Florida’s controversial toll road projects are on the verge of being repealed

They have just one more stop before reaching Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk.
A SunPass lane.
A SunPass lane.
Published April 16, 2021|Updated April 16, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers appear prepared to dismantle the controversial road projects that would have built more than 300 miles of new toll roads across rural parts of Florida.

A House committee Friday advanced, with little discussion, a bill that would repeal the project. It sets up a floor vote, the last stop before making it to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. The bill has already passed the Senate.

Senate Bill 100 would repeal the unusual, and controversial, road plan passed by lawmakers just two years ago — but keep some parts alive.

A top priority in 2019 of then-Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the plan circumvented Florida’s normal road-building process by requiring the Department of Transportation to extend the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, extend Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast and build a third route linking Polk and Collier counties, long nicknamed the “Heartland Parkway.”

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

Typically, new roads are determined by need, as identified by the Department of Transportation and local officials. Lawmakers approved the 2019 projects without any study showing such a need and absent a prior identification as a priority by state transportation and local officials. Almost unilaterally, Galvano said the roads were needed to boost the economies in rural parts of the state.

Since then, opposition to the projects has grown among environmental groups, which fear urban sprawl in some of the remaining remote areas of the state. Leadership of several communities along the route said they don’t want the projects, either.

The bill lawmakers are considering this year repeals the 2019 law and the tight deadlines the state had to complete the projects. It effectively ends the the Heartland Parkway route, easing fears that the project would render the Florida panther extinct.

It modifies the two other routes:

  • It orders the state to make improvements to U.S. Highway 19, from the Suncoast Parkway up to Interstate 10 in Madison County, by 2035.
  • It orders the state to plan to extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood, where it currently ends, to a “logical and appropriate terminus” determined by the department.

Environmental groups have been cautiously optimistic, but warned that the state should include money for water and other environmental efforts.

“Clearly this bill is a better deal and less destructive than (the bill it’s repealing),” said Lindsay Cross, government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters. “This bill must be coupled with full and consistent conservation funding.”

State lawmakers said this year that the economic pressures of the pandemic made the roads no longer feasible. Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, who shepherded the bill through the Senate, said in March that the more than 300 miles of new toll roads were a “fiscal cliff” for the state.

Get insights into Florida politics

Get insights into Florida politics

Subscribe to our free Buzz newsletter

We’ll send you a rundown on local, state and national politics coverage every Thursday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“You’re talking about billions of dollars in bonding,” Harrell said last month. “It’s very, very doubtful that you would have the ability to pay for those bonds with Turnpike monies.”

The ability to pay for the projects was a concern from the start, and a reason why previous governors, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, abandoned proposals for a Heartland Parkway. Last year, the conservative think tank Florida TaxWatch called the Suncoast stretch a “risky project” with “little demonstrated transportation need.”

• • •

Tampa Bay Times Florida Legislature coverage

Get updates via text message: ConText, our free text messaging service about politics news, brings you the latest from this year's Florida legislative session.

Sign up for our newsletter: Get Capitol Buzz, a special bonus edition of The Buzz with Steve Contorno, each Saturday while the Legislature is meeting.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news from the state’s legislative session. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.