TALLAHASSEE — The three groups authorized to make recommendations on a controversial proposal to build 330 new miles of toll roads in Florida finished their reports on Thursday.
All three reports had two main recommendations: The routes should build on top of existing roads, rather than constructing new ones, and the routes should avoid environmental areas.
They did not give any consensus on whether the roads should be built at all, though.
With their work completed, the reports now go to the governor’s office and Legislature — neither of which has to take any action on them.
The road projects, revived by former state Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, in 2019, have been highly controversial. Both environmentalists and many local elected officials who live along the proposed routes have given the project a lukewarm reception.
Galvano sold the idea for the roads as a boon for economically depressed rural communities. One route would extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, another would extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast, and a third route would link Polk and Collier counties.
The financial and environmental concerns have only grown since Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the projects into law 18 months ago. Still, there remain three things that could derail the projects.
Legislators could cut off funding
Currently, state lawmakers are not scheduled to address the projects again. When they passed the law creating the projects during the 2019 legislative session, that was it.
But the pandemic this year put a squeeze on the state budget, and it could prompt lawmakers to re-evaluate how much they’re spending on the roads.
Incoming Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told the Times/Herald in August that the projects will not be automatically spared from potential budget cuts next year.
“Everything that’s on the budget today will be reviewed, and I mean this,” Simpson said. “Everything will get another close look.”
Under the budget signed by DeSantis this year, the state is set to spend at least $738 million on the toll roads over the next five years. That money includes $382 million for engineering and planning consultants and $40 million to acquire land along the routes.
That money is divided among more than 50 projects in the Department of Transportation’s 5-year work plan, however. State lawmakers don’t usually delve into the plan to cut specific projects; both lawmakers and DeSantis approved the plan this year without changing a thing.
One issue could force lawmakers to take up the projects next session, though: The task force panels requested that lawmakers reconsider the tight deadlines to build the roads. Under the law passed in 2019, construction must start in 2022 and be finished by 2030 — ambitious and almost unrealistic timelines.
To change the deadlines, the Legislature will have to pass a new law this session.
Studies could show the roads aren’t financially feasible
The money in the Florida Department of Transportation’s 5-year work plan is just a small fraction of what the roads will cost. The vast majority of the money will likely be paid through bonds and cost tens of billions of dollars.
And there are concerns from groups on both sides of the political spectrum that the roads will simply be too expensive to build.
Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller government, estimated that the Suncoast Parkway extension alone would cost between $4 billion and $10.5 billion.
If Florida’s Turnpike issues bonds to pay for the road, as many expect, the route would have to attract many more riders than it currently does.
Currently, the Suncoast Parkway produces $700,000 in toll revenue per mile annually, according to TaxWatch’s report. If the extension project is even half as expensive as TaxWatch estimates, the new road would have to produce $2.37 million per mile — 10 percent better than the entire Turnpike average.
By another comparison, the Suncoast Parkway would have to collect twice as much per mile as the 155-mile Turnpike route from Palm Beach County to Osceola County.
“Where will that many new toll-payers come from?” the report’s authors asked.
Without solid projections, the Turnpike would have trouble issuing bonds for the roads.
To the frustration of many on the task forces, the Department of Transportation still has not conducted any assessments showing the roads are needed. Some who are tracking the project don’t believe the assessments will be the endorsements the projects need.
“The well is not deep enough to borrow the money to build all three of these things,” said Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, which advocates for smarter growth and had members on all three of the task forces.
Environmental concerns could derail, or sharply limit, the projects
One of the reasons why the roads are likely to be expensive is because they would run through some of the most pristine and underdeveloped parts of the state.
Such a route could trigger reviews by federal wildlife officials, according to Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, an environmental nonprofit.
While the roads' exact routes are still up in the air, they won’t be able to avoid the many rivers and streams that cross the state, such as the Suwannee and Caloosahatchee rivers.
Crossing those bodies of water would require authorization by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Schwartz said. The Corps would, at a minimum, analyze the crossings and would reach out to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for opinions on the environmental impacts.
He believes the Corps should take it a step further and analyze the entire projects, requiring a full environmental impact statement under the National Environmental Policy Act.
Already, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist warned that the Polk-to-Collier counties route could lead to the extinction of the state animal, the Florida panther.
“This project would have very serious impacts on the Florida panther (basically a disaster for the panther)," the biologist wrote in an email to his boss in 2019, as lawmakers were debating the roadways.
If federal officials determined the projects posed an existential threat to endangered species, that could doom the roads or severely limit them. Other environmental groups think the scenario is unlikely, though. Even Schwartz admitted that federal environmental officials rarely stop such projects.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service, even though it’s the agency that enforces the endangered species act, is not in the business of stopping development,” Schwartz said.