TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Bill Galvano defended controversial toll-road plans he’s pushed for nearly two years, after task forces released draft reports Tuesday indicating they were unable to determine if there is a need for the projects.
Critics hope the draft reports are a sign the brakes will be put on the three projects, which would stretch from Collier County in Southwest Florida to Jefferson County near the Georgia border.
The task forces said — in somewhat similar language — they couldn’t reach conclusions on specific needs for the projects because of the information available and displayed a preference for first improving or expanding existing highways and utility corridors.
The draft reports, made public by the Florida Department of Transportation, also expressed a need for the department to consider a “no build” alternative — as desired by environmental and conservation groups — in future project-development activities until final recommendations are made.
Galvano implied in a statement that halting the projects as the state reopens amid the coronavirus pandemic could hinder economic prosperity and technological advances in rural communities, as the roads would bring “wide-ranging infrastructure improvements” from water and sewer to broadband.
“For example, school choice is not a realistic proposition for K-12 students in counties underserved by fixed broadband, or for higher education students choosing to study remotely this semester,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who will leave office in November, wrote. “Employees seeking a remote work environment and businesses trying to adapt their work models to engage in e-commerce opportunities are also at a disadvantage.”
The three proposed projects are an extension of the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County near the Georgia border; an extension of Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and a new multi-use corridor linking Polk and Collier counties.
Lindsay Cross of the Florida Conservation Voters said it appears the task force members recognized the public’s desire to preserve the state’s environment. She hopes the proposed roads will now have to go through the Department of Transportation’s five-year road planning program for a deeper review, which she said could most affect the proposed corridor linking Collier County and Polk County.
“There is going to be some improvements to existing roads. I think in no way will there be 330 new miles of toll roads,” Cross said. “I think the idea of having this big, bold thing was more boastful than bold on the part of Sen. Galvano. And I think it sets a lot of people up for disappointment that wanted a big road project and all of the aspirational things that came with it. What’s concerning is that I think that some of the rural communities are kind of getting played in this and are going to be kind of left without the services that they need.”
State lawmakers last year approved moving forward with the plans, with the legislation eventually dedicating up to $101.7 million a year for the projects. But lawmakers also created the task forces to study and make recommendations about the plans.
The task forces, which started meeting in August 2019, are each comprised of about 40 people, including local officials, environmentalists, representatives of agricultural interests, transportation planners, members of business groups and educators.
Support for the roads has come from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.
Proponents say the roads would prepare the state for future growth and aid in disaster evacuations.
Opponents include groups such as 1000 Friends of Florida, the Florida Conservation Voters and Sierra Club Florida. They have expressed concerns about urban sprawl and threats to wildlife.
Florida TaxWatch raised questions this summer about the potential cost and need for extending the Suncoast Parkway. Projecting a cost between $4 billion and $10.5 billion, TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro urged “further analysis of the costs, benefits, and practicality of the Suncoast Connector, especially now that our state is facing unprecedented revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19.”
The task forces are expected to finalize their reports by the third week of October, with the reports due Nov. 15 to the governor and legislative leaders.