Saturday, December 16, 2017

Florida revives plan for future highway corridors

TALLAHASSEE — Florida is spending tens of thousands of dollars to help officials figure out where to put roads in the future.

But the state isn't just talking to drivers stuck in traffic.

Instead, as part of its "future corridors" effort, the state is spending as much as $106,000 to have consultants interview major landowners across the state and find out about their development plans. The consultants are also supposed to come up with ways that the state could strike deals with these landowners to set aside land for what would most likely be toll roads.

The consultants include two former top executives from the St. Joe Company, the once-formidable real estate development firm that was forced to scale back its own efforts amid the collapse of the housing market.

Environmentalists unhappy that the administration of Gov. Rick Scott revived the controversial future corridors plan last year question the idea of letting landowners and developers have sway over where roads should go.

"Let's not put the roads where the people are," said Charles Lee from Audubon of Florida. "Let's put the roads where the bigwigs want them to increase the value and development potential of their property."

Kathleen Neill, director of the Office of Policy Planning for the Florida Department of Transportation, said the idea behind the project was to reach out to landowners, which could include utility companies and water management districts.

Scott, who scuttled a high-speed rail effort during his first few months in office, launched his own transportation initiative last August. It called for speeding up certain road projects and relying more heavily on toll roads.

But that proposal also called for reviving the so-called "future corridors action plan" that was suspended by former Gov. Charlie Crist. DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad at the time said that work would begin again looking at certain projects, including two Heartland Parkways. One would cross the state from Manatee County to St. Lucie County, while the other would run from Collier County up to Polk County. Another top corridor would link Bay County to Alabama.

Environmental groups view the plan skeptically, with Lee going as far as calling it "a big can opener to open the center of Florida to rampant development."

The revival of the plan led DOT to green-light the hiring of consultants to conduct up to 20 interviews with major landowners about development plans and whether there needed to be changes in state law or regulations to facilitate agreements.

Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee and the legislator who leads the House budget panel that oversees DOT's budget, said he was unaware of the project or the contract.

The contract to interview landowners — which was signed in March — is just one of a long list of projects that are part of a five-year contract with Massachusetts-based Cambridge Systematics worth up to $4.5 million to help draw up and carry out a state transportation plan for the next 50 years.

But it was DOT officials who urged Cambridge to hire subcontractors who know about development and state land use laws.

And that led to the hiring of both Chris Corr and Billy Buzzett to carry out the landowner interviews. Corr is an executive vice president of planning, design and development for AECOM. Buzzett was tapped by Scott as secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, and he helped oversee the breakup of the growth-planning agency that the governor called a job killer.

Both Buzzett and Corr once worked for St. Joe, which at one time was the state's largest private landowner and had grand plans to transform its large holdings in the Panhandle.

Neill said Cambridge lacked the expertise needed to understand Florida's growth laws, which have changed in the last few years. She said that led the department to turn to others.

AECOM was also hired last year to help out with another contract worth up to $100,000 to interview state agencies, state commissions and others to create a statewide "vision" for Florida's 2060 Transportation Plan.

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