1. Opinion

Column: Stop the "transportation corridors" bills

Do Florida drivers want more tollways? Do state taxpayers want to spend $10 million to $40 million per mile on more than 320 miles of roads through rural Florida when that money could be spent elsewhere? Does anyone really want to pave over land needed to keep polluted stormwater out of our aquifers and away from our shores? We all know the answer — definitely not.

Then why are SB 7068 and HB 7113 (the "transportation corridors" bills) barreling their way to votes on their respective chamber floors without much opposition from our senators and representatives? It has something to do with the fact that Senate President Bill Galvano has it as a top priority. And who wants to mess with the Senate president? Well, we do, because protecting water quality and taxpayer dollars are too important to let this slide.

Members of the Legislature should vote this bad bill down, but if they don't, Gov. Ron DeSantis should veto it.

Just on the face of it, authorizing the construction of three new tollways through some of the last remaining undeveloped, environmentally sensitive areas in our state is an awful idea, but the details are the proof in the pudding.

The bills propose "self-funding" toll roads, but "self-funding" is a misnomer; Florida tax dollars would be spent to build these roadways.

By proposing "self-funding" toll roads, the state is looking to avoid more stringent federal road construction permitting requirements for transportation needs and economic feasibility studies, and likely any federal environmental impact studies. Which means we may never know (1) whether the proposed new expressways are being built based on actual transportation needs and (2) the overall impacts on the state's environment.

Still, we know enough now to know this transportation corridors bill will cause permanent destructive impacts across a wide swath of public and private conservation lands, forever scarring critical wetland aquifer recharge areas, recreation areas, and wildlife habitats. There are dozens of state parks, wildlife management areas, refuges, reserves, preserves and Florida Forever acquired lands that are threatened by this proposal. When the state originally acquired these environmentally significant lands for conservation they were designated as "environmentally endangered lands." Ironically, if passed, this bill will gravely endanger them once again.

Tollways through these rural areas would forever fragment habitat, isolate wildlife corridors, contribute to deforestation and eliminate wetlands essential to flood mitigation, stormwater treatment and the protection of our lakes, rivers, streams, bays and springs. Add that destruction to the enormous taxpayer cost of building these highways (and the cost to drivers who will have to pay to get home from work) and you have a really bad deal for Floridians.

The governor surprised all of us in the environmental community earlier this year when he took positive steps to address environmental concerns. But this decision is a litmus test. If he truly wants to claim the mantle of a Teddy Roosevelt Republican he has to prevent the large-scale destruction of our remaining conservation areas. He also has a responsibility to Florida's taxpayers, just as our state's legislators do. They all need to do the right thing and stop the transportation corridors bills in their tracks.

Timothy Martin is conservation chair of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club.