Tampa Bay residents know all too well that the state and the region desperately need dramatic improvements in transportation, including more robust transit options, new bridges and better roads.
What Floridians don’t need are expensive toll roads to nowhere that we can’t afford and won’t ease our most frustrating transportation challenges.
I have filed legislation, HB 763, that would kill three expensive toll road projects that were conceived by powerful politicians rather than forward-looking transportation planners. The millions in general tax dollars that would be spent on continuing to pursue these boondoggles could be spent on more pressing needs in a tight budget year.
The 330 miles of proposed new toll roads are collectively called the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES. In plain language, they are three unnecessary projects that would rip through small communities and rural areas. One would extend the Suncoast Parkway from Lecanto in Citrus County to the Florida-Georgia state line — which surprised Georgia officials when they first heard about it. Another would link the Suncoast to Florida’s Turnpike. A third road would stretch 140 miles between Polk and Collier counties, and it closely resembles a previously proposed toll road that was killed by two Republican governors.
The bottom line: Florida cannot afford to spend more than $700 million to plan and design these dubious projects over the next five years — or the tens of billions they would cost to build. There are many more pressing needs for that money for transportation and other priorities in an era when state revenue is expected to be far short of earlier projections.
The state faces an estimated $2.75 billion budget shortfall for 2021-22. Billions in federal aid tied to the pandemic and better-than-expected tax revenue in December and January will help ease the pain, but there still will be difficult spending decisions. Legislative leaders have talked of spending cuts in education. Medicaid costs continue to rise, and we also need to spend money to address serious issues in areas such as prisons, social services and the environment.
Make no mistake. I support road projects that are badly needed. I’m thankful work on a new span for the Howard Frankland Bridge is moving forward. I’m happy that construction is continuing on two new elevated toll roads in Pinellas. I’m very disappointed the Department of Transportation is delaying the $1.4 billion Westshore interchange improvements in Tampa because of revenue shortfalls. We should be focusing all of our resources on desperately needed transportation projects like those instead of toll roads to nowhere.
There are plenty of reasons to oppose these three toll roads. They did not go through the normal vetting to become part of the state’s five-year road construction plan. Three state task forces last year concluded they could not find a need for the new roads. Florida TaxWatch called the Suncoast extension “a risky project’' and questioned its viability.
But the main reason the Florida Legislature should kill these three toll roads this spring is the bottom line: We can’t afford it, and the money can be better spent.
Florida House Rep. Ben Diamond is a Democrat from St. Petersburg.