Florida’s three proposed toll roads were sold by politicians and interest groups as a boon for the state’s poor rural areas, which have been left further behind by the last decade of growth.
There’s just one problem: Some of those poor rural areas are highly skeptical of the plan — while some are openly hostile to it.
Commissioners from multiple rural counties say the growth isn’t wanted or would come with high costs in their cash-strapped areas. They expressed their reservations this week in Tampa during the first meeting of task forces that were formed to consider what could become the largest expansion of toll roads in the state since the 1950s.
Lafayette County Commission Chairman Anthony Adams said residents in his county like the fact that, at fewer than 10,000 people, it has the lowest population in the state.
“It’s easy to surmise that they might want their area to remain rural,” Adams said.
Sentiments like that made Tuesday’s meeting a lurching start to the three task force boards, which are made up of local elected officials, interest groups and environmentalists.
Lawmakers this year revived the three toll roads, the latest version to an idea that had been rejected by previous governors. And they created three task forces to recommend where the potential roads should go and how they should be used.
The roads were championed through the Legislature this year by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, with backing by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and road builders.
More than 300 miles of new toll roads with broadband internet and sewer hookups, they said, would revive rural parts of the state and relieve congestion on Florida’s highways. The roads would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Jefferson County, another would extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway up to the Georgia border and a third would build an entirely new toll road from Polk County to Collier County.
Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault kicked off Tuesday’s meeting by calling their work “a defining moment for our state,” but often it was skepticism, not enthusiasm, voiced by board members.
Environmentalists raised several potential problems. Even supporters of the projects, such as the Florida Trucking Association, questioned the premise that new roads would lead to growth.
But it was those counties along the proposed routes, the ones lawmakers implied were on board, that also raised reservations.
In Gilchrist County, commissioners considered drafting a resolution against it.
“I convinced them that we need to be at the table,” Commission Chairman Todd Gray said.
In Dixie County, commission Chairman Mark Hatch noted a new road could bring more traffic accidents, which would further stress what little medical care exists in the cash-strapped county.
“Whatever happens on that road, we’ve got to endure the burden of that cost,” Hatch said.
And officials in Marion County, where a potential toll road could connect Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway, have already said they don’t want it.
Ken Armstrong, president and CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, questioned whether economic growth was guaranteed along the route. He noted that Interstate 10 has wide swaths and many interchanges with “zero economic development.”
“I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that building a road creates economic development,” he said.
Neither Galvano nor the Department of Transportation had data showing the roads were needed. That lack of necessity is a sharp departure from the normal road-building process, where transportation officials propose new roads only after careful study.
That same lack of necessity was noted by Leon County Commissioner Kristin Dozier, who’s representing the Capital Region Transportation Planning Agency on the Suncoast Parkway task force.
“This does not fit the way we’ve been trained,” Dozier said after the meeting. “If we approached something like this, the state and the feds would not fund us for a project.”
Dozier was quick to add, however, that improving the economy of the region is “a regional conversation we want to have.”
State transportation officials acknowledged afterward that they have basic questions to answer about the proposed roads.
“There’s some obvious things we know we need to take a look at — the economic feasibility, the environmental impacts, that’s obvious,” department spokeswoman Ann Howard said.
Task force members meet at least six more times before their reports are due Oct. 1, 2020.
Kent Wimmer, the senior northwest Florida representative for the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife, said the task force’s tight deadline gave the impression that the state was going to go ahead with the roads regardless of what they did.
“The Legislature did not give this task force, give (the Department of Transportation), the ability to actually have a well thought-out process,” he said.