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  1. Opinion

Why do state task forces on toll roads include those with special interests? | Column

A 13-month turnaround for an extensive planning project like this is already irresponsible, unrealistic and impossible. We need to speak up.
The northern reaches of the Suncoast Parkway often don't get much traffic. [GRAHAM BRINK | Times files]

In early August, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) announced the members of new task forces charged with evaluating the potential construction of massive -- and expensive -- proposed toll road highways. Unfortunately, the task forces are stacked full of industries that stand to benefit financially from the highways’ construction.

Lindsay Cross

Don’t get me wrong, there are many qualified voices on the task forces, including environmental groups, planning experts and leadership from state departments of Health, Education and Environmental Protection, all tasked with speaking for the public. But, some of the task force appointees will be representing their own vested financial interests, including transportation, construction and the expansion of commercial services.

These appointees look more like a list of political donors -- the Florida Trucking Association, Florida Economic Development Council, Florida Internet & Television Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce -- and have a substantial incentive to push this project through as quickly as possible.

The bill was written to include these interests from the start, hidden in the fuzzy language that detailed who would make up the task forces. In addition to the named organizations in the bill the phrase: “the community, who may be an individual or a member of a nonprofit community organization, as determined by the department” opened the doorway for these vested interests. Pretty vague, but special interests thrive in vagueness.

In any other endeavor, if an entity can benefit financially from a decision-making body in which they are a member, that entity would be expected to recuse itself from the process. But in this case, they’ve been invited to sit at the head of the table, while some communities were not even invited to dinner.

The bill also specifies that “a local government official from each local government within a proposed corridor” should be on the task force. Rural, low- and middle-income communities will be most affected by the uprooting and paving of their ways of life. These cities and towns, who have a lot to lose in this toll road fight, are not present on the three task forces either, with only representatives from county-level governments.

Sadly, this process has stunk like roadkill since the beginning. The bills that hatched the highway plans were fast-tracked through the Legislature and faced little public scrutiny. Leaders in the Florida House chose to hear the highways bill in just a single committee, as opposed to the traditional three or four. This is not how good public policy gets made.

Now, the task forces have an important and incredibly unrealistic job of developing recommendations on where and how to pave over our communities -- up to 330 miles -- in a ridiculously short 13 months.

Florida’s remaining natural areas are worth more than the sum of their parts. To the people who live there, these lands are home. Within the Suncoast Connector study area, timberlands provide habitat to rare species. Agricultural lands within the Northern Turnpike region feed our state and wetlands within the Greenswamp form the headwaters of four major river systems. Cattle roam alongside wildlife within the Southwest-Central corridor region and these working ranches are some of the last remaining pieces of Old Florida. By conserving land, we conserve our way of life. When we start to pave over these places, there’s no going back.

A 13-month turnaround for an extensive planning project like this is already irresponsible, unrealistic and impossible. Tipping the scales in favor of big-money special interests makes it even more unlikely that this study will capture the true impact of this disastrous project.

That’s why we need to speak up. The first task force public meeting will be held on Aug. 27 in Tampa. It’s an opportunity for Floridians to show what local communities are made of, and just what is at stake when they attempt to pave our paradise.

Lindsay Cross is the government relations director at the Florida Conservation Voters (FCV). Cross has lived in the Tampa Bay region for 18 years. Cross’ background is in environmental science and policy, with previous leadership roles at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Florida Wildlife Corridor. She ran for Florida Senate District 24 in 2018 with a focus on protecting the environment and improving public education.

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