Debate Over Toll Road Projects Continue to Flare

Debate Over Toll Road Projects Continue to Flare

By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida

Gaining initial legislative support last year might have been the easy part for controversial and expensive toll-road projects envisioned to cut through more than 300 miles of mostly rural land from Collier County to the Georgia border.

With many environmental and business groups split about the need and purpose of the projects, lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session will start looking at continued funding and accompanying infrastructure — water, sewer and broadband —- as tentative alignments for the roads will soon be rolled out.

Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who made the corridors a priority during the 2019 session, said the roads are “planning for reality,” because Florida continues to attract new residents and tourists.

“We cannot continue to plan infrastructure in reverse,” Galvano said.

The plan calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border, building a toll road from Polk County to Collier County and extending Florida’s Turnpike west from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway.

The timeline to start construction on the projects is less than three years off, as the Department of Transportation and task forces work on drawing up plans. Proposed alignments coming from the department are expected to allow the three task forces — one for each road — to better find consensus on where to weave lanes around farms, downtowns, natural springs and other sensitive lands. A report must be presented to the governor by October.

The alignments are almost sure to enflame efforts by opponents pushing a “no-build” option. Those opponents repeatedly warn the new roads will cause Broward County-style sprawl for people who want to live in small communities and will devastate already-endangered wildlife.

Neil Fleckenstein of Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, which owns 9,100 acres in Jefferson County, said more clarity is needed on the “fiscal reality” of the accompanying infrastructure being promised.

“One task force member mentioned, ‘Will every county get a water treatment facility and a wastewater treatment plant?’” Fleckenstein said. “Those are extremely expensive pieces of infrastructure. Tallahassee spent $250 (million), $260 million just revitalizing their wastewater treatment plant.”

Members of the “No Roads to Ruin” coalition, which includes Florida Conservation Voters, Friends of the Everglades, Bear Warriors United, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Our Santa Fe River, Earthjustice and Suwannee Riverkeeper, contend the roads are being driven by business-related special interests and that the money would be better spent on alternative forms of transportation. If traffic warrants the work, they argue the state should focus first on expanding existing roads.

Gary Cochran, a retired state land conservation and planning administrator now with the Big Bend chapter of the Sierra Club, said he’s never seen a transportation corridor or toll-road project that would benefit the environment.

“Yes, while it is true that these projects must mitigate for the taking and impacts on the environmental resources and public conservation lands within the projects scope, that mitigation does not improve the environmental resources, it does not prevent the destruction of those resources, or the bifurcation of wildlife habitats, the destruction of wetlands. It only mitigates, it does not replace the resources lost,” Cochran said.

Groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association are backing the roads.

Sally Patrenos, president of the Tallahassee-based Floridians For Better Transportation, considers the roads and accompanying infrastructure the most “forward-thinking” initiative in decades by the state.

“In the next five years we’re going to gain another 5 million people, all using the same infrastructure we have in place if we don’t look forward,” Patrenos said. “Infrastructure that is thoughtfully planned and responsibly built can go a long way in keeping pace with our exponential growth.”

Better defining the road locations should also heat up campaigns for and against the projects from communities that could be affected.

The biggest fight could be over the corridor from Polk County to Collier County, which would run through environmentally sensitive areas and has unsuccessfully been sought in the past as the Heartland Parkway.

But communities that could be involved in the other projects also are starting to choose sides.

At the north end, at least some leaders in Jefferson County are lambasting the prospects of the road.

Monticello Vice Mayor Troy Avera, whose family runs a bed and breakfast, said a fear in the community is that the extended Suncoast Parkway would bypass the downtown area.

“Intuition and experience tell me that a bypass of a small town will suck the life out of it,” Avera said. “All our businesses in Monticello depend upon traffic.”

Avera, who is concerned the city budget would suffer a drop in revenue, suggests the corridor should end at Interstate 10 until traffic warrants more northern work. Interstate 10 is several miles south of downtown Monticello.

Less than 20 miles to the east, in Madison County, Greenville Town Manager Edward Walker Dean said his impoverished community would take the road if its neighbors in Jefferson County don’t want it.

“I’m looking at this toll road as being something that will change the plight of this community, bring some new energy in here,” Dean said. “I don’t think the rank and file of these communities really, really know and understand, and there is a natural inclination — anytime (you are) talking about something that is big, is robust, you have to be a visionary. Greenville is the kind of place that could benefit tremendously. Get a Busy Bee’s (convenience store) or something like that in here. You can work to build something sustainable over time.”

Michele Arceneaux, a Monticello-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce board member, said Madison County and others that envision the road as an economic panacea should be careful about what they want, as no matter how close to a downtown the corridor is located, motorists will favor franchised businesses at interchanges.

“Limited access roads do not bring meaningful jobs, unless you think fast food and gas stations are quality economic development,” Arceneaux said. “And I-10 is the perfect example of this. The minimum-wage jobs associated with I-10 were at the expense of local business in our downtown.”

The corridors, which received first-year funding of $45 million during the 2019 session, have been promoted as providing more emergency evacuation options, along with handling the state’s expanding population.

Annual funding is projected to reach $140 million by 2023 and to continue through 2030, totaling $1.1 billion. Critics contend the cost estimates are low.

For lawmakers who must annually approve the funding, the focus during the 2020 session, which begins Tuesday, will be the accompanying water, sewer and broadband systems, which have been touted as benefits for rural communities.

Galvano said the projects won’t destroy the environment, and more people will understand the opportunities available as the designs come to fruition.

“The population is going to continue to grow,” Galvano said. “The need will continue to be there. And if we’re forward-thinking, we’ll actually have a net benefit to the environment, whether it’s focusing some of our mitigation opportunities on conservation and even coastal resilience, looking for innovative components to these infrastructure programs, autonomous and other type of mass transit opportunities. It’s a planning for reality and not just throwing up opposition, because folks are coming.”

14 Responses to "Debate Over Toll Road Projects Continue to Flare"

  1. Avatar
    Mike   January 8, 2020 at 1:44 pm

    We do not want the toll road we live in a rural community in North fl. We have well water and absolutely dodnot want city water and do not want to pay for water or sewer. We live here for a reason and it’s not to be told that we must have and be hookedt to a common water and sewer supply.

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Roy Williams   January 8, 2020 at 2:57 pm

    Finally Tallahassee Reports has mentioned this albatross. I have been harping to anyone that would listen for months now. We do not need any more toll roads in FL or North FL. If our Gov is concerned about the environment he will block and veto this now. People stand up and say no. Florida will start to look like DC and there is a reason I live here and not there.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Emma Anderson   January 28, 2020 at 10:15 pm

      We do not need another toll road/infrastructure that will damage the already devastated wildlife habit that is left here in Florida.
      I am a third generation Floridian from Broward county who moved to Polk county to find the natural habit, wetlands and peaceful wooded scrub oaks that was destroyed down there by I-75 and 595. Enough damage has been done already to Polk county!
      For all the people who want to exploit our lower tax rates, polute our waters, devastate our wildlife please don’t move here! And builders/contractors build up not out! Please!

      Reply
  3. Avatar
    joe   January 8, 2020 at 4:24 pm

    “never seen a transportation corridor or toll-road project that would benefit the environment”
    I’m not sure that their purpose is to benefit the environment.

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Arthur Kirby   January 8, 2020 at 9:10 pm

    I’m torn. I have family and friends in the Tampa Bay area. I use the toll road to bypass US 19 south of Crystal River. It’s true, that project opened up several “hammock” communities. For me, the roadway extension makes logical sense.

    Now, I’m also a hunter and appreciate the State natural resources. I want these opportunities to hunt be in the woods, etc. to be available for generations to come. And then of course there’s the aquifer that already has it’s problems especially with Nestlé draining it of millions of gallons monthly.

    I would suggest anyone wanting to pursue preventing this needs to switch focus and follow the money. A very large portion of the land they want to use is old Foley land. If Associated Industries is involved, there is big money being passed around. Yet, at the end of the day, if a private land owner wants to sell, who are any of us to tell someone else, “no”?

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  5. Avatar
    Mike   January 9, 2020 at 9:21 am

    I’m a native Floridian who grew up in early 1970s Clearwater, FL. I’ve lived on FL’s west coast, in Orlando for 25 years, and in Tallahassee for the last 12 years. I regularly travel to Tampa Bay and the central FL area to visit family, and I’m ALWAYS glad to leave those traffic-choked areas to return to Tallahassee. Let the northerners run past north FL and join the masses down south, I say.

    Florida will continue to grow – impact fees haven’t slowed that a bit. But I disagree with building more and more asphalt through what rural and natural land we have left, enabling that growth to spread faster and wider. Florida can only hold so many people – WATER is going to become an enormous problem, along with sewer system overloads and probably power availability problems. If we need “more” road, widen parts of Highway 19 south and highway 441, make part of them toll roads. Highway 19 already joins to the FL-GA Parkway and Suncoast Parkway, why build more major roads north? If you’ve seen South and Central FL much, why would you want to spread that sort of sprawl around what’s left of Florida? Do we want to become the California of the East Coast?

    Most, if not all, of Florida’s problems can be summed up in three words: Too Many People.

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    WhiskeyTangoFoxtrot   January 9, 2020 at 9:47 am

    Unfortunately, not building roads will not reduce the number of people moving to or visiting our state. Not building roads will simply further aggravate traffic congestion. Building anything impacts the environment. Your home impacts the environment. Your yard, your street, your church, your schools, all have an adverse impact. Do we not build any more homes, or churches, or schools? Maybe prohibiting the construction of any more dwellings will discourage new residents. We are building roads to accommodate new residents we may not want, but are coming anyway. The answer is beyond me…and the legislature, apparently.

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Anon   January 9, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Absolutely Scylla and Charybdis.
    Nobody wants this road more than I do.
    Nobody fears this road more than I do.
    It will be built.

    Reply
  8. Avatar
    Snidely Whiplash   January 10, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    The way The Legislature and The Governor dance is like this:
    Galvano gets his roads AND The Governor gets his raises for school teachers.
    OR:
    Neither gets either.
    Galvano will kill the Teachers raises if he does not get his roads.
    And The Governor will veto the roads if he does not get his Teacher raises.
    Its an all/all or a nothing/nothing proposition.
    What the people want is not even on the table.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Mike   January 11, 2020 at 8:03 pm

      I hate to admit it, Snidely, but you’re probably correct. As once I heard it stated: “Politicians refer to the body they’re trying to get elected to as “a cesspool of corruption” – Once elected, they see that same cesspool as “a Jacuzzi.” The voters become a non-consideration.
      Florida (what’s left of it) is being sold out a few acres at a time. At least I’m happy that I got to experience Florida in the late 60s and early 1970s growing up. Whatever FL becomes with million$ of northerners moving in, I’ll have the memories of Florida back before it was inundated with people. FL is being “loved to death” like the Keys was a decade ago.

      Reply
  9. Avatar
    EA   January 11, 2020 at 1:06 pm

    Creating a toll road that runs parallel to 19 from Crystal River to the Georgia line is absolutely insane. I travel this road often and there are many times when you will go a mile or more and do not meet any traffic. Our legislature has become a very sad state of affairs doing nothing for the good of the state.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Mike   January 12, 2020 at 3:20 pm

      EA, you’re correct about Hwy 19. I drove it regularly from Tallahassee to Clearwater (my home town) back in 1975 whan I was a student at FSU. When we moved to Tally 12 years ago from Orlando, we still drove it regularly because my father still lived in Clearwater – Hwy 19 in many places hasn’t much at all since 1975, it’s still very rural, sparsely populated, and you can drive for a half hour or more and not see another car on the road.
      So – Hwy 19 is ALREADY 4 lanes of divided highway with a large median. It connects ALREADY to the Suncoast Parkway on the south and the FL-GA Parkway on the north. Why in HECK do you need to build another highway roughly parallel to an existing 4-lane highway that presently carries very little traffic north of Crystal River? Sure, you’ll have to build bypasses around little towns like Perry, Cross City, and Chiefland. You can’t run an interstate-sized traffic load right through the middle of those little towns. But the bypasses would certainly cost far less than building an all-new 4 to 6 lane highway that essentially covers the same route. You can add toll booths to Hwy 19 as necessary to help pay for the construction. But you’re correct: WHY build another north-south route parallel to Hwy 19?

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Anon   January 13, 2020 at 8:38 am

        Mike- A few names to answer your question:
        Thomas Peterffy (richest man in Florida)
        Foley Property (largest contiguous piece of land east of Mississippi River)
        think: The Villages along the Nature Coast
        The Road will be built. Its not malicious, however it does break my poor little Florida heart.

        Reply
        • Avatar
          Mike   January 13, 2020 at 9:13 am

          You’re probably about 80% right about the property sales and possible financial benefit to certain individuals, Anon. As I said earlier, Florida is being sold out a few acres (or hundreds) at a time.
          Actually, I worked at the Villages for two years before moving to Tallahassee – I drew maps and charts as a graphic artist for the Villages newspaper – an unexpectedly high-quality paper, not at all the “Our Town” flyer you’d expect. Many times I drew maps of the expanding Villages golf courses and new developments. The Villages is a huge population area now, and still growing steadily. Imagining that kind of development expanding up and down the upper Gulf Coast of the FL peninsula all the way to I-10 is indeed a sad picture. Goodbye, rustic Old-Florida hamlets like Cedar Key and Steinhatchee.
          I always used to breath a sigh of relief on the Hwy 19 trip north once you passed Crystal River. Stay on 19 heading south much farther after Crystal River, and prepare for stop & go traffic and red lights all the way to St. Petersburg. I hate to think of that sprawl building all the way up to I-10.

          Reply

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