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Florida lawmakers quietly pave way for new toll roads this session

The bills would prioritize funding in rural counties along the proposed routes.

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers likely won’t revisit their approval last year of a questionable plan to build more than 300 miles of toll roads through rural Florida.

But they’re advancing multiple bills this year that could induce support for the project by showering benefits to those communities along the toll road routes.

One bill would use up to $5 million in money meant for toll roads to build high-speed internet in rural areas. Other bills would favor communities along the toll road routes when they apply for state grants.

Environmental groups, which have opposed the roads, say lawmakers and the Department of Transportation are using the bills to win over local residents who might otherwise oppose the projects.

”The broadband one in particular is a big, shiny object that’s being dangled in front of those rural counties,” said Jane West, policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida.

Related: Florida’s toll road projects lack big support, except from road builders

Florida Department of Transportation spokeswoman Beth Frady did not say whether the agency supported the bills.

Last year, the Legislature revived a decades-old idea and passed a bill to create some of Florida’s biggest transportation projects in decades. Three new toll roads would be built: one road linking Polk and Collier counties, another that would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, and another extending Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast.

Proposed corridors for three new toll road expansions. [ LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times ]

Lawmakers, led by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the roads were needed to spark the economies in rural Florida, provide new hurricane evacuation routes and relieve traffic on Interstate 75.

But the projects, which would not be finished until 2030, have had to overcome a few problems, including the fact there is no data showing they’re needed.

The roads would also go through some of the state’s most remote and environmentally sensitive areas. One federal biologist said the southern route would be “basically a disaster” for the endangered Florida panther.

And a series of task force meetings made up of state and local officials have revealed that not all rural counties are enthusiastic about the roads.

Related: The Florida panther could go extinct if this toll road is built, emails say

The roads are not a done deal. Transportation officials have not determined where the roads would go, or how they would be paid for. Environmental or financial problems could derail the projects.

Yet, environmentalists say, the bills this session indicate state lawmakers are treating the roads as if they’re a guarantee.

House Bill 203 and Senate Bill 410, for example, would require Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity to favor rural counties along the roads when doling out community planning technical assistance grants.

If the roads are built, small counties will need those grants to hire planners and engineers to design the areas around highway interchanges or amend their comprehensive plans to fit the new roadways, according to the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Stan McClain, R-Belleview. Large counties usually have those people on staff, but small counties don’t.

McClain denied that the measure was meant to entice communities into supporting the roads.

House Bill 969, which passed unanimously in the House last week, and Senate Bill 1166 would allow the Department of Transportation to spend up to $5 million each year on broadband internet infrastructure along the proposed roads.

Related: Florida’s new toll roads are supposed to help these counties. But they don’t want it.

And a provision added to Senate Bill 7018 on Thursday would change how the Department of Transportation designs staging areas for emergency workers following a disaster. The department would first place those staging areas in small counties along the toll roads.

The bill sponsor, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said large counties already have airports and other places to stage emergency workers, and it’s sometimes difficult to get supplies like fuel to rural areas.

No one is against improving access to broadband internet in rural Florida, said Lindsay Cross, government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters, which opposes the roads.

“But the question we’ve been asking the whole time is why do we need a toll road to do it?” she said.

The bills this session might be irrelevant anyway. Levy County Commission Chair Matt Brooks, who serves on the Department of Transportation’s Suncoast extension task forces, is not opposed to the roads but is skeptical because of the lack of details.

He said he doubts the legislation, and particularly the broadband bill, will make much difference in his county. And on top of that, he said he doubts there’s anything counties can do to stop the roads anyway.

“There’s a feeling that everybody gets the sense it’s coming, just because the Legislature was the driving force behind these projects,” Brooks said. “I don’t feel like locally elected officials or local residents have a say in this thing either way.”

Related: New toll roads could be a boon to billionaires. To Floridians? Who knows.

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