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Politicians At 'War' Over Highways; Public Wants High-Speed Rail

Jun 3, 2019
Originally published on June 12, 2019 9:59 am
There’s a war going on in Florida between the state legislature and environmental groups around the state.
 
At stake is the biggest toll highway expansion the state has seen in more than  half a century. Legislation  has passed to expand the Suncoast Parkway, extend  Florida's Turnpike and create a new toll road connecting Polk and Collier counties. The bill was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The man behind the project, Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, calls the roads ‘corridors’ and said on The Florida Roundup that they would transport more than cars. Water, sewage and broadband connections would flow through these corridors as well. 

"This has to happen if we are going to be able to sustain the growth that is occuring in Florida," he said on The Florida Roundup.

Galvano created three task forces comprised of local government and state agencies including environmental agencies, The project will “revitalize rural communities, encourage job creation and provide regional connectivity,” according to the legislation.

But Frank Jackalone, president of the Sierra Club in Florida, says the project is a disaster in the making that would inevitably destroy wildlife habitats.

"This is not something that we want as environmentalists, or something people in those local areas want," he said on The Florida Roundup. 

He is waging an all-out war against the construction project, but in his mind it is retaliation for the war he says Galvano is waging against Florida environment and rural areas of the state.

"If this bill is passed, we will declare war on all of those who have sponsored it. We will mount the most massive campaign Sierra Club has ever done in Florida in our history to stop those toll roads." he said in April before the bill was passed and signed.

What does all-out war look like?

The group plans on taking the legislation to court, using community organizers who don’t like the project; increasing lobbying efforts in Tallahassee, and launching an election campaign to oust the politicians who are in favor of the new roads.

Galvano said the highways will help evacuation during hurricanes, alleviating a problem Floridians witnessed firsthand in 2017 during Hurricane Irma. After the expansion, the Suncoast Parkway will connect to Georgia, providing some Floridians fleeing storms a more direct route out of the state.

John Kenzora in Hernando County says he's read the Parkway expansion would help during hurricane evacuations.

“Yeah, I think it's a good idea, since they're going to go all the way to Georgia. And I don't know why people are complaining about it. I really don't,” he said.

However, some experts say that this isn’t the best evacuation method. Instead, they say, moving somewhere farther inland and staying close to home, rather than leaving the state is more efficient and eliminates gridlock on highways.

There’s another problem with expansion: more people. Jackalone says the state does not have enough natural resources to handle the influx of people that the new highways would inevitably bring. 

Galvano says the project is thinking about the future, keeping in mind an increase in self-driving vehicles and that gas stations would have charging stations for electric cars.

Jackalone argues that the state should instead invest in public transportation, like high-speed rail.

In 2011, then-Gov. Rick Scott rejected plans to construct high-speed railways through parts of the state.

Private companies like Virgin Atlantic, which bought out Brightline, have plans to expand their railway to Orlando, but now only have stops in South Florida.

Craig Pittman, a journalist at the Tampa Bay Times, said on the Florida Roundup that legislators are allergic to a public high-speed rail system even though the public seems to have a strong appetite for it, 

Steve Newborn, a reporter for WUSF, said he was skeptical that the legislature would listen to Floridians who are opposed to the highway expansion project.

"In this case, who is going to be louder, the voice of the people or the wallets of developers who might benefit the most form the expansion of these highways?" he said on The Florida Roundup.

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