If this is the example for new Florida toll roads, Gov. DeSantis might have a problem

Linda Roberts paddles a stretch of the lower Wekiva River near State Road 46 in Sanford with dogs Dixie and Lucky.
Linda Roberts paddles a stretch of the lower Wekiva River near State Road 46 in Sanford with dogs Dixie and Lucky. Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Press, 2017

Last week when Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill approving three new toll roads that his own Department of Transportation had not asked for, the governor answered environmental activists’ cries of outrage by contending that such roads can be sensitive to nature.

“We have a great precedent already with the Wekiva Parkway in the Central Florida Beltway that is a passageway through the environmentally sensitive Wekiva River basin area,” DeSantis said on May 17. “And I am confident we will be able to manage this effort with equal or better care.”

People familiar with the story behind the $1.6 billion Wekiva Parkway say its construction does indeed mark it as the rare toll road that was built with an eye toward limiting its impact. Its design aimed to protect the state’s aquifer, its wetlands and its protected species, not to mention the rural character of the landscape.

But they also say the experience of building that 25-mile highway will be tough to copy in building the three massive, multi-billion-dollar roads of about 350 miles that DeSantis just approved. Major differences include the limited time frame for planning allowed by the legislation, the lack of an agreed-upon vision for the future in the areas to be targeted and the absence of any prior planning for two of the three routes.

“I have my doubts about the whole thing,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida.

One key difference: The toll road bill is designed to promote new development in rural areas. That was its main purpose, as announced by the man who conceived it, Senate President Bill Galvano. The Wekiva Parkway, on the other hand, is supposed to limit new development.

Special protection for Wekiva

The reason the Wekiva Parkway had to be different from any other Florida toll road is because the Wekiva River basin is subject to stringent protections not found elsewhere.

In 1988, fans of the Wekiva persuaded then-Gov. Bob Martinez, a Republican, to paddle a canoe down the river. Martinez was so impressed by the Wekiva’s beauty that he persuaded the Democrat-controlled Legislature to pass a law drawing a protective boundary around 19,000 acres along the river. Within that boundary, lawmakers declared that the land should always keep its rural character and that rare species, such as bears, should always be protected.

The state then ordered Lake, Seminole and Orange counties to revamp their comprehensive plans, which guide growth, to match the new law. Meanwhile the state spent more than a decade and $100 million buying up land around the river, in part to create a wildlife corridor so bears can travel to the Ocala National Forest. These efforts led, in 2000, to the 41-mile river being officially added to the national list of Wild and Scenic Rivers.

While all this preservation was going on, though, developers were clamoring for a new toll road through that area. They saw it as the missing link in a beltway circling around congested Orlando. One developer offered to build and operate it as a private toll road that would just happen to cross 1,000 acres of land his family owned, though he didn’t get his wish. Yet state studies of building that last link through the Wekiva area predicted such serious environmental harm that one 1999 state Department of Transportation report recommended doing no further studies.

“There was an assumption for years that the project would never be built,” said Florida Wildlife Federation president Jay Exum, who runs an environmental consulting business in Altamonte Springs.

But environmental advocates faced something even worse, he said, and that’s what made compromise on the Wekiva Parkway necessary.

Looking out for wildlife

The deadliest highway in Florida for wildlife, State Road 46, cut through the Wekiva River basin. Yet transportation officials wanted to expand the road to six lanes, which would not only kill more wildlife but also attract more development.

That’s why, Exum said, environmental advocates agreed to a Wekiva Parkway, so long as there were safeguards for the river basin, the wildlife and the low-density residential areas. What followed, he said, was a lengthy series of negotiations, a long period of planning, some extensive state water management rule changes and also more land preservation purchases.

“The process for the Wekiva Parkway took many, many years,” agreed Nancy Prine, a longtime board member for Friends of the Wekiva. “I would not wish this on any other part of the state, because it does take a long time.”

The Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act passed the Legislature in 2004. It authorized the road, but required elevating much of it so bears and other wildlife could pass underneath, and also required the state to buy another 3,400 acres of land for preservation. Meanwhile, Exum said, the state agreed to tightly control the density of development at its access ramps to block urban sprawl.

With all the added planning and other steps involved, the final vote to proceed with construction did not take place until 2012. The estimated completion date is 2020.

State transportation officials boast that the Wekiva Parkway has been “heralded as a shining example for transportation planning through an environmentally sensitive area.” But Prine said nobody knows yet whether it’s all going to work, because it’s not finished.

But it did enjoy a far longer time frame for planning than the one laid out in the bill Desantis just signed, SB 7068, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

The legislation calls for setting up three task forces, one each for extending the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, connecting it to the Florida Turnpike and connecting Polk County to Collier County. They must examine the economic and environmental impact of each, but they have to hurry, because they must finish by next year. Construction would begin by 2022, and be completed by 2030.

Planning for those toll roads will be slowed down, Prine predicted, because unlike in the Wekiva basin, the people who live in the areas targeted by the bill “have not had time to develop a vision of what they want to be, or even where they want to go in the future.”

Find out where your money goes every time you pass a toll.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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