Florida Legislature signs off on massive toll road projects, sending bill to the governor

Lawmakers overcame resistance from environmental groups and basic unanswered questions about the project.
Florida Senate President Bill Galvano talks with Senator Rob Bradley on Tuesday. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Florida Senate President Bill Galvano talks with Senator Rob Bradley on Tuesday. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 1, 2019|Updated May 1, 2019

Florida’s largest road project in half a century was given a green light Wednesday, after the House voted to send a bill creating three new toll roads to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval.

Overcoming opposition from environmental groups and questions about whether the roads were needed, the House voted 76-36 to start the ball rolling on creating one new toll road and extending one new one.

The bill would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast, and build a new toll road from the Naples area toward Interstate 4 near Orlando. Construction would begin in 2022 and be finished by 2030.

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No studies have been done about whether the roads are needed, while basic questions about the projects are to be sorted out later.

But the bill was a top priority for Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who said it will help rural parts of the state left behind by the last decade of economic expansion.

Others accused lawmakers of merely giving a handout to special interests. The idea for the projects came from the Florida Transportation Builders Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and at least two billionaires own massive tracts of land near one of the roads’ potential path.

Because it was a Galvano priority, lawmakers treated the bill like a bargaining chip in the final two weeks of the legislative session.

In apparent exchange for supporting the project, senators approved sweeping changes to the state’s health care landscape this session that were a priority for House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

Senators voted on the road bill last week, with little discussion or debate, and only one, Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, voting against it.

On Wednesday, House members put up more of a fight than their Senate counterparts, and that fact wasn’t lost on Democratic representatives Wednesday.

“My colleagues have their marching orders,” Rep. Delores Hogan Johnson, D-Fort Pierce, said. “But I pray for them and I pray for us.”

But some lawmakers seemed confused about the bill. Unlike most bills, this one only had one committee stop before making it to the House floor. That meant few representatives had a chance to publicly review the proposals.

Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, didn’t know whether the Legislature would get a chance in the future to have a final say on the projects.

“It was honestly confusing as to whether we get to vote (again),” Geller told his colleagues, before voting for the bill.

Lawmakers are not expected to have another chance to vote on the projects.

If DeSantis signs the bill, the Florida Department of Transportation will manage the projects and have final say over whether the roads become reality.

The bill creates three new task forces for each project made up of state and local officials, plus one member from an environmental organization.

The task forces would meet publicly and study the need for the roads and environmental concerns, but their work is only advisory. Where the roads would go, how much they would cost and how they’d be financed would be up to state transportation officials.

The bill says the transportation department has to adhere to the task force’s recommendations only “to the maximum extent feasible.”

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida argued against the bill during its Senate committee hearings, claiming the roads would disrupt the habitat of the Florida panther and become a recipe for sprawl.

The bill doesn’t just create roads, but adds water, sewer and broadband internet infrastructure as well, which are the building blocks of any development.

“This is why Floridians are so cynical about government,” Jonathan Webber, deputy director of Florida Conservation Voters, said in a statement after Wednesday’s vote. “Legislative leaders let billionaire landowners and high-powered lobbying groups treat taxpayer dollars like their personal piggy bank.”

Even if the roads are never built, the bill is a win for road builders and engineers. In three years, the bill moves $135 million in general revenue, which pays for schools and local projects, into the state’s transportation trust fund, which goes into road projects and where the money is likely to stay.