When state lawmakers earlier this year approved the largest expansion of Florida’s toll roads in decades, they were sold on the premise that the new roads had several public benefits.
They would ease congestion, boost the economies of the rural areas where they would go and greatly improve hurricane evacuation routes.
All along, however, it was the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a large consortium of private business interests, that was one of the loudest champion of the toll roads.
Now that the massive project is in the early public planning stages, it’s becoming evident just how big a role private interests will play in determining where and how these roads will get built.
Three task forces meet for the first time later this month to advise state officials. All three, one for each proposed road, will include members of the Florida chamber.
But the task forces will also include representatives from industry groups like the Florida Trucking Association, where haulers will benefit from better routes, and the Florida Internet & Television Association, where members could get easier access to customers to offer them broadband internet, a requirement of the project.
Unlike the other members on the three boards, members drawn from industry could or will financially benefit from the project.
“I think they have too much of a vested interest,” said Lindsay Cross, government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters.
The members were chosen by the Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault. Department spokeswoman Ann Howard said in a statement that the department went beyond the minimum requirements for each task force and invited a variety of people with “expertise and personal life experience.”
“The Department focused on being inclusive and engaging with as many of the key stakeholders as possible,” Howard said.
Some members said they asked to be on the boards. In other cases, Thibault invited them.
“Anybody who’s been around Tallahassee wouldn’t be surprised by this,” Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen, who tried and failed to convince lawmakers the toll roads would be disastrous for the environment. “It’s business as usual.”
The three task forces, each with more than 40 members, will spend the next year recommending where more than 300 miles of toll roads should go through rural parts of the state, an idea lawmakers approved in May.
Beginning in the early 2000s, the idea of rural toll roads had been rejected by previous Republican governors and hadn’t been recommended by the Department of Transportation. Some environmental groups loathe the concept, fearing that it will lead to more sprawl and endanger wildlife.
But Senate President Bill Galvano revived the idea this year after hearing a pitch from the Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Transportation Builders Association, which represents road builders.
The chamber, which represents many of the state’s largest companies, is routinely one of the state’s biggest campaign donors. It gave Galvano’s political committee $125,000 on his run for the presidency. The road builders association gave another $20,000.
A spokeswoman for Galvano said he was not involved in choosing members of the task forces.
The Legislature’s bill didn’t say specifically where the roads would go, only that one would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, another would extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway and a third would build an entirely new toll road from Polk County to Collier County.
Lawmakers created three task forces to study specifics. They meet for the first time on Aug. 27 in Tampa.
Their reports, due in October 2020, will only be advisory. The Department of Transportation will ultimately decide whether the roads will be built and how they’re financed.
Lawmakers said the task forces would be made up of government officials from a variety of state and local agencies, local planning councils and water agencies, elected officials and members of environmental groups.
The Legislature also set aside seats for an individual or “a member of a nonprofit community organization.”
There was virtually no discussion during the session about who would fill those seats. The transportation department gave them to the Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Trucking Association, the Florida Internet & Television Association and the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, among other groups. Though associated with profit-making enterprises, the groups themselves are nonprofits. Representatives from Volunteer Florida and state and local colleges along the routes also were invited to those seats.
But members representing private industry match or outnumber members from environmental groups.
State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, led the bill through the Legislature this year, where it received virtually no scrutiny in the House. He said he expected the seats would go to more nonprofits that are reflective of local neighborhoods rather than industry.
“I did not have any expectation that a lot of Tallahassee-types would necessarily be on this task force,” he said. “That’s news to me.”
Industry groups say they deserve seats at the table. And their presence doesn’t bother at least one of the environmentalists on the task forces, Charles Lee, advocacy director for Audubon Florida.
Lee noted that they’re only a handful of the roughly 40 people on each task force. He was also happy that environmental groups got at least four seats on each one.
“I don’t think they’re stacked in any particular way,” Lee said.
The Sierra Club was also invited to serve on the task forces, said Cullen, its lobbyist. But because his organization is fundamentally opposed to the roads, he said it would be “disingenuous” to serve on a board meant to implement them.
The chamber is represented by Tony Carvajal, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, the organization’s research arm. He’s on the Suncoast extension task force, while members of local chambers of commerce serve on the other two.
Spokeswoman Edie Ousley noted that Carvajal has served on two Florida Transportation Planning Commissions and has other experience with the transportation department.
“We are thought leaders with solid research,” spokeswoman Edie Ousley said.
The toll roads idea was also supported by the Florida Trucking Association, which has a representative on each task force.
On the northern turnpike connector board, it’s Philip Fulmer, CEO of the trucking company Carroll Fulmer Logistics. On the southwest route, it’s Keith Walpole, CEO the trucking company Walpole, Inc. On the Suncoast Parkway extension, it’s Trucking association CEO Ken Armstrong.
“I was not surprised when they reached out to us,” Armstrong said of the Department of Transportation. “Clearly we are tremendously affected by congestion on (Interstate-75, Interstate-95, Interstate-4), every road you can throw a rock and hit.”
From the cable companies, Comcast’s senior director of external affairs for Florida, Bill Ferry, sits on each board.
Florida Internet & Television Association President and CEO Brad Swanson said the transportation department asked him for a representative from the dominant cable company along each route. That meant Comcast, he said, but he said he also asked this week for a representative from Charter Communications to serve because it also has a big presence along the Suncoast route.
The Legislature’s bill requested accommodation for water, sewer and broadband internet connections along each route. Swanson said it made sense for a cable company expert to be on each board to address how much land should be set aside for internet infrastructure.
He noted that providers along the routes would still have to pay to dig and lay wiring, just like any other project.
“It didn’t look out of the ordinary to us for our members to be considered,” Swanson said.
Farmers are represented by members of the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. Charles Shinn, its director of government and community affairs, is on the Suncoast extension task force. He said the governor’s office reached out to the organization.
Shinn said farmers are mixed about the projects. On the one hand, he said, agriculture depends on shipping products in and out of the state, and some farmers might welcome some of the growth rural areas could see from the projects.
On the other hand, some farmers fear the effects on the environment and the potential that the growth could take over farmland.
He said for the farmer with land along the routes looking to retire and cash out, the roads could be a blessing.
“They’re probably thinking, Thank goodness I have a way out, and that’s their way out,” Shinn said. “But I think that’s an exception to the rule and not the norm.”