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Florida’s toll road projects are moving ahead with virtual meetings this week

The task forces were given an extra 45 days to submit their recommendations.

TALLAHASSEE — Pandemic or not, Florida officials are moving ahead with their plans to build more than 300 miles of toll roads across the state.

This week, the Department of Transportation task force panels assigned to come up with recommendations for the roads are set to meet this week over teleconference.

To speak during the public comment period, you have to sign up in advance. The deadline to speak during Tuesday’s meeting, about the road that would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, is Monday by 5 p.m. Go here to register.

The idea to have the meetings at all during the pandemic was criticized by Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental group that joined the Sierra Club and other groups last year to form the No Roads to Ruin Coalition in opposition to the projects.

“We ask DOT to halt the process,” said Lindsay Cross, government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters. “This is too important to rush through and do in a way that has little transparency and I don’t think is true public participation.”

The idea to create more than 300 new miles of toll roads in Florida has been highly controversial, with environmental groups banding together to oppose the projects. Three previous governors rejected or stalled the concept. But it was revived by road builders and championed by Republican lawmakers in 2019 as a way to revive rural parts of the state. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law that year.

The bill lawmakers passed would build an entirely new toll road linking Polk and Collier counties, extending the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border and extending Florida’s Turnpike to meet the Suncoast.

And it created a task force of local and state officials, business interests and environmentalists for each road. The three task forces are on a tight deadline to come up with their recommendations about the roads to the governor. They have until Nov. 15 to issue their report — state lawmakers this session gave them an extra 45 days.

The cost of the roads and their exact routes have yet to be decided. Lawmakers put the entire project on an accelerated timeline, with a schedule to start construction in 2022 and be finished by 2030.

Environmentalists fear the roads would be devastating for the environment, however, and have raised questions about the lack of evidence the roads are needed. A federal biologist warned in an email last year that the Polk-to-Collier route could drive the Florida panther to extinction.

And they say the task forces have been largely hamstrung, with no ability to recommend to recommend the roads be built at all. Although the task forces are still meeting, the Department of Transportation is already moving ahead with plans to build the roads.

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