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Transportation

Opponents Of Toll Road Projects Mobilize To Voice Their Concerns

Critics of toll-road projects in rural areas from Collier County to the Georgia state line have combined efforts to try to halt plans for the new pavement.

Members of the No Roads to Ruin Coalition held a news conference Thursday at the Capitol and outlined plans to lobby lawmakers and build opposition to the three multi-use corridors, which are a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano and are being reviewed by state task forces.

“We’re not saying no to progress, we’re just trying to define progress in a different way that more reflects what the communities on the ground want,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council.

RELATED: New Toll Road Routes Could Emerge in Early 2020

The coalition says it has more than 50 organizations and businesses, from the Center for Biological Diversity, Bear Warriors United and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to the Farmworker Association of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Physicians for Social Responsibility. It argues the roads will result in sprawling development and environmental degradation and waste billions of tax dollars rather than assisting the state’s rapidly growing population.

Smart said the state should repair existing roads and bridges, along with establishing alternative modes of transportation such as high-speed rail, which would put less stress on the environment and people living in rural communities.

Protesters gather at the Capitol
Credit Facebook Live
Environmental groups gather at the state Capitol to announce the coalition.

“While the Florida Legislature may think that highway interchanges, fast-food chains and suburban sprawl equals progress, the communities in the path of these roads have different values and must be heard,” Smart said.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, made a priority of the projects during the 2019 legislative session and has received backing from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.

The projects would expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to Jefferson County at the northern end of Florida; 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.

RELATED: Toll Road Remains On Fast Track - Despite No Route

Galvano has described the roads as a “new approach” in planning the state’s future, reducing congestion, providing alternate hurricane evacuation routes and offering a way to “revitalize” rural communities through the expansion of broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.

Speaking to reporters in October at an event hosted by the Associated Press, Galvano challenged lawmakers to focus on needed water, sewer and broadband infrastructure as part of the road planning.

“We have to live in a state and have to plan in the state for the future. We cannot continue just to remediate. We have to anticipate the future needs of this state,” Galvano said.

“With the numbers that we have here in the state of Florida, the population growth, and the difficulties that we experienced during Hurricane Irma with the evacuations, these corridors need to exist,” he added, referring to a massive 2017 hurricane.

Meanwhile, both the Former Florida Department of Transportation Secretary and the current one say the three new toll roads will move forward, despite increasing opposition.

Former DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad praised the Florida Chamber for pushing the toll roads and told the audience gathered at the business organization’s summit to not believe what they read in news accounts.

“I can assure you when President Galvano talked to David Hart and then subsequently we had conversations, he asked for bold ideas, but there was no mention of corridors," Prasad said. "He said, “I want [the] Chamber and the business community to come and tell me what are those ideas,” and obviously the corridors were one of those ideas.”

The current timeline is for construction to begin by the end of 2022, with the roads open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030.

RELATED: Toll Road Task Force Meeting Yields Few Answers On Impact

Lawmakers designated $45 million toward work on the projects in the current year, with annual funding expected to grow to $140 million. However, $90 million expected to further the road planning next fiscal year, along with all future funding, must be approved annually by the Legislature.

That requirement of annual funding is what drives hope for opponents.

Lindsay Cross of the Florida Conservation Voters called the road planning “a very archaic way of developing, where you are doing this green fill development through essentially these pristine natural areas and ag lands.”

“It does not address our current infrastructure needs, but rather creates a taxpayer-funded scheme to pave over and pollute what is best about our state; our natural beauty, our freshwater resources and our cultural heritage,” Cross added.

The state’s Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force, which is working on the plans from Polk County to Collier County, will meet Monday in LaBelle and will host a town hall Dec. 12 in Naples.

The Suncoast Connector Task Force, which is working on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway, will meet Dec. 17 in Perry, while the Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force, which is working on the turnpike extension, will meet Dec. 18 in Ocala.

Toll roads
Credit Florida Department of Transportation
The Suncoast Parkway expansion area is in gold; the Florida Turnpike expansion in green; and the area being eyed for the Southwest Connector is in brown