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Task forces will get more scrutiny over toll roads, Florida officials announce

After frustration about their oversight of three potential new toll roads, the department moved up their timeline for scrutinizing the projects.

State transportation officials announced additional meetings and resources for the task forces studying three new proposed toll roads.

After outcry from task force members, the Department of Transportation said Friday that it was adding two more public meetings and getting data on the potential projects to members sooner than previously scheduled.

“The department certainly heard the feedback,” department spokeswoman Beth Frady said in a statement Friday.

During last month’s meeting, task force members complained that they were not getting enough time or information to properly scrutinize the potential projects, which would be Florida’s largest expansion of toll roads in decades.

RELATED STORY: DeSantis approved these toll roads. So where’s the reason to build them?

“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 at last month’s meeting. “I don’t see it anywhere on this sheet. That’s a problem.”

Other task force members asked for additional meetings to study the justification for the projects. Their questions prompted one department secretary to tell them to stop asking questions about why the roads were needed.

The frustration stems from the tight timelines lawmakers gave the task forces — and the Department of Transportation — to study, plan and build the three potential roads. One project would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, another would extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast and another would build a new road linking Polk to Collier counties

When lawmakers passed a bill this session to build more than 300 miles of toll roads, they gave task force members until just October 2020 to issue their recommendations. Construction would start in 2022, with the roads being finished by 2030.

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

The roads were the priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, even though the Department of Transportation hadn’t included the roads in its long-term plans. Galvano last month called the department’s typical five-year road-planning process “not realistic” for the projects because the roads were urgently needed.

He justified the roads on three main grounds: that they would alleviate congestion on Interstate 75, would stimulate the economy in rural Florida and would provide new hurricane evacuation routes.

But neither he nor the department have ever provided any data backing up those claims. Task force members weren’t scheduled to even take up those topics until March.

Now the task forces will be talking about them in December, and the department will be data about those topics ahead of that meeting. The department also added two more meetings, in February and April, to their agendas.

“By facilitating additional meetings, I am confident the department is providing the support task force members need so they may complete the required assessments, which are so paramount to this process," Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said in a statement.

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