Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed a controversial measure aimed at expanding and building three toll roads on the western side of the state, with supporters saying the plan will help prepare for future growth and aid in disaster evacuations.
Environmentalists, who were joined by former governors Charlie Crist and Bob Graham in opposing the plan, said they will continue to wage “war” against the toll roads, which they maintain will devastate large rural and natural tracts of land.
DeSantis held a news conference Friday in Sarasota to sign a separate bill (HB 107) that will toughen the state’s texting-while-driving ban by allowing law-enforcement officers to pull over motorists they see typing on wireless devices.
During that event, DeSantis announced he would sign the toll-road bill (SB 7068), a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. The measure, which DeSantis signed about an hour later, will take initial steps to expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border; extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and add a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.
DeSantis, who previously expressed reservations about the economic impact of toll roads on working Floridians, said more roads may be needed.
“We’re probably going to need more than that, just given how our state is growing and just given that traffic can be a big problem,” said DeSantis. “I’m supportive of infrastructure.”
In a statement Friday, Galvano called the plan “an innovative approach to infrastructure that will enable Florida to strategically plan for future population growth, while at the same time revitalizing rural communities, protecting our unique natural resources and enhancing public safety.”
DeSantis was a guest at a charity golf tournament Galvano hosted Friday in Bradenton.
The toll-road measure, which received final legislative approval May 1, spurred a battle that pitted environmentalists and left-leaning groups against organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.
Sierra Club Florida Director Frank Jackalone said Friday opponents were “extremely disappointed” in DeSantis signing the toll-road bill and in other decisions by the Legislature, such as setting aside $33 million for the Florida Forever land-preservation program next year, down from $100 million in the current year.
“This is the end of all claims that Gov. DeSantis can make that he is a true environmentalist and a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” Jackalone said. “The Sierra Club sees the signing of this bill into law as the very beginning of a war against these toll roads. We’re going to do everything in our power to stop the toll roads from being built.”
Besides legal challenges against construction permits, Jackalone said his group will work with local residents to oppose the roads, put a spotlight on people who would financially benefit from the projects, push the Legislature to repeal the plan and fight against lawmakers who supported it.
During the legislative session, Democratic opponents of the bill echoed warnings from environmental groups that the plan will destroy wetlands and that the state should focus on fixing already-existing roads. They also said lawmakers should get the results of task-force studies before putting up funding for the toll roads..
Lawmakers approved spending $45 million next fiscal year on the projects, which aren’t expected to be completed for at least a decade.
Annual funding is expected to reach about $140 million in coming years. The plan will set up separate task forces to study the environmental and economic impacts of the three roads.
DeSantis defended the need for the roads, saying the long-discussed proposal to link Polk County with Collier County would provide a more direct route between Central and Southwest Florida.
“Right now, you have to go all the way around (Interstate) 75, it’s not a good route,” DeSantis said.
He also said completing the Suncoast Parkway would provide an alternative route for motorists traveling to Tallahassee and Northwest Florida.
Friday’s news conference at Sarasota High School was held primarily as an event for DeSantis to sign the bill about texting while driving.
Under that measure, law-enforcement officials will be able to stop motorists they see texting while driving starting July 1. Currently, police can only cite motorists for texting behind the wheel if they are pulled over for other reasons.
However, the change would be phased in, with warnings issued starting Oct. 1, according to the bill. Tickets starting at $30 will begin being issued Jan. 1.
“One of the best things about getting elected governor, was right afterward I got rid of text messaging and email entirely,” DeSantis said. “Let me tell you, your life is much easier when you’re not always on that thing.”
The measure, spearheaded by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, and Rep. Emily Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, blends a tougher ban on texting and driving with a requirement that motorists use hands-free wireless devices in school zones and work zones.
“This law is about saving lives and making our roads safe,” Toledo said.
Slosberg, whose twin sister was killed in a car accident and whose family has pushed for traffic safety legislation for years, wasn’t mentioned at the event. Helen Ferre, a DeSantis spokeswoman, said that only officials from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties were invited to the signing ceremony. Simpson was at the event but is from Pasco County.
Allowing police to pull over motorists for texting while driving is known as making it a “primary” offense.
In addition to that change, the bill will prohibit law-enforcement officers from accessing or confiscating wireless communications devices without warrants. To address concerns about racial profiling, the bill requires officers to record the race and ethnicity of violators, with annual reports about the issue submitted to the governor, Senate president and House speaker starting Feb. 1.