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Want to bet on results of toll road studies? Warning: The deck is stacked. | Editorial

The task forces studying three roads to nowhere are filled with special interests that stand to benefit from more sprawl.
The northern reaches of the Suncoast Parkway often don't get much traffic. [TIMES FILES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 20
Updated Aug. 20

How convenient: The very groups that will advise the state on new toll roads that nobody asked for and nobody can afford are the same monied interests who stand to make a killing from these publicly subsidized corridors for sprawl. This is not an exercise in smart planning but the dismal picture of business as usual in Tallahassee. At least the public can now see who will be building the case for this legislative farce.

State lawmakers this year approved the largest expansion of Florida’s toll roads in decades, claiming the new toll roads would ease congestion, spur rural development and speed hurricane evacuations. The plan calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, building Florida’s Turnpike west to connect with the parkway and creating a toll road from Polk County south to Collier County. The Florida Department of Transportation had none of these projects on its radar. But Senate President Bill Galvano revived the idea this year after hearing a pitch from the Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Transportation Builders Association. News flash: Road builders like to build roads.

Three new task forces are meeting for the first time this month to advise state officials. All three -- one for each proposed road -- will include members of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the large business lobby that was one of the loudest champion of the toll roads. As Lawrence Mower of the Times-Herald Tallahassee bureau reports, it’s becoming clear even in these early stages the outsized role special interests will play in determining where and how these roads would be built. The task forces also include representatives from groups like the Florida Trucking Association and the Florida Internet & Television Association -- industries that could make a bundle from new toll roads that speed commutes for truckers and pave the way for new subdivisions clamoring for cable and broadband.

While the Legislature provided some guidance on the makeup of the task force, its members were chosen by DOT Secretary Kevin Thibault, whose agency said it wanted people with “expertise and personal life experience." The task forces will spend the next year recommending where more than 300 miles of toll roads should go through rural parts of the state. Never mind at least some of these projects have been rejected by previous Republican governors.

It’s not hard to imagine what will come from advisory boards stacked with industries that stand to gain enormously from this multibillion dollar venture. Building roads to nowhere is the opposite of smart growth. It’s enriching big land owners, encouraging sprawl and diverting state money that could be better spent. An alarming new forecast by the state’s chief economist that the state will take in about $867 million less in revenue over two years than earlier anticipated should be the latest red flag about embracing this project. Maybe the best Floridians can hope is that lawmakers can wait out Galvano’s final year as Senate president and more prudent lawmakers will put these recommendations where they belong after the 2020 election. Gathering dust on a shelf.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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