Florida Senate President Bill Galvano's plan to extend the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border is moving forward.
The Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development approved an amended bill (SB 7068) Tuesday that takes the environmental effects of the idea into greater consideration.
That pleases Amy Datz of the Environmental Caucus of Florida, who said she worked on air quality and transportation issues for more than a decade. She said expanding the Suncoast will take traffic off of nearby U.S. 19.
"I invented a model that looked at and evaluated air pollution and I can tell you from my meager experience that this will definitely reduce air pollution on U.S. 19," Datz told the subcommittee.
The expansion could also aid in hurricane evacuations, with Datz citing congested roads in the run-up to Hurricanes Charley in 2004 and Irma in 2017.
"Having this route to get people out, I know some people spent a normal one hour trip could take eight hours in a hurricane, so I think that this is a vital thoroughfare that will really mean life and death to a lot of people," she said.
The bill also extends the Florida Turnpike from Interstate 75 to the Suncoast Parkway and creates a new Southwest-Central Florida Connector that would link Polk County to Collier County.
The News Service of Florida reported in January that Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the new roads would aid rural communities.
“We need to have this infrastructure, but we also need to have access to our rural communities and provide multi-purpose rights-of-ways so that prosperity can return there,” Galvano said during an appearance at an annual Associated Press pre-session gathering.
But Dave Cullen with the Sierra Club of Florida disagreed. He told senators that taking traffic off of the roads that run through the smaller towns in Florida's Big Bend section from north of Tampa to Tallahassee actually hurts them.
"So that could affect Crystal River, Chiefland, Cross City and Perry, and they would be cut off from the current benefits that they are receiving from the traffic that is going through their communities," he said.
Cullen added that expanding these parkways would have environmental effects as well.
The amended bill would mandate the creation of task forces that would study both the economic and environmental impacts of the new roads, as well as hold public meetings into them.
The bill calls for spending $45 million in fiscal 2019-2020 to study the projects, $90 million the following fiscal year, and $135 million in fiscal 2021-2022. That funding would switch to a recurring $140 million starting the following fiscal year.
The bill still faces challenges: as WFSU reported this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis isn't a fan of adding toll roads, and there’s no House companion.
But Galvano remains optimistic, saying he thinks Speaker Jose Oliva supports a plan for infrastructure expansion.