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Florida Senate president calls transportation’s five-year planning ‘not realistic’ for toll roads projects

“These corridors need to exist,” Senate President Bill Galvano said.

Senate President Bill Galvano defended the tight timelines for creating more than 300 miles of toll roads, saying the Department of Transportation’s five-year plan was “not realistic.”

“The days of relying on a five-year plan are just, they’re not realistic in modern Florida, a Florida that’s the 14th largest economy on the planet,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Tuesday.

Galvano was the main proponent for the road projects, which would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast and build a new road linking Polk to Collier counties. The three roads, if built, would be the largest expansion of toll roads in more than 50 years.

The Legislature passed the bill this year, even though transportation officials did not have the roads in its five-year plan, which the department uses to guide its long-term planning process.

The bill the Legislature passed gave extraordinarily tight timelines for the projects, however. Three task forces, one of each road, have until October to issue its recommendations to the governor and Legislature. Construction would start in 2022 and the roads would be built by 2030.

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The deadlines leave little to no time for task force members to vet the projects, and some of them have complained about the persistent lack of details so far. Transportation officials have provided no data on whether the roads are needed.

“We need to talk about the demand for people to pay tolls, right? What is projected revenue and what are projected costs?” task force member Thomas Hawkins, a land planner and University of Florida program director, said last week. “I don’t see it anywhere on this sheet. That’s a problem.”

Galvano said Tuesday that the need for the projects is apparent with state’s growing population: 900 new people moving to Florida on average each day, plus 175 million tourists last year.

“These corridors need to exist,” Galvano said.

But giving politicians, instead of transportation department engineers, direction over future road projects brought back memories of the “Pork Chop Gang,” the group of politicians that controlled the Legislature during the first half of the 20th century.

Galvano said he isn’t proposing doing away the transportation department’s five-year planning process, and that the department will ultimately decide whether the roads will be built.

“It is still within the province of the agency, with the assistance of the task force, to ultimately make these decisions,” Galvano said.