Three new Florida toll roads are three too many | Column
Roads to nowhere would be expensive boondoggles, Paula Dockery writes.
Columnist Paula Dockery
Columnist Paula Dockery
Published Dec. 5, 2019|Updated Dec. 5, 2019

Most Floridians would agree that we all benefit from a system of highways that help move people and goods around the state. Investing in our infrastructure can help create jobs, increase mobility and move people and products.

We want our roads, and other modes of transportation like rail, to connect destinations that serve a purpose for passengers and the movement of goods. The routes chosen should meet the needs of Floridians, tourists and businesses.

An experienced and well-staffed Florida Department of Transportation - -in conjunction with the Department of Environmental Protection and local governments -- should have the expertise to determine where those needs are and how best to address them.

That’s why we have a system set in law to plan for our transportation and infrastructure needs through the FDOT and its collaborative partners using a five-year work plan.

We get in trouble when that decision-making is taken from the experts and given to elected officials serving special interests. For years, some politicians in Tallahassee have been pushing for a north-south toll road connecting Collier and Polk counties.

The Heartland Parkway — part of the Future Corridors Action Plan — dates to 2006. It was envisioned to connect Immokalee to Interstate 4 near Lakeland through rural and environmentally sensitive lands, mostly in agricultural use. For a variety of reasons and despite being pushed by powerful and determined legislators, the project kept running into problems.

In 2007 the Collier County Commission voted 4-1 against a resolution of support for the Heartland Parkway. There were also environmental considerations as well as financial challenges. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist was not a fan of the project and it stalled.

Four years later, as the economy improved, legislative pressure built again, forcing FDOT to conduct a feasibility study of the Heartland Parkway’s proposed route. The study did not help its case.

Estimated at nearly $2 billion to build, the Heartland Parkway saw its benefits outweighed by the cost and dismal projections for toll revenues. Who would use it? Then-Gov. Rick Scott was also less than enthusiastic about using limited transportation dollars for the project when the state had so many other pressing needs.

In May, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law, SB 7068, which once again puts the Heartland Parkway back on the table — plus two other toll roads. The controversial bill created task forces for each of the three loosely identified routes and provided dedicated funding for planning and constructing all three toll roads.

The proposals would revive the Heartland route from Collier County to Polk County, extend the Suncoast Parkway from Tampa north to the Georgia border, and continue the Florida Turnpike west to connect to the Suncoast Parkway.

Proponents claim that these toll roads will lead to economic opportunity in rural communities, will alleviate traffic congestion, and will aid in hurricane evacuation. They also claim that they can be built in an environmentally friendly manner.

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Opponents have a much different view and one that I share.

Who is going to use these roads? How will they pay for themselves? How do you protect wildlife corridors? How do we protect our wetlands that serve as filters for clean water? Will wealthy land barons ultimately decide where the roads will go? And what happens to private property owners who don’t want the roads to go through their property? Will their land be taken by eminent domain?

While the concept itself might be worthy of studying, the legislation goes too far. It forces the roads to be built, it sets an unrealistic study period of just one year, it diverts money from general revenue, and it forces construction to begin on all three in 2022 and be finished by 2030. It also depends on issuing bonds for construction and land acquisition, creating much more debt. We have no way of knowing the final cost.

Is this our most pressing transportation infrastructure need? I don’t think so.

Opponents don’t feel like there was an opportunity for much public input and that the legislation creating these toll roads — known as the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance -- was crammed through the process. They organized more than 50 nonprofit and private entities into the No Roads to Ruin Coalition.

Even task force members are expressing doubt and concern about the viability of the projects but are being told: It’s going to happen and we’re past the point of “if.” Floridians need to get informed and weigh in before irreparable damage is done.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA.