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Is Florida’s massive toll road project destined to crash? | Editorial
The project has many hallmarks of a political turkey.
Florida's three proposed toll roads are not necessary, argues an environmentalist advocate.
Florida's three proposed toll roads are not necessary, argues an environmentalist advocate. [ FILE PHOTO ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Nov. 29, 2020

Proponents have called the state’s massive new toll road project a monumental opportunity and a thoughtful plan for smart growth. The 330 miles of new highways will curb interstate congestion, bolster the economy and facilitate hurricane evacuations, they say. In short, the argument goes, the roads would be a good investment. So why is it that so many of the preliminary studies are at best lukewarm on the idea? And the latest reports only add to the list of reasons to reconsider the controversial project.

The tolls roads, dubbed the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, were largely pushed by politicians, not transportation planners. The project calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway from Lecanto in Citrus County to the Florida-Georgia state line and linking the Suncoast to the Florida Turnpike. The third leg — 140 miles between Collier and Polk counties — resembles the former Heartland Parkway proposal. Two Republican governors already killed the Heartland plan and the Department of Transportation found in 2015 that it wouldn’t attract enough drivers to pay for the cost.

Still, former state Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, championed M-CORES last year, successfully pushing it through the Legislature with an ambitious completion date of 2030. The exact routes of the three roads are yet to be determined and the price tag is equally squishy, though by some estimates just the Suncoast extension would cost at least $4 billion and potentially more than $10 billion.

Three task forces convened by the Florida transportation department all released reports earlier this month that cast more doubt on why the state would pay billions of dollars to build the new highways. All three said they could not find a “specific need” to build the toll roads and recommended that the money be spent to expand and improve existing roads. Those reports are far from the final word on the project. But when three separate task forces arrive at the same conclusion, lawmakers should take notice. Once the state cuts highways through new territory — some of it environmentally sensitive and prime panther habitat — there’s no going back.

The Legislature has already approved hundreds of millions of dollars for planning, engineering and land purchases along the route. As more feasibility reports come out next year, lawmakers should ensure that the numbers add up, that they aren’t manufactured to fit a pre-determined conclusion that the roads are worth building. A Florida TaxWatch analysis already questioned how the proposed 150-mile Suncoast extension could attract enough drivers given the minimal traffic in the mostly rural corridor. The pro-business non-profit group, which advocates smaller government, called the extension “a risky project with what is sure to be a large price tag and little demonstrated transportation need.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

The state also has an iffy track record of projecting revenue from proposed toll roads. Several completed projects don’t get enough traffic to cover costs, despite early rosy predictions. Before the Suncoast Parkway opened in the early 2000s, Turnpike officials projected $150 million a year in tolls by 2014. The tally was closer to $22 million. In 2013, state consultants estimated that a 13-mile Suncoast extension currently under construction would generate $5.2 million in tolls. Just a year later, the estimate dropped to $3.8 million. And a toll bridge in the Panhandle went bankrupt after underperforming early projections. The cost of building the three new toll roads is far greater than any of those projects. The state cannot afford to get the numbers wrong.

With a growing population, the state will need to add new roads and improve existing ones. But lawmakers already must close a gaping hole in the state budget, thanks to the coronavirus crisis. Adding a flawed, multi-billion-dollar toll road project to the ledger makes no sense. To his credit, Senate President Wilton Simpson has said the toll project like many others will be reviewed. Several local Republican lawmakers who voted for the project told the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board in recent months that the project needed further scrutiny. A few wondered whether the price tag would grow too large to justify moving forward. That’s good to hear, as the project has many hallmarks of a political turkey — rushed, overpriced and unneeded.

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 Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news