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  1. Transportation

Build the Suncoast Parkway all the way to Georgia? Nobody told Georgia

A small line of cars forms in the only available toll lane on the Suncoast Parkway on  Jan. 27, 2016, in Tampa. (Times | 2016)
A small line of cars forms in the only available toll lane on the Suncoast Parkway on Jan. 27, 2016, in Tampa. (Times | 2016)
Published Apr. 26

The massive toll road expansion that Senate President Bill Galvano has pushed through the Senate originally caught Florida Department of Transportation officials off guard. Galvano had not warned them about it, and they had no plans ready to go.

Turns out, they weren't the only ones in the dark.

One major part of Senate Bill 7068 calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County all the way to Jefferson County at the Florida-Georgia state line.

One problem: Nobody told Georgia transportation officials.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Galvano calls for extending the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia.

A spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation said that a phone call from a Tampa Bay Times reporter marked the first time anyone from Florida had mentioned it.

Not only that, spokeswoman Natalie Dale said, but none of their transportation planning organizations had heard about Florida's plans, either. She declined to comment on what sort of planning Georgia would have to begin in order to deal with the proposed multi-billion-dollar highway project that may be headed their way.

"It sounds like the ball is in the Florida Legislature's court," is all she would say.

The news was just as much of a surprise in Thomas County (population 44,000), the Georgia county that's right across from Florida's Jefferson County (population 14,000). The county seat is Thomasville.

"That's the first I've heard of it, too," said Tony Bodiford, Thomas County's public works director. He made it clear he didn't think much of Galvano's idea, saying, "Apparently somebody just made something up, I guess. I don't think anything would warrant a toll road through there."

Two major highways already link Jefferson County and Thomas County: U.S. 19 and U.S. 221. Neither one is overwhelmed with traffic and in need of relief a toll road might provide, he said. The last time those highways were active, he said, was when the Jefferson County Kennel Club dog track was still open in Monticello. That closed nearly a decade ago.

PRIOR COVERAGE: Heartland Parkway is the toll road that wouldn't die.

Georgia transportation officials recently upgraded U.S. 19 through Thomas County, Bodiford said, and received plenty of criticism for how many new lanes and ramps they added. The reason: Nobody believed it would ever see enough traffic to justify the expense.

PRIOR COVERAGE: New toll roads would be boon to billionaires.

Galvano said Friday that there would be plenty of time to hold talks with Georgia officials about the road.

"There's a mechanism for that type of discussion and planning," he said, "and certainly before any road would be built, someone's not just going to show up to the Florida-Georgia line — good band, by the way — say, 'Here we are,' and leave it at that."

Galvano unveiled his toll road plans in January, announcing that he believed they were necessary because building them through the state's rural, environmentally sensitive areas could boost the economy of small towns.

"We need access to our rural communities," he said at the time. "We need to improve access so prosperity can return there."

But leaders in several of the counties that lie in the extended Suncoast's path have made it clear they want no toll roads slicing through and destroying farms that have been in the same families for generations.

Environmental groups have also opposed the project, condemning it as a way to spread sprawl and destroy areas important to recharging the aquifer and providing habitat for imperiled species.

After hearing what Georgia officials said, Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club again blasted Galvano and Sen. Tom Lee for pushing roads not ever requested by the transportation agency.

"They have completely short-circuited the normal process here," he said. "This is an extremely poorly thought-out plan."

Florida already has more miles of toll roads than any other state. They were built as an alternative to regular highways because, in theory, they pay for themselves. Yet several of the state's toll roads — including the Suncoast Parkway — have failed to attract enough drivers to cover their cost. One toll bridge in the Panhandle missed financial projections so badly it went bankrupt.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, has said the idea for building even more toll roads came from discussions with the Florida Transportation Builders Association, which represents state road and bridge builders, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. The road builders gave his Innovate Florida PAC $20,000 during his run for the Senate presidency, while the chamber gave it $125,000 during that time period.

The bill doesn't guarantee the three roads will be built, only that there would be task forces to examine feasibility. One would look at extending the Suncoast Parkway north to the state line, another at extending Florida's Turnpike to meet the Suncoast and the third at a new road connecting Polk and Collier counties.

Some supporters have invoked the need for improved hurricane evacuation as a reason for building the new toll roads. However, the Florida Division of Emergency Management counsels Floridians evacuating their homes ahead of a storm to avoid going on a long-distance highway trek.

Their website says, "Select an evacuation destination that is nearest to your home, preferably in the same county, or at least minimize the distance over which you must travel in order to reach your intended shelter location."

Times/Herald staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.

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