Three new Florida toll road projects are three too many

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

Most Florid­i­ans would agree that we all ben­e­fit from a sys­tem of high­ways that help move peo­ple and goods around the state. In­vest­ing in our in­fra­struc­ture can help cre­ate jobs, in­crease mo­bil­ity and move peo­ple and prod­ucts.

We want our roads, and other modes of trans­porta­tion like rail, to con­nect des­ti­na­tions that serve a pur­pose for pas­sen­gers and the move­ment of goods. The routes cho­sen should meet the needs of Florid­i­ans, tourists and businesses.

An ex­pe­ri­enced and well-staffed Florida Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion — in con­junc­tion with the Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion and lo­cal gov­ern­ments — should have the ex­per­tise to de­ter­mine where those needs are and how best to ad­dress them.

That’s why we have a sys­tem set in law to plan for our trans­porta­tion and in­fra­struc­ture needs through the FDOT and its col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ners us­ing a five-year work plan. We get in trou­ble when that de­ci­sion-mak­ing is taken from the ex­perts and given to elected of­fi­cials serv­ing spe­cial in­ter­ests. For years, some politi­cians in Tallahasse­e have been push­ing for a north-south toll road con­nect­ing Col­lier and Polk coun­ties.

The Heart­land Park­way — part of the Fu­ture Cor­ri­dors Ac­tion Plan — dates to 2006. It was en­vi­sioned to con­nect Immokalee to In­ter­state 4 near Lake­land through ru­ral and en­vi­ron­men­tally sen­si­tive lands, mostly in agri­cul­tural use. For a va­ri­ety of rea­sons and de­spite be­ing pushed by pow­er­ful leg­is­la­tors, the project kept run­ning into prob­lems.

In 2007, the Col­lier County Com­mis­sion voted 4-1 against a res­o­lu­tion of sup­port for the Heart­land Park­way. There were also en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sid­er­a­tions as well as fi­nan­cial chal­lenges. Then-Gov. Char­lie Crist was not a fan of the project and it stalled. Four years later, as the econ­omy im­proved, leg­isla­tive pres­sure built again, forc­ing FDOT to con­duct a fea­si­bil­ity study of the park­way’s pro­posed route. The study did not help its case.

Es­ti­mated at nearly $2 bil­lion to build, the Heart­land Park­way saw its ben­e­fits out­weighed by the cost and dis­mal projection­s for toll rev­enues. Who would use it? Then-Gov. Rick Scott was also less than en­thu­si­as­tic about us­ing limited trans­porta­tion dol­lars for the project when the state had so many other press­ing needs.

Last May, the Leg­is­la­ture passed, and Gov. Ron DeSan­tis signed into law, Se­nate Bill 7068, which once again put the Heart­land

Park­way back on the ta­ble — plus two other toll roads. The con­tro­ver­sial bill cre­ated task forces for each of the three loosely iden­ti­fied routes and pro­vided ded­i­cated fund­ing for plan­ning and con­struct­ing all three toll roads.

The pro­pos­als would re­vive the Heart­land route from Col­lier County to Polk County, ex­tend the Sun­coast Park­way from Tampa north to the Ge­or­gia bor­der, and con­tinue the Florida Turn­pike west to con­nect to the Sun­coast Park­way.

Pro­po­nents claim that these toll roads will lead to eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties, will al­le­vi­ate traf­fic con­ges­tion, and will aid in hur­ri­cane evac­u­a­tion. They also claim that they can be built in an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly man­ner.

Op­po­nents have a much dif­fer­ent view and one that I share. Who is go­ing to use these roads? How will they pay for them­selves? How do you pro­tect wildlife cor­ri­dors? How do we pro­tect our wet­lands that serve as fil­ters for clean wa­ter? Will land barons ul­ti­mately de­cide where the roads will go? And what hap­pens to pri­vate prop­erty own­ers who don’t want the roads to go through their prop­erty?

While the con­cept might be wor­thy of study, the leg­is­la­tion goes too far. It forces the roads to be built, it sets an un­re­al­is­tic study pe­riod of just one year, it di­verts money from gen­eral rev­enue, and it forces con­struc­tion to be­gin on all three in 2022 and be fin­ished by 2030. It also de­pends on is­su­ing bonds for con­struc­tion and land ac­qui­si­tion, cre­at­ing much more debt. We have no way of know­ing the fi­nal cost.

Is this our most press­ing trans­porta­tion in­fra­struc­ture need? I don’t think so.

Op­po­nents don’t feel like there was an op­por­tu­nity for much pub­lic in­put and that the leg­is­la­tion cre­at­ing these toll roads — known as the Multi-Use Cor­ri­dors of Re­gional Eco­nomic Sig­nif­i­cance — was crammed through. They or­ga­nized more than 50 non­profit and pri­vate en­ti­ties into the No Roads to Ruin Coali­tion.

Even task force mem­bers are ex­press­ing doubt and con­cern about the vi­a­bil­ity of the projects but are be­ing told: It’s go­ing to hap­pen and we’re past the point of “if.” Florid­i­ans need to get in­formed and weigh in be­fore ir­repara­ble dam­age is done.

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