With toll roads bill, DeSantis faces his first test as an environmental champion

DeSantis has been mum about whether he’ll veto the bill.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Atmospheric Science on Wednesday. 
[Florida Governor's Office]
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Atmospheric Science on Wednesday. [Florida Governor's Office]
Published May 17, 2019|Updated May 17, 2019

TALLAHASSEE — Is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that rare breed of Republican who champions the environment?

We’re about to find out.

DeSantis has 11 days to decide what to do with one of the most controversial issues of his new administration: Whether to sign a bill that would create new toll roads through rural parts of the state.

The idea pits environmentalists, who hate it, against road builders and the Senate president — powerful interests who DeSantis wouldn’t want to alienate so early in his term.

If DeSantis cedes to their wishes, he’ll dim his image as a self-described “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” referring to the turn-of-the-century GOP president who championed the environment and created the U.S. National Park Service.

“He’s really faced with his first big environmental test with this issue,” said Tim Martin, conservation chair for the Sierra Club Florida. “He basically has a choice: Is he truly going to be an environmental leader? Or is he going to pass and favor industries’ interests instead?”

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DeSantis has so far been mum about it. On Thursday, his administration said he was still reviewing it.

But publicly, advocates and opponents have been lobbying hard.

Environmentalists have staged protests around the state, and Martin said thousands of people have called the governor’s office urging him to veto the bill.

Two former governors, Democrats Bob Graham and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, who was then a Republican, have also come out against it.

“I vetoed a similar bill during my time as governor because there are smarter ways to grow and develop our transportation infrastructure — investing in public transportation, updating our current road and bridge system, and prioritizing sustainable growth,” said Crist, who was then a Republican, in a statement.

Those pushing for DeSantis to sign the bill are powerful business interests who could profit handsomely off the expansion, which would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway and build an entirely new toll road from Polk County to Collier County.

[LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times]
[LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times]

Supporters have gone on a campaign writing letters to the editor of newspapers around the state.

Former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Craig Fugate wrote to the Pensacola News Journal saying the roads were important for hurricane evacuations.

On Thursday, the Times published a letter to the editor from former Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, who served on DeSantis’ transition team. Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allen Bense, owns a road building company that has received tens of millions of dollars off of Florida Department of Transportation contracts.

Weatherford said his father-in-law “never crossed my mind” when he wrote the letter, and noted that he probably passed $10 billion in road projects when he was speaker. He said while the environment should be the priority, environmentalists should get over their objections to growth.

“I got bad news for ‘em. Florida is growing,” he said. “They need to get over it.”

The road and home building industries, which are well represented by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, would benefit with a project of such massive scale. Its CEO, Mark Wilson, said the project “will improve Florida’s infrastructure and help prepare us to welcome our new neighbors,” a reference to new residents.

Large agricultural landowners could benefit, too, via sales of their holdings to make room for sprawling subdivisions. Along with the Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida represents them, and its CEO has endorsed the project, too.

There remains a practical dilemma for DeSantis.

Building the toll roads was the top priority for Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, an ally who helped pass some of DeSantis’ top priorities this session, including a “sanctuary cities” bill that had died the previous two years in the upper chamber.

The partnership between DeSantis, Galvano and House Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes led Republicans to one of their most successful legislative sessions in years, and killing one of Galvano’s only priorities would be a surprise.

DeSantis has already won over some environmentalists by making good on campaign promises within days of taking office. Even if he doesn’t reject the toll roads, he’s been a welcome change from the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, they say.

“The way he stepped up on Everglades and water issues on day two constitutes proving himself,” said Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. Although her group opposes the toll roads, it has not joined in the public campaign against them. The subject isn’t even on the home page of Audubon Florida’s website.

The bill includes support for water, sewer and broadband internet infrastructure to subsidize growth in rural parts of the state.

But that’s the very “recipe for sprawl” that some environmentalists fear. While the exact route of the roads is unclear, they would go through the remaining undeveloped parts of the state, disrupting scarce habitat for the endangered Florida Panther.

The bill creates a task force for each road, which would have little more than a year to issue reports on the projects to the state Department of Transportation. The department would then decide whether the roads would be built and where they would go, but they wouldn’t be limited to the task forces’ recommendations.

Martin, who leads the Sierra Club Florida, believes the governor’s veto is the only thing that would stop the project.

He pointed to a late amendment to a different bill by lawmakers that makes it riskier for people and environmental groups to sue to local governments when they deviate from their blueprints for growth.

If DeSantis approves that bill (House Bill 7103), people who unsuccessfully sue their cities or counties would have to pay the other sides’ attorneys fees.

Martin believes it was a “package deal” with the toll roads bill, and it’s all the more reason why DeSantis should use his veto pen.

“Now is the time to put up or shut up,” Martin said. “He has to act and veto this bill or he can never claim that mantle of being a Teddy Rosevelt Republican again.”

Times researcher Caryn Baird and information from News Service of Florida contributed to this report.