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Ron DeSantis approved $738 million for Florida’s controversial new toll roads

That's just to plan the roads, not build them.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida will spend at least $738 million over the next five years on three controversial new toll roads projects under a plan approved by Gov. Ron DeSantis last week.

While slashing more than $1 billion from the state budget last week because of the state’s sudden economic downturn, he left untouched state plans to move ahead on more than 300 miles of new toll roads.

Those plans include spending $382 million for engineering and planning consultants and $40 million acquiring land along the roads’ paths in the next three years. It does not include the cost of building the roads, which is supposed to start in 2022 with a price tag in the tens of billions of dollars.

The figures are more than $200 million more than the state was projecting last year, when the Legislature, over the objection of environmentalists, passed a bill paving the way for the roads.

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

“It takes something that smells bad and now smells worse,” Sen. José Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, the only senator to vote against the roads in 2019, said of the larger figure. “If (the project) was bloated to begin with and is now growing, that’s a serious concern.”

Other Democratic lawmakers raised objections about spending potentially billions on new toll roads, while also cutting more than $1 billion from the state budget this year. The cuts included $225 million in affordable housing money and tens of millions in local projects, including local transportation projects.

“A toll road to nowhere is not going to benefit anyone in 2020. It just isn’t,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

If built, the roads would be Florida’s largest expansion of toll roads in decades. One road would link Polk and Collier Counties, another would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border and a third would link Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast.

The projects are not a done deal. They could be derailed if the Department of Transportation can’t afford to finance them through toll revenue or bonds, or if the roads are held up by environmental concerns. A federal biologist warned the projects could render extinct the state animal, the Florida panther, for example.

But the highways have powerful backers that include the Chamber of Commerce, road builders and Senate President Bill Galvano, who championed the roads through the Legislature last year. The roads were not a new idea — three previous governors had considered, then discarded, similar plans.

How much the roads will cost has been one of the biggest question marks about the projects. When lawmakers voted on the project last year, the state was projecting spending less than $393 million planning the projects through 2024, not including the cost of construction. This year’s plan shows the state spending $595 million more than that through 2024, plus another $142 million in 2025. (A department spokeswoman said the people who could explain the difference were gone for the holiday weekend.)

Last month, environmental groups were urging DeSantis to veto what was then perceived to be $90 million toward the projects in this year’s budget. In reality, the state plans to spend more than $117 million on the roads this year.

Lindsay Cross, government relations director with Florida Conservation Voters, noted that DeSantis’ vetoes instead included about $90 million in local water and environmental projects, according to the group’s analysis.

Lawmakers are talking about reconvening in November, after the election and after the state has a better idea how deep the state’s recession will be. If they do, Cross said they should also look again at the road projects and whether the money can be spent to fill other budget holes.

“This is a way to free up some of that money,” she said.

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