More than 50 Florida environmental groups announced Thursday they were joining forces to fight a proposal to build more than 300 miles of toll roads through rural and ecologically sensitive parts of the state.
Dubbed the No Roads to Ruin Coalition, the collaboration includes large environmentalist organizations, such as Sierra Club Florida and Florida Conservation Voters, that will coordinate how they express opposition to the projects.
“It’s very rare to see a group this big come together and unify with this much momentum," Ryan Smart, executive director of the nonprofit Florida Springs Council, said at a news conference in the Capitol. "It really takes something like the toll roads that are a threat to the entire state to see people from South Florida to the Panhandle coming together.”
The groups fear the roads would devastate wildlife and lead to sprawl in rural Florida. One road would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia line, another would extend Florida’s Turnpike to meet the Suncoast, and another would create an entirely new road linking Polk and Collier counties.
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The ideas were cast aside by three previous governors but revived last year by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which on Thursday kicked off its infrastructure summit in Hollywood highlighting the proposed roads.
The Chamber and the Florida Transportation Builders Association, led by former Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, were the two biggest supporters of the proposed roads. It was the top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, during this year’s legislative session.
During Thursday’s summit, which was sponsored by engineering companies that stand to make millions on government contracts stemming from the projects, Prasad urged the audience’s support.
“Please make your voices heard," Prasad said. "The naysayers are very organized and we need to make sure we get our voices heard.”
He said the idea was created after meeting with Galvano, who wanted a way to revive the economies in rural Florida. Galvano also said they would provide new Hurricane evacuation routes and relieve congestion on Interstate 75.
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“Don’t believe anything you read in the papers, but I can assure you when President Galvano spoke to us, he asked for bold ideas, but there was no mention of corridors,” Prasad said. "It led to this idea.”
The speakers at the Chamber event included Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault, who defended the projects to the Times/Herald this week.
The projects were not originally included the department’s long-range plans, and the department still does not have data showing that they’re necessary. But he said Tuesday that the roads were important to the “bigger picture” of the state’s transportation needs, citing statistics that 900 people were moving to Florida each day.
“If you’ve ever driven (Interstate 4), you see it. Orlando and Tampa are closing in. The joke of ‘Orlampa’ is happening,” Thibault said. “What this legislation was trying to do was be proactive rather than reactive.”
He said extending the Suncoast Parkway, which already is falling short on traffic projections that allowed it to be built, and the Turnpike would “clearly” relieve congestion on Interstate 75.
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“We have to do something on I-75,” he said. “I-75 from Wildwood to the Georgia line is at capacity. Any given day, it stops. One incident and it’s done.”
An I-75 task force in 2016 recommended widening the highway — not building an adjacent toll road.
Thibault said he understood people’s suspicion that the roads are just another scheme to reward developers and landowners. The Suncoast extension would run right through land owned by the richest man in Florida, for example. But Thibault said he hasn’t heard from those interests.
“I have yet to have any of these quote-unquote developers come to me and say, ‘Hey, what are you doing for this?’” he said.
The roads have not just been opposed by environmentalists. Some local communities don’t want them, and others have rejected the notion that the roads would help their local economies.
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Interstate 10 did not boost the economy in Jefferson County, said Michele Arceneaux, former president of the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce and owner of an embroidery business in downtown Monticello, the county seat.
“It didn’t bring economic development to us. It brought fast food and gas stations,” Arceneaux said at Thursday’s news conference. “This would be absolutely devastating to our downtown community and downtown businesses.”
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.