Galvano calls for extending Suncoast toll road to Georgia

But extending the money-losing highway is opposed by some rural counties

Florida's new Senate president announced Wednesday that one of his top priorities this year is pushing legislation to extend the lightly traveled Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia state line.

Rather than contending the extension would resolve a traffic problem or improve hurricane evacuation times, Sen. Bill Galvano's argument for extending the toll road beyond its current Citrus County terminus is strictly economic.

“I believe it’s a good idea,” said Galvano, R-Bradenton, during a Wednesday news conference. “We need access to our rural communities. We need to improve access so prosperity can return there.”

But leaders in several of the counties that lie in the extended Suncoast’s path have made it clear they want no toll roads slicing through their rural areas and destroying farms that have been in the same families for generations. And the existing Suncoast has been a consistent money-loser, repeatedly falling short of revenue projections.

In addition to the Suncoast extension, Galvano also said he wants to build a highway connecting Polk County in Central Florida to Collier County in southwest Florida — reviving the politically unpopular Heartland Parkway — and to extend the Florida Turnpike northwest from Interstate 75 in Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway, another potentially controversial move.

Galvano, a lawyer whose district includes Manatee and part of Hillsborough County, assigned Senate Transportation Committee chairman Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, to work out the funding and time schedule. Lee, a home builder, also represents part of Hillsborough, along with part of Pasco and Polk counties.

Lee, acknowledging the opposition to the new highways, joked that thanks to Galvano's assignment, "My new name is probably 'Sen. Pinata.'"

"There are human impacts to these projects that cannot be ignored," Lee said. But he warned that a rapidly growing state should not "let a handful of private individuals deny the benefit to the many."

Galvano spokeswoman Katie Betta said what he has in mind is not just road-building, but "a new approach to infrastructure that would include not only new roads, but also connectivity for broadband, water, and sewer."

Galvano's announcement left Florida Department of Transportation officials scrambling.

"We have not gotten very far into planning" any of those corridors, spokeswoman Ann Howard said. "We're in the process now of looking up those projects" from the past. For instance, the Heartland Parkway ran into so much opposition that then-Gov. Charlie Crist pulled the plug on it in 2006.

Lee acknowledged that funding will be the big question mark, noting that nearly all Florida toll road revenue projections — even though the point of charging tolls is so the roads pay for themselves.

Before the $507-million Suncoast Parkway was built two decades ago, experts hired by the state predicted the toll road running from northern Hillsborough to Hernando County would be such a big success that it would make $150 million by 2014. But when 2014 rolled around, the 42-mile highway was so empty that it collected a mere $22 million.

Despite the lack of demand, the agency laid plans for a $134-million extension called Suncoast 2. The new road would have stretched 13 miles, from the end of the Suncoast 1 at U.S. 98 north for 13 miles to State Road 44 in Lecanto. Critics dubbed it "the road to nowhere."

The Suncoast 2 has drawn opposition at every step. At the first public hearing on it in 1997, more than 600 people sent written comments, 545 opposed.

When Florida's economy stalled in 2008, the Suncoast 2 stalled too. But in 2015 then-Gov. Rick Scott jump-started the project with an infusion of $150,000 in tax money.

Regional planning officials have said the only way for Suncoast 2 to make money is to find a way to connect it to a larger highway such as I-75.

A committee that transportation officials created three years ago called the I-75 Relief Task Force reviewed the idea of alleviating traffic on the interstate by building another high-speed roadway through rural parts of Alachua, Levy and Marion counties. Those counties all opposed the idea, and the committee ultimately rejected building a new highway. It called for the agency to work on expanding I-75.

The agency still pushed ahead with the Coastal Connector, a road that would tie the Suncoast 2 to I-75, but the route would cut through the heart of Ocala's horse country. Horse farm owners convinced the agency to drop the idea last year. Scott vetoed $1.5 million for a study of a northern Suncoast extension.

A spokesman for Horse Farms Forever, attorney Matthew Brockway, said they support Galvano’s road plans so long as the route steers clear of their property.