Editorial: Toll roads to nowhere no good for Florida

Zack Wittman  |  Times A small line of cars forms in the only available toll lane on the Suncoast Parkway in 2016 in Tampa.
Zack Wittman | Times A small line of cars forms in the only available toll lane on the Suncoast Parkway in 2016 in Tampa.
Published May 17, 2019

A state desperate for a 21st century transportation system featuring cutting-edge mass transit should not waste billions of dollars on toll roads to nowhere. It's unimaginative, unsustainable and unlikely to accomplish anything other than enrich big land owners and encourage urban sprawl. Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation into law Friday, undercutting his efforts to build his credentials as a fiscally conservative environmentalist.

Little surprise, really. The governor was not going to embarrass Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the muscle behind what's been called the biggest expansion of Florida's toll roads in 50 years. The plan calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, building Florida's Turnpike west to connect with the parkway, and creating a new toll road from Polk County south to Collier County.

Galvano said the ideas sprang from discussions with the Florida Transportation Builders Association. No wonder. Its members would be among the main beneficiaries of the multibillion dollar folly. Versions of these toll roads have been rejected for years, and they were not on the Florida Department of Transportation's radar. But they were Galvano's top priority, so naturally lawmakers allocated millions to get them in motion.

This is politics triumphing over policy. The Florida Department of Transportation had not planned to extend the Suncoast Parkway another 130 miles north. No one told Georgia officials, either. They found out about it late last month when a Tampa Bay Times reporter called to ask about the idea. The existing parkway has consistently lost money — the tolls don't cover the costs. Extending the road through even less populated areas is doubling down on a bad idea.

The Polk-to-Collier corridor follows a similar route to the proposed 140-mile Heartland Parkway, which has been killed several times, including twice by Republican governors. Scientists and environmentalists also opposed the route because it included the Green Swamp, headwaters of four major river systems and the recharge area for the aquifer that provides the region's drinking water. As recently as 2015, state transportation officials concluded the Heartland Parkway would not attract enough drivers to justify the cost. Nothing has happened since to think the numbers have drastically changed.

Galvano says the projects would open up rural areas to economic development, but the state has better levers to pull if counties need a boost. Florida doesn't need more low-density sprawl, which is what these toll roads would deliver. Further destroying what remains of the state's wilderness will diminish our quality of life.

Supporters say the roads would help during hurricane evacuations. But emergency management experts constantly remind evacuees to shelter as close to where they live as possible. Millions of Floridians shouldn't be driving hundreds of miles every time there is an approaching storm. Building more shelter space or fortifying existing shelters would cost far less and put fewer people out on the roads as storms approach.

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The legislation calls for spending $135 million over the next two years and for construction to start in 2022 and finish in 2030. The first step includes creating task forces to assess the projects' feasibility. The total cost for completing all three roads could run well into the billions of dollars.

Former Govs. Bob Graham and Charlie Crist oppose this folly. Crist vetoed the Heartland Parkway once, and former Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it again. The money would be better spent on bolstering our anemic transit systems or improving existing highways, both of which would do more to address congestion than building new roads through lightly populated areas. The state has far too many transportation needs to be wasting money on this boondoggle.

In less than five months in office, DeSantis has been methodically building his credentials as an environmentalist and a fiscal conservative. He significantly undercut that effort by embracing toll roads to nowhere.