TALLAHASSEE — JD Alexander is close to getting the university he has wanted for Polk County.
He might be getting part of the road he has wished for, too.
Despite a $1.4 billion budget shortfall and at times heated rhetoric about finding ways to spend fewer state dollars, budget writers have tucked $34.7 million into this year's proposed spending plan for the design of a portion of the Heartland Parkway — a long-dormant road project in Central Florida.
If lawmakers approve the state's proposed transportation work plan, which includes billions of dollars for hundreds of other projects, about $18 million could be spent on the Polk project starting this summer. Another $16.7 million is earmarked for 2014 or 2015.
Alexander, a businessman worth more than $10 million and whose company owns a large ranch that could benefit if the entire road gets built, has advocated for the parkway in the past. As the Senate budget chairman, he holds huge sway in how every state dollar is spent.
Yet he said this week he was unaware of the Department of Transportation request for money to design a portion of the parkway. "Don't know anything about it," Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Wednesday. "Not involved in any way."
Not everyone is buying it.
"Sen. Alexander planned this perfectly," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has opposed Alexander on a host of issues, including Alexander's quest to turn the University of South Florida Polytechnic into the state's 12th independent university.
"I'm concerned that, between USF Poly and the parkway, taxpayers will be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. And for what? To accommodate one state senator. It's unfortunate that things like this are allowed to happen."
The parkway is a so-called "Future Corridor" — a large highway that the state intends to operate as a toll road. It was an idea hatched during Gov. Jeb Bush's administration, scrapped by Gov. Charlie Crist and ultimately resurrected by Gov. Rick Scott. To many, it's a return to 20th century highway building, in that most of the proposed highways traverse undeveloped land — the key ingredient to sprawl. To Scott, Alexander and the DOT, it's simply a way to unlock future growth in landlocked counties.
Alexander, in 2005, met three times with state officials to promote the idea of a north-south road in the rural part of Central Florida south of Interstate 4. About the same time, Alexander asked the Senate's general counsel whether he had a conflict with the project. Alexander said he was told if he avoided discussions with government decisionmakers on a subject that affects him financially, he had no conflict.
The Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Task Force, or HEART, was created in late 2005 as a nonprofit task force that began pushing for the road.
The group faxed a proposed path for the road to the Florida's Turnpike Enterprise in February 2006. The HEART lobbyist who drew the map was an Orlando lawyer who was with Alexander in meetings with Bush and DOT officials. The hand-drawn map showed a road that stretched across Polk County. A similar route was adopted a month later by the state when it unveiled plans for the Heartland Parkway.
The proposed 110-mile road stretches through the ranches, farms and swamps of inland Florida, from Collier County to I-4. In real estate, that's a good thing. Land prices typically skyrocket for property adjacent to newly built transportation facilities.
Nearly all of Blue Head Ranch, a massive piece of property controlled by one of Alexander's companies, lies directly in the path of the proposed roadway. The company, Atlantic Blue, plans 30,000 residential units and 11 million square feet of nonresidential development on 7,500 acres of the ranch, according to its website.
But Alexander has maintained he didn't involve himself with HEART, despite corporate documents that show links between himself and members of the non-profit, which dissolved in 2008.
The parkway project was shelved after a state study in 2007 found that the road was unfeasible. The problem? Not enough traffic to justify what was intended to be a toll road.
The solution? Large projects built nearby that would produce high volumes of traffic.
That would include a new university, Stan Cann, a DOT secretary, explained to the Times in 2008. Like the proposed Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland. "The USF campus only adds to the feasibility of the parkway," Cann said. "It's a traffic generator."
The money in the budget would pay only for the design of the north section of the toll road closest to the university campus.
Tom Deardorff, director of the Polk Transportation Planning Organization, said that stretch of road — which is now proposed to be called the Central Polk Parkway — is a separate project and hasn't been pushed by Alexander. The 44-mile road, which in 2007 was estimated to cost $1.8 billion to construct, would be built to relieve the county's east-west traffic, Deardorff said. It was put in Polk's long-range plan in 2010.
But Sen. Paula Dockery, a Republican from Lakeland who has clashed with Alexander, questioned how the road jumped ahead of other projects that have been waiting for funding for years, such as the Osceola Parkway to the east.
"There hasn't been a public explanation for why it jumped ahead," Dockery said. "And I find it hard to believe that, as appropriations chair, (Alexander) doesn't know about it. He is able to direct money to the projects he likes. USF Poly and the Heartland Parkway are part of this master plan, and he's one of the masterminds behind it."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]