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Toll Road Opponents Vow To Follow The Money

Lindsay Cross speaks into a microphone.
Lindsay Cross of Florida Conservation Voters speaks out against the proposals during a recent meeting in Tallahassee. CREDIT: FLORIDA CONSERVATION VOTERS

Three of the biggest road projects ever proposed in Florida are on a fast track created by state lawmakers, not transportation planners. It's being presented as a done deal, but some people say following the money may be the best way to stop them in their tracks.

Three task forces have been formed, and by October they have been tasked with issuing recommendations to the governor and legislature.

Members have been told they're not supposed to determine the need or purpose of the roads, but focus on coming up with a consensus recommendation they all can live with. And that has some thinking it's a done deal.

But Lindsay Cross, with the advocacy group Florida Conservation Voters, said opponents aren't giving in just yet.

"We have to continue to put pressure on the legislature and encourage them to not fund these roads," she said. "I think that is the way that we're going to stop this. If there's no money to build it, then all of this becomes just a really strange backwards planning exercise, with a lot of frustration from the local communities."

Cross said transportation planners need to allow task force members a recommendation to not build the roads.

That wasn't an option given by L.K. Nandam, the Florida Department of Transportation's regional secretary. At the task force's meeting in Polk County in November, he 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.

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.

It's the idea of State Senate President Bill Galvano. The Bradenton Republican came up with it after talking with business leaders about ways to spur growth in the state's hinterlands. He spoke during the task force's initial meeting in August, saying it would ease congestion and help with hurricane evacuations.

What makes this road different is it turns traditional planning on its head. Instead of having road planners determine a need, then plan a route - this time state lawmakers said, we need a road - now go build it.

The bill the Legislature passed gives extraordinarily tight timelines. Three task forces, one for each road, have until October to issue its recommendations to the governor and Legislature. Construction would start in 2022 and the roads would be "substantially completed" by 2030.

The task force is called the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program.

In early December, critics of the toll roads announced they will combine their efforts in the No Roads to Ruin Coalition.  The coalition says it has more than 50 organizations and businesses.

Map of three proposed toll roads
Credit Florida Department of Transportation
The proposed Southwest Connector is in brown; the Suncoast Parkway Extension is yellow; and the Florida Turnpike extension is green

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