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  1. Environment

Heartland Parkway is the toll road that wouldn't die

Senate President Bill Galvano resurrects an expensive highway project that both Charlie Crist and Rick Scott killed.
Blue Head Ranch, a sprawling 60,000-acre property in Highlands County that was partly controlled by former state Sen. J.D. Alexander in 2007 when he was pushing for the state to build what was called the Heartland Parkway.
Published Feb. 18

Last month, when Senate President Bill Galvano called for building more toll roads to boost the economy of Florida's rural areas, he only mentioned one by name: the Suncoast Parkway.

But anyone who follows transportation issues in Florida recognized the second one from his description of its route from Polk County south to Collier County: the Heartland Parkway, a 140-mile road that has as many lives as an accident-prone house cat.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist killed it in 2007. The Florida Department of Transportation killed it in 2011 and again in 2015. Then Crist's successor, Rick Scott, nixed it one more time in 2016. It is supposed to be kaput.

"The Heartland Parkway is not on the books," Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Ann Howard said last week. "Officially, we don't have it in the works."

Yet somehow the big highway with a folksy name keeps clawing its way back out of the grave.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Galvano calls for extending Suncoast Parkway to Georgia.

Galvano, in an interview, said he wasn't specifically thinking of the Heartland Parkway, but something following that same route that would also bring in water and sewer lines to rural areas now using wells and septic tanks. He wants $125 million to get the planning started.

"All of the stars are lining up to make it valuable to push forward to bring these projects forward," he said. "We've got to be prepared for the influx of people moving in here every day."

The Polk County Commission has already sent a letter to Galvano supporting a Heartland revival, although according to commission chairman George Lindsey III, support for the road among his constituents is tepid.

"I don't think there's been a groundswell one way or the other," he said. But he said commissioners are backing Galvano because hurricane evacuation times could be improved by building the Heartland, along with "the movement of goods and services" from one part of the state to another.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the idea for his roads announcement came from discussions with the Florida Transportation Builders Association, which represents state road and bridge builders, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The road builders gave his Innovate Florida PAC $20,000 during his run for the senate presidency, while the chamber gave it $125,000 during that time period.

Florida has more toll roads by mile than any other state. They were built as an alternative to regular highways because in theory they pay for themselves. Yet several of the state's toll roads— including the Suncoast Parkway — have failed to attract enough drivers to cover their cost. One toll bridge in the Panhandle missed financial projections so badly it went bankrupt.

PRIOR COVERAGE: State to expand Suncoast Parkway even as it fails to meet projections.

Despite that track record, Galvano contends that building these new toll roads can help poor, rural areas that need an economic boost.

"We need to improve access so prosperity can return there," he said during a Jan. 30 news conference.

However, the people who backed the Heartland Parkway weren't the state's rural poor. As the Tampa Bay Times reported then, they were well-to-do landowners like the Lykes Bros. and big corporations like phosphate giant Mosaic. Even the name came from them, not the state.

•••

In the beginning it was just a line on a map.

In early 2006, an attorney representing about 10 major landowners made a phone call to the state Department of Transportation director to pitch the idea of building a new north-south toll road. Then he drew a proposed route on a map and faxed it over to the state turnpike division.

A month later, the agency announced it would consider building that exact highway, and using the name its backers suggested. It didn't hurt that the highway was being pushed heavily by JD Alexander, a powerful state senator whose family held a large amount of acreage that would benefit. (Alexander, now a private citizen, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Former Democratic state Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven was one of the attorneys representing the landowners, including cattle ranchers, citrus growers and phosphate miners, who together owned more than a million acres.

They formed a non-profit organization called HEART Inc. — short for the Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Task Force — and hired a political consultant who came up with the road's name.

Early on they met with then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who embraced their sales pitch that this $8 billion road was necessary not to relieve traffic jams but to defeat urban sprawl.

"The argument for the road was it was a way to organize the growth that is, unfortunately, coming to the interior of Florida," Dantzler explained in an interview. "It sounds counter-intuitive, but the theory was the growth would be located along up to 14 exits, preserving the rest of the land for conservation. Perhaps it was naive, but it was a new way of looking at a road."

But a lot of people noticed that the road would also make the landowners' property more valuable. And they noticed that some of the landowners already had plans to develop their property, which a new toll road would help. They also realized that, rather than conserving environmentally sensitive land, the road would slice through some that is crucial to the state's ecosystems.

The Central Florida Regional Planning Council noted in a report that the "Heartland" corridor includes the Green Swamp, the headwaters of four major river systems — the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Oklawaha and Peace — and the recharge area for the aquifer that provides the region's drinking water. It also includes the Kissimmee River, which is the principal freshwater source for Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

When the state held public hearings, "I never heard anybody in favor of it except for the development interests," said Marian Ryan of the Sierra Club, who fought the road from the first.

"I just couldn't sell it," Dantzler said.

Crist took office in 2007, the same year the Collier County Commission went on record opposing the toll road. Unlike Bush, Crist was no fan of toll roads, and he pulled the plug on the Heartland.

"I thought it was dead," Dantzler said.

•••

Rather than surrender, the Heartland's fans changed focus. They decided to try getting approval for just the first segment of the highway, a 40-mile curved section they had dubbed "the fish hook." Now it became the Central Polk Parkway.

But a 2011 study found that the $1.8 billion parkway wouldn't attract enough drivers to justify building it. Yet, the following year, state legislators revived it by tucking $34.7 million into the budget to pay for the Polk highway's design.

In 2015, transportation officials yanked the project from their five-year plan. They said their new studies again found that the road wouldn't serve enough people to pay for the cost. In 2016, legislators put another $5.4 million in the budget for the parkway, but Scott vetoed it.

Galvano conceded that funding may still be an issue. But he said he's open to alternative methods for paying for the highway, including creating a public-private partnership to build and manage it, then share any money from the tolls.

"I was surprised when Sen. Galvano brought it back," Dantzler said. He noted that, because of recent improvements to State Road 17 and major investments in land preservation along the old Heartland route, "the argument for it has become more difficult to make."

Ryan said she wasn't surprised. She knows why it keeps coming back: "It's just the ugly Florida growth machine that keeps on chugging."

News researchers Caryn Baird and Connie Humburg contributed to this report, which includes information from the Lakeland Ledger and Florida Trend. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com . Follow @craigtimes.

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