State Politics

Do these rural areas need new toll roads? Maybe, if you’re a billionaire landowner

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Florida’s richest man is Thomas Peterffy, a supporter of President Donald Trump who served on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ campaign finance team.

Worth an estimated $18.5 billion, according to Forbes, he also happens to own most of Taylor County, which is prime real estate for a proposed toll road that is a priority of Florida Senate President Bill Galvano.

Galvano has said he doesn’t know Peterffy, and the Palm Beach billionaire said he had not heard about the project until he saw a March story about his property’s proximity to the proposed road in the Florida Phoenix, a Tallahassee watchdog online publication.

“The first and only time I heard of this was in a newspaper article that insinuated I had bribed officials to do this,” Peterffy said. “I just find it ridiculous, reprehensible, and I do not understand how these people come up with these things.”

But Peterffy, who gave $310,000 to DeSantis’ campaign last year, is hardly the only person who could profit off a bill that would expand two toll roads and build one new one through rural parts of Florida.

Road builders, home builders, engineers and other interests are poised to reap billions by what would be Florida’s largest expansion of toll roads in half a century.

Despite the magnitude of the idea, the bill (Senate Bill 7068) is being treated like a bargaining chip by the leaders of the House and Senate in the final weeks of the legislative session.

The Senate passed the bill Wednesday, with only Democratic Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami voting against it. The House has heard it in one committee, sending it straight to the House floor for a vote or to use to barter for something else during the budget negotiations.

The Sierra Club and other groups fear an environmental disaster, and they wonder about the need for the roads. One would extend the Suncoast Parkway, already little used, north to the Georgia border.

“If you have a dog, he could probably sleep in the middle of the highway at certain parts of the day,” said Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, which is against the bill.

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But while the exact route isn’t known, the proposed toll road would inevitably be near what Florida Trend called in 2017 perhaps “the largest continuous piece of undeveloped property in private hands east of the Mississippi River” that includes half the land in Taylor County.

A previous owner of that land, Foley Timber & Land, had spent years negotiating a long-term development for the property, Florida Trend reported. In 2015, Four Rivers Land & Timber, where Peterffy (pronounced PETTER-FEE) is a main investor, bought 500,000 acres of timberland spread across five counties from Foley. According to the Florida Phoenix, some of that land is zoned for a mixed-use development.

Peterffy, a one-time penniless Hungarian immigrant who made his billions revolutionizing electronic trading, said no one has spoken to him about the bill, including the governor. Peterffy appears only to have given to DeSantis.

He said he has “no idea” what the impact would be on his property, which he plans on holding on to “for a very long time.”

“I assume that if it went through the property, they would have to buy the right of ways, and I have no idea how much that would be,” he told the Times/Herald on Wednesday. “I’ve never done anything like this, basically, and I’m not planning to. I certainly won’t stand in their way.”

Stronach owns 18,000 acres

He’s not the only large landowner along the route. In Levy County, Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach owns roughly 18,000 acres of land zoned for agricultural use, according to the Gainesville Sun. He also owns Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach. Multiple timber companies also own tens of thousands of acres of land in Dixie and Levy counties.

In Tallahassee, trade groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Florida Transportation and Builders Association, Florida Trucking Association and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida have been the only ones advocating for it.

Galvano says the roads are needed to help counties, some of which have the lowest populations in the state, that were left behind during the last decade of economic growth. The bill would not just build roads, but would include water, sewer and broadband internet access as well — the building blocks of any massive development.

Where the roads would go is still up in the air, though, and the bill doesn’t guarantee the three roads would be built.

Rather, it would create three task forces for each of the three roads: extending the Suncoast Parkway north, extending Florida’s Turnpike to meet the Suncoast and a new road connecting Polk and Collier counties.

The task forces would be made up of state and local officials and a representative from an environmental group. And in 2020, each would issue a report to the House, Senate and the governor about the projects.

FDOT will be in charge

But the process will be largely controlled by the Florida Department of Transportation, whose secretary reports directly to the governor.

Transportation officials will have the final say over the project, and they are not required to follow the task forces’ recommendations. After this session, lawmakers will not get another vote.

Construction would begin in 2022, and the roads would be finished by 2030.

The bill has passed three Senate committees, but it has only been heard in the House once.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, the bill’s sponsor, says it’s still received more scrutiny by lawmakers than transportation projects normally do, since most projects are carried out by the Department of Transportation.

“I think because we built in these checks and balances that the public is actually more protected than they normally would be if the DOT was out doing this on their own,” Lee said last week.

While environmental groups appreciate being involved in the process, they have a fundamental problem with the proposal: There’s no evidence the roads are needed.

The state has not done any road studies justifying it, and a 2016 transportation task force recommended expanding Interstate 75, a proposal that would be undermined by the creation of competing toll lanes.

David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said there are easier and cheaper ways to spur the economy in rural Florida if lawmakers want to do that.

“You don’t need four to six lanes of roads to provide internet access,” Cullen said. “This bill needs to die.”

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