The first meeting of a task force that will look at building three new toll roads through rural areas of Florida met Tuesday in Tampa, in what was described as a defining moment for the future of the state.
The plan would 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.
Its main backer is state Senate President Bill Galvano. The Bradenton Republican says these corridors would be more than just a toll road.
"We also have the opportunity in our planning to revitalize our rural communities," Galvano said. "The rural communities that have been the backbone of this state for generations. We can attack issues such as broadband, water and sewer connectivity.''
The Suncoast Parkway has been losing money and has to be subsidized with funds from other state toll roads - and the path of the southern corridor, called the "Heartland Parkway" in previous incarnations - was not been found to be economically feasible by state transportation planners. It was even killed by two previous governors. But Galvano has pushed it through as a way to bring "needed infrastructure" to these rural regions.
"It's a wide swath that's in consideration - way beyond just a layout from days past," he said after the first part of Tuesday's meeting. "And with the challenge that this swath needs to help bolster the spine of our state."
Environmentalists argue that the projects would cause harm to undeveloped areas and lead to sprawl. Lindsay Cross of the Florida Conservation Voters says the roads would impact natural areas of the state.
"We don't know if the economics would work out to support these toll roads, and we know that roads like the Suncoast Parkway up into Citrus County already need to be subsidized by other Florida Turnpike roads," Cross said. "So we're moving at this fast and furious pace to build these roads through places that don't have the built-in ridership, we are going to be impacting the natural systems in those places, which are just as important to the future of our state as broadband and asphalt."
Environmentalists like Tampa photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who spoke with Galvano during a break in the meeting, said the roads would cut through areas needed by wildlife to migrate between the few remaining wild areas in the state.
A group of environmentalists protested outside the Tampa Convention Center, calling it a "Road to Ruin." Cross was with the group.
"With slight increases in density, we can accomplish the goals of welcoming new people to the state without destroying the things that support us, like clean water and clean air and having locally-grown agricultural products," she said. "And this ignores those recommendations and assumes that the only way to accomodate this future growth is by opening up currently undeveloped areas for those new developments."
The task force is called The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program.
The meeting was opened by Kevin Thibault, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
He talked about how much Florida is growing, and compared this project to the building of the Florida Turnpike in the 1950s.
“This is really a defining moment for our state,” Thibault said.
He said environmental concerns would be respected, and said a model would be the building of the Wekiva Parkway near Orlando, which uses wildlife underpasses in critical areas.
The task force will meet six more times before being called to present their findings to the state Legislature in October 2020.