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Florida’s new toll roads ‘a monumental opportunity,’ transportation secretary says

The first meeting of the toll roads task forces is meeting in Tampa today.

TAMPA — Florida’s transportation secretary told hundreds of people gathered in Tampa on Tuesday that creating more than 300 new miles of toll roads in the state is “a monumental opportunity.”

Secretary Kevin Thibault remarks kicked off the first meeting of the three task forces that will decide where the roads should go and how they should be built.

“This is really a defining moment for our state,” Thibault said.

The three task forces, made up of state and local officials, business leaders and environmental groups, met at the Tampa Convention Center. It was the first of at least seven meetings over the next year, as the groups try to meet an October 2020 deadline to deliver a report on the roads to the Legislature.

RELATED STORY: Who will benefit from Florida’s new toll roads? Take a look at who’s consulting on where they will go.

The roads would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Jefferson County, 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.

The idea, rejected by previous governors, found new life this year after Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, championed it through the Legislature.

He overcame opposition from environmental groups, which fear the roads will lead to urban sprawl and devastate wildlife. Some of those environmental groups have seats on the three task forces.

Galvano told the crowd that he envisioned the roads creating jobs and growth for rural parts of Florida. The Legislature’s bill required the task forces to consider water, sewer and broadband internet hookups along the way.

RELATED STORY: Build the Suncoast Parkway all the way to Georgia? Nobody told Georgia

Afterward, Galvano said he expected the task forces to consider the environmental impact, and also how to accommodate autonomous vehicles and rail.

Tuesday’s meeting was mostly for introductions and overviews of the state’s open meeting laws. But during the afternoon, some task force members questioned the need for the roadways, and whether they would indeed guarantee growth in rural parts of the state.

The members then endured comments from dozens of members of the public.

Malia Byrtess, 23, noted that her generation was “outnumbered” by people from older generations, who dominate the three task forces. Yet it’s her generation, she said, that will have to live with the consequences.

“When I’m your age, I don’t want to see the forests that I’ve known and loved be paved over and disappear,” she told members of the Polk-Collier task force.

Travis Thompson, 42, a hunting and fishing guide who also hosts a podcast for sportsmen, wondered why sportsmen weren’t represented.

“Were we left out intentionally?” he asked. “In my heart of hearts, I hope this doesn’t happen.”

Contact Lawrence Mower at Follow @lmower3