An extravagant road-building package approved by the Florida Legislature and sent to the governor promised to answer one big question that’s been hanging over Tallahassee:
Was it possible that Ron DeSantis, conservative Republican and hardline Trump fan, is really, truly a friend of the environment?
DeSantis has made some positive moves in the early months of his administration, but it would have shown stunning independence and fortitude for him to veto the new road bill, which was being pushed by some politically powerful industries.
On Friday, Floridians dreaming for the best were brought back to Earth with a thud. DeSantis took the easy way out. He signed the road bill.
The legislation puts in motion the costly extension of two existing toll highways and the construction of a new one. Together the projects will open up vast tracts of rural green space to development and sprawl and further endanger Florida’s fragile water resources
Along the way, lots of folks stand to get rich, especially those who fortuitously own property in the path of the new routes. Some of them are quite rich already.
A top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, the toll-road package has as its centerpiece the expansion of the Suncoast Parkway, which now stretches less than 60 miles from Hillsborough County above Tampa to Citrus County.
Galvano’s bill will extend the highway through North Florida all the way to the Georgia border. Interestingly, nobody bothered to tell Georgia transportation officials about the plan.
They found out when they got a phone call from the Tampa Bay Times. The Georgia authorities expressed no small measure of surprise — and also uncertainty about how they might prepare for a new expressway being aimed in their direction.
As proposed, the final leg of the Suncoast extension would cross through Jefferson County in Florida and terminate at the state line in Thomas County, Georgia. The communities are already linked by two highways, neither of which has been heavily traveled since the closing of a local greyhound track.
Tony Bodiford, the puzzled director of the Thomas County Public Works Department, told the Times:
“Apparently somebody just made something up, I guess. I don’t think anything would warrant a toll road through there.”
To make a bad, expensive idea even worse (and more expensive), the toll-roads package also foresees extending Florida’s Turnpike to meet up with the extended Suncoast Parkway.
You can guess where a grandiose scheme like this originated — lobbyists for road builders, asphalt manufacturers, agribusiness conglomerates, a phosphate mining firm, landowners and other special interests who stand to benefit from one or more of the toll-road expansions.
For example, a major GOP donor, billionaire Thomas Peterffy of Palm Beach, owns 561,000 acres of timber in several North Florida counties through which the Suncoast Parkway would pass. The new road would make that property phenomenally valuable to developers.
The final part of the asphalt orgy is to be a toll highway as much as 150 miles long that would connect Polk County in central Florida to the Naples area, on the southern Gulf Coast.
It’s an old idea that’s never had long-term traction, despite the support of massive farm and ranch operations such as the Lykes Brothers, whose land the new toll road would very profitably cross. This time they seem to have scored big time.
As always, supporters say such projects are necessary to ease current traffic congestion, prepare for future growth and bring economic growth to rural communities.
Opponents, including almost every major environmental group, say the new toll highways would be an irrevocable step toward the final urbanization of Florida, at the expense of imperiled wetlands, forests and beloved rivers such as the Suwannee.
Still other critics believe toll dollars would best be spent not on building new roads through open spaces, but on improving the existing, brutally overcrowded highway systems in Miami, Tampa, Orlando and other major cities.
The new bill signed by the governor sets aside $45 million this year for the preliminary planning on the Suncoast boondoggle and the other legs. That amount would theoretically grow to a total construction cost of $1.5 billion over the next decade.
One thing we all know about road projects: They seldom cost less than promised, and even less seldom are completed on schedule.
While it will be a long time before the new highways are finished, it would be better for future generations if they never got started.
With a veto, DeSantis would have made a persuasive case that he hasn’t been faking it, that he really does care about saving what’s left of Florida.
But by signing the toll-roads bill he sends a different message — a cold dose of bubble-bursting reality — to those who’d started to believe he was a different kind of Republican leader.