Florida’s controversial toll roads projects are scrapped

The bill is an extraordinary reversal of a top Republican priority from just two years ago.
Florida's three proposed toll roads are not necessary, lawmakers have decided.
Florida's three proposed toll roads are not necessary, lawmakers have decided. [ FILE PHOTO ]
Published April 27, 2021|Updated April 27, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Two years after ordering the state to build more than 300 miles of toll roads across rural Florida, state lawmakers slammed the brakes.

With little debate, the Florida House on Tuesday voted 115-0 to repeal the bulk of the controversial projects, sending the bill to DeSantis’ desk.

The bill is an extraordinary reversal of a top Republican priority from 2019, and Democrats declared it a victory, House Minority Co-leader Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, told reporters on Monday.

“To see that get peeled back by about 85 percent, that was a huge win for us,” Jenne said.

But it had been Senate Republicans who proposed doing away with the projects, saying they were a “fiscal cliff” for the state.

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

Just two years ago, lawmakers were nearly unanimous when they bypassed the typical road-planning process and ordered the Department of Transportation to construct three new toll roads: an extension of the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border, an extension of Florida’s Turnpike to meet the Suncoast and a new route between Polk and Collier counties, long nicknamed the “Heartland Parkway.”

The bill was a top priority of former Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who said the roads would revitalize rural communities and prepare the state for future growth.

No studies were ever produced showing a need for the roads, however, and opposition to the idea was strong.

Environmentalists said the roads would be disastrous to some of the most pristine parts of the state, and a federal biologist feared it would render the Florida Panther extinct.

Some local officials along the routes feared the traffic, while others feared the chance it would bypass their communities and kill what little industry they had left.

Three task forces that convened for over a year to examine the potential routes did not enthusiastically endorse them.

The cost, estimated at tens of billions of dollars, seemed insurmountable. A conservative think tank said the Suncoast extension alone was financially “risky,” with “little demonstrated transportation need.”

The Times/Herald analyzed hundreds of public comments about the projects and found that only two dozen were in support. Nearly all of those came from road builders, contractors and engineers who sent their endorsements via personal email addresses without disclosing their employers.

Sen. Gayle Harrell, who sponsored the 2021 bill repealing the 2019 law, said the projects were a “fiscal cliff” for the state, and she doubted the roads would generate enough revenue to pay off the bonds.

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Road builders and many environmentalists were publicly supportive of the new plan.

While the bill heading to DeSantis’ desk repeals the law he signed in 2019, it doesn’t kill the projects entirely.

While the so-called Heartland Parkway route is now off the table, the two other legs could live on in other forms.

The bill orders the state to make improvements “as necessary” to U.S. Highway 19, from the Suncoast Parkway up to Interstate 10 in Madison County, by 2035.

It also 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.

News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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