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Politics / Issues

Frustration In Florida As State Announces Toll Road Development In Rural Areas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Florida is planning to build a series of toll roads to open new parts of the state to development. The government has not said exactly where the roads will go, but opposition is mounting in small towns and rural areas, where people fear their way of life is threatened. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Think of Florida, and you might envision palm trees, beaches, maybe theme parks.

MIKE WILLIS: This is the other Florida. We have rolling clay hills and beautiful pine forests.

ALLEN: Mike Willis's family has lived in Jefferson County since before Florida became a state. It's quiet, rural, and Willis says most people here want to keep it that way. That's why many became alarmed when the state legislature announced that a new toll road would likely come through their county.

WILLIS: We don't need this toll road. It seems to me that this whole project is a pet project of some powerful legislators as well as some powerful lobbyists.

ALLEN: Florida's road construction industry, along with the trucking and asphalt contractors associations, were among those promoting three new toll roads, including one that would begin on Florida's Gulf Coast and end somewhere in Jefferson County.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

ALLEN: Monticello, the county seat, is a small country town with a courthouse - bells ring on the hour - plus a historic opera house, restaurants, antique stores and other shops. Michelle Arceneaux, until recently, was head of the chamber of commerce.

MICHELE ARCENEAUX: We have two new clothing shops downtown, and they're doing well. We have a new gift shop, and she's thriving. So we've had a lot of great success in the last few years.

ALLEN: Arceneaux and other merchants worry that a new toll road would destroy Monticello's thriving downtown. People here also are angry about how the decision to build the new highways was made. New roads typically are proposed by the Florida Department of Transportation after years of traffic studies and planning. These roads were ordered by the state legislature, a top-down process that has left many distrustful. Task forces have been set up now to study where they should go. But J.T. Surles, a Jefferson County commissioner, thinks that decision's already been made.

J T SURLES: It's naive to me to think that there's not a roomful of people somewhere that don't know exactly where this thing's going.

ALLEN: The president of Florida's Senate, Bill Galvano, proposed the new toll roads and pushed for their approval. The new highways, he says, are about preparing for the future, not about opening Florida's rural areas to development.

BILL GALVANO: We've seen the growth that's occurred around the perimeter of our state, and I don't believe that it's driven because of infrastructure. It's driven because people wanting to be here.

ALLEN: Public meetings to discuss the new roads have been well-attended and sometimes heated. Some county officials and local business groups support the roads for the jobs and development they would bring. Environmental groups see the roads differently. Here's Charles Lee of Audubon Florida.

CHARLES LEE: They would constitute the most disaster a single thing that has ever happened to the rural areas and environment of the state of Florida.

ALLEN: Lee and others are worried the new roads would go through natural and agricultural areas that provide habitat for endangered species, including the Florida panther. In Jefferson County, there's a push for the commission to ask the state to remove it as the likely terminus of the new toll road. Jefferson County Commissioner Betsy Barfield opposes that move. A new highway, she believes, may bring benefits.

BETSY BARFIELD: If we are smart about where the toll road is going to go, how that growth is going to look, then I believe that we can mitigate some of the fears that people have.

ALLEN: As planners discuss where to put the new roads, one thing they haven't figured out yet is how to pay for them. Building more than 300 miles of new highways may cost the state more than $10 billion.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Monticello, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.