group Progress Florida dubbed the toll road “Billionaire Boulevard.”

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.