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Toll Road Task Force Meeting Yields Few Answers On Impact

Toll roads
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
A handful of protesters showed up at the meeting, held at Polk State College in Lakeland

A task force that is coming up with recommendations to reduce the impacts of a planned toll road that will run through the middle of the state met Wednesday at Polk State College in Lakeland. 

Officials have not decided exactly where the road will be built.

Also undecided is how much sway the task force's recommendations will have – including if the road should even be built. The state legislature approved building three new toll roads without getting any input from state road planners.

One task force member, Shannon Estenoz of the non-profit Everglades Foundation, says it’s hard to analyze the road's potential impacts without even knowing its location.

"I, as a task force member, cannot at this point give any kind of informed opinion about any of this stuff, because I feel like I don’t know enough," Estenoz said. "I just feel completely blind."

L.K. Nandam, the Florida Department of Transportation’s regional secretary, told the members they aren’t supposed to determine the need or purpose of the road – but focus on coming up with a consensus recommendation they all can live with.

Some hope the road can be routed to avoid impacting the natural environment.

"We know that Florida is going to keep developing," said Paul Gray of the Audubon Society in Okeechobee County. "But to the extent we can, this road – whatever we come up with – can help guide that development toward developed areas, rather than into new areas."

Lawmakers expect construction of the road, connecting Polk to Collier counties, to begin by the end of 2022.

The plan would also expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border; and extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway.

Its main backer is state Senate President Bill Galvano. During the task force's initial meeting in August, the Bradenton Republican said these corridors would be more than just toll roads.

"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. The path of the southern corridor, called the "Heartland Parkway" in previous incarnations, was not  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 in August. "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.

Credit Florida Department of Transportation
Map of the three toll road corridors

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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