Florida toll road reports get mixed reviews

Reports sent Thursday to state lawmakers about three controversial toll-road projects point to a need for a deeper dive into the future traffic needs of the state.

The reports, which came after more than a year of work by task forces, drew a wide range of reactions from environmental groups that have opposed the projects.

Meanwhile, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which has backed the plans pushed by outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called the task-force process “a new way of deliberately planning for the population increases we know we are going to have.”

Lawmakers last year approved moving forward with the projects, which would be multi-use corridors that include toll roads. The projects would extend the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County near the Georgia border, extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway and create a new road linking Polk and Collier counties.

The 2019 law doesn’t require further action by the Legislature on the reports. But Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for the Senate president’s office, said Friday in an email there is anticipation that senators will review the recommendations when committee meetings begin in January in advance of the 2021 legislative session.

Task forces were created to review each project and offered separate reports. They suggested lawmakers direct the Department of Transportation to further determine if the roads would reduce congestion on Interstate 75; establish how the roads would be used for disaster evacuations and response; consider the economic pluses and minuses in shifting traffic into new rural regions; work with local governments so utility and broadband expansions meet existing policies about urban sprawl; and protect environmentally sensitive resources such as springs, wetlands, and floodplains in support of habitat conservation and water quality.

“The traffic analysis should also consider potential changes in travel demand related to the state’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and potential long-term changes in travel behavior, such as greater propensity for working from home and increased home delivery of goods and services,” the report from the Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force said.

A similar sentiment was suggested by the other task forces that worked on the Suncoast Parkway extension and the new road.

The recommendations for what is known as the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, which would link Collier and Polk counties, include the need to address habitat for endangered Florida panthers.

Backed by groups such as the Florida Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association, the roads have been promoted as bringing economic opportunity, along with utilities including broadband, to rural communities.

“Our interstate and turnpike system was designed for the Florida of the 1960s,” said Christopher Emmanuel, a Florida Chamber policy director and a member of the Suncoast Connector Task Force, which worked on the Suncoast Parkway extension. “Florida has gotten a lot bigger and a lot more complicated.”

The reports drew a quick rebuke from a coalition of nearly 100 conservation groups and businesses that contend the review process has been flawed, favoring special interests over the needs of Floridians.

“Spending any more time or resources on M-CORES (Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, as the projects are dubbed) comes at the expense of completing a backlog of water quality and transportation infrastructure upgrades that address current needs,” the No Roads to Ruin Coalition said in a news release. “Investing in outdated transportation and urban sprawl development models is an irresponsible approach for a state on the front lines of climate change. Florida’s rapidly growing population depends on the environmental and agricultural resources that will be destroyed if these roads are built.”

Among the coalition members are Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, Speak Up Wekiva!, the League of Women Voters of Florida, Friends of the Everglades, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Florida Springs Council and Florida Conservation Voters.

Meanwhile, Audubon Florida stressed positives from the recommendations, such as calling for further study on the need for the roads.

“The task forces have protected Florida’s natural areas and rural lands from what could have been a disaster,” Audubon Florida Director of Advocacy Charles Lee, a member of the Suncoast Connector and Northern Turnpike task forces, said in a statement. “In effect, the task force recommendations have directed (the Florida Department of Transportation) to use rigorous criteria in considering any road expansions, declared that there is not any immediate need for these corridors, and rejected the rush to build projects that seemed to fuel the original 2019 legislation.”

Each task force was made up of about 40 people, including state and local officials, environmentalists, representatives of agricultural interests, transportation planners, members of business groups and educators.

Among the environmental groups on the task forces were Audubon, 1000 Friends of Florida, the Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife. Representatives on the task forces also came from the Florida Trucking Association, Florida Internet & Television, the Florida Farm Bureau, Enterprise Florida, North Florida Community College, Florida Gateway College, Florida SouthWestern State College, Polk State College, the College of Central Florida and Lake-Sumter State College.

Vivian Young, communications director for 1000 Friends of Florida, told members in an email Friday the recommendations fall short.

“The recommendations do not do enough to stop the toll roads, if they are built, from fueling low-density residential and commercial development --- urban sprawl --- that would ruin this unspoiled part of Florida,” Young wrote.

Audubon, however, was heartened by a series of issues in the reports, including recommendations of additional economic and traffic-projection studies and proposals to first improve existing roads or potentially co-locate toll lanes within or adjacent to existing roads. Also, recommendations said the start of construction should be delayed beyond January 2023.

Most important, the recommendations show there isn’t a consensus about building “greenfield” turnpikes through the study areas, Audubon said. Greenfield projects would go through areas where roads don’t currently exist.

“This is (the) public process working as it should, with stakeholder involvement and evaluation of need and cost to taxpayers driving decisions,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell said in a statement.

Legislation signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis eventually would dedicate up to $101.7 million a year for the roads and accompanying projects that, without any delay in planning, design and construction, are expected to be completed by 2030.