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Environment

State Makes Changes On Toll Road Sessions

Toll roads
Steve Newborn
/
WUSF Public Media
In-person meetings on the proposed toll road projects took place prior to the pandemic.

Transportation planners are now using “meetings” to describe online task-force discussions about controversial toll-road projects from Collier County to the Georgia border. The state had been using the term “webinars” to describe the sessions amid complaints by open-government advocates that in-person meetings should be held by the task forces.

State Transportation Development Director Christina Colon said Thursday the change was made as the three task forces move forward in efforts to hit a mid-November deadline to provide reports on the needs and potential layouts of the projects.

“The goal is to not just give information out to you but also provide an opportunity for the task force members to have an engaging conversation about the material that is presented,” Colon said at the start of a Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force meeting.

In May, the First Amendment Foundation argued for more-inclusive in-person meetings as the state was reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman said the webinars were not a replacement for task-force meetings but “additional opportunities” for task force members to gather input during the pandemic.

First Amendment Foundation President Pamela Marsh said Thursday in an email that using the term “meetings” for the online session “seems like” progress.

“I just hope they also treat it like a meeting, with real-time reliable public participation as required by the Florida Sunshine Law,” Marsh wrote.

(Disclosure: The News Service is a member of the First Amendment Foundation.)

The projects, which have been a priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, would extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; extend the Suncoast Parkway north from Citrus County to the Georgia border; and build a new toll road from Collier County to Polk County.

Environmentalists have vowed to wage “war” against the projects. On Thursday, Lindsay Cross, government relations director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said that because of the First Amendment Foundation’s concerns, the state department should exceed “bureaucratic checkpoints” regarding the roads.

“Aggressively continuing with the taskforce meetings (online) at this time is not sufficient for receiving robust feedback from the task force and community members, nor is it appropriate for advancing an issue that will impact our economic, physical and community landscapes for decades to come,” Cross said.

Colon said a goal of the department is to hold mid-July meetings that would accommodate a limited number of people and be streamed online.