Florida Politics

Florida plans 300 miles of new toll roads. Groups vetting the project ask: ‘Why?’

When Florida lawmakers signed off on a bill creating more than 300 miles of toll roads this year, they did it with scant evidence the project was needed.

More than five months later, after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed it into law and the project has been vetted in two rounds of public hearings, local officials are growing frustrated by the persistent lack of details about what would be the largest expansion of Florida’s toll system in decades.

“We’re beating a dead horse right now before it’s even born,” said Dixie County Commissioner Mark Hatch, who sits on a task force advising the Department of Transportation on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to the Florida-Georgia line.

During a Wednesday meeting in Citrus County, Hatch said the task force is stumped with coming up with vague environmental recommendations when they know so little about where it would go, how much it would cost, and what it would displace.

The plight of Hatch and his task force could be blamed, in part, on an aggressive construction timeline that lawmakers wrote into the law, Department of Transportation officials said.

Transportation officials are usually the ones who pitch new roads after years of studies that demonstrate a tangible need for them. Yet in the cases of the three new toll roads, department officials had not identified them in Florida’s long-term plans, where roads of necessity are typically found.

Instead, the Legislature, led by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, introduced the idea of the Suncoast extension, a nub in Central Florida linking the Suncoast with Florida’s Turnpike, and a new toll road that would span Polk and Collier counties.

The backing for the roads came from road builders and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a group of special interests that could benefit.

Public’s role after the fact

Only after the bill was signed into law was the public afforded a role in vetting the project. The legislation created three task forces of state and local officials, environmentalists and business leaders for each road, assigned to come up with recommendations for the roads.

Galvano said the roads were needed because they would relieve congestion on I-75, provide critical new evacuation routes and boost the economies in the most rural parts of the state.

But lawmakers weren’t given any data supporting his claims. Task force members, which met for the second time this week, haven’t been given the information, either, apparently because the data doesn’t exist.

State transportation officials say they haven’t had time to come up with it. A contractor hired by the department won’t even start exploring where the roads would go until January. Financial projections would presumably follow.

It leaves little to no time for task force members to thoroughly evaluate the need, if any, for the projects. Their recommendations to DeSantis and the Legislature are due in one year. Construction is supposed to start in 2022, with the roads built by 2030.

On Wednesday, task force member Thomas Hawkins, a land planner and University of Florida program director, noted that their agenda over the next year doesn’t include anything about road costs, which would be in the billions.

“We need to talk about the demand for people to pay tolls, right? What is projected revenue and what are projected costs?” Hawkins asked. “I don’t see it anywhere on this sheet. That’s a problem.”

The projects’ implications go well beyond building more than 300 miles of new toll roads, which would crisscross rural and undeveloped interior areas of Florida.

Their paths are almost guaranteed to go through some of the most environmentally sensitive parts of the state. And under the law, the task forces are required to study a broad range of issues, including hurricane evacuation, congestion, autonomous vehicles, “trade and logistics” and broadband, water, and sewer connectivity.

Some of those topics aren’t listed anywhere on the task forces’ future agendas. Most of them aren’t scheduled to be brought up until their fourth meeting, in March.

Task force confusion

Multiple task force members, including Ken Armstrong, CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, told the department Wednesday that the task forces should establish their objectives first before making recommendations.

Task force member Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida, asked for an additional meeting to answer a simple question.

“Why are we here and what’s our desired objectives?” he said.

Janet Bowman, senior policy adviser for The Nature Conservancy, said an additional meeting addressing those questions would help “clear up the confusion” from the public.

The projects have received widespread public opposition. On Wednesday, multiple people told task force members that the projects had no justification.

Janet Barrow, a Marion County volunteer with the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little, Santa Fe and Suwannee River Watershed Coalition, said she asked a transportation department employee this week how many people the department believed would use one of the toll roads.

“They looked and me and said, ‘Well, we’re looking for you to tell us that,’ ” Barrow said.

“The projects just don’t make sense.”