Groups gear up to fight toll road projects

Critics of toll-road projects in rural areas from Collier County to the Georgia state line have combined efforts to try to halt plans for the new pavement.

Members of the No Roads to Ruin Coalition held a news conference Thursday at the Capitol and outlined plans to lobby lawmakers and build opposition to the three multi-use corridors, which are a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano and are being reviewed by state task forces.

“We’re not saying no to progress, we’re just trying to define progress in a different way that more reflects what the communities on the ground want,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council.

The coalition says it has more than 50 organizations and businesses, from the Center for Biological Diversity, Bear Warriors United and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to the Farmworker Association of Florida, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Physicians for Social Responsibility. It argues the roads will result in sprawling development and environmental degradation and waste billions of tax dollars rather than assisting the state’s rapidly growing population.

Smart said the state should repair existing roads and bridges, along with establishing alternative modes of transportation such as high-speed rail, which would put less stress on the environment and people living in rural communities.

“While the Florida Legislature may think that highway interchanges, fast-food chains and suburban sprawl equals progress, the communities in the path of these roads have different values and must be heard,” Smart said.

Galvano, R-Bradenton made a priority of the projects during the 2019 legislative session and has received backing from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.

Craig Fugate, a former director of the state Division of Emergency Management who is part of a "Connecting Florida" coalition that supports the projects, said currrent and future infrastructure needs have to be taken into account as nearly 1,000 people move each day to Florida.

“For years, there has a been a struggle between some environmental groups and those who support growth in Florida. But, the reality is we can and must be able to balance both,” Fugate, who also is a former Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, said in a statement Thursday.

The projects would expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to Jefferson County at the northern end of Florida; extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and add a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.

Galvano has described the roads as a “new approach” in planning the state’s future, reducing congestion, providing alternate hurricane evacuation routes and offering a way to “revitalize” rural communities through the expansion of broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.

Speaking to reporters in October at an event hosted by the Associated Press, Galvano challenged lawmakers to focus on needed water, sewer and broadband infrastructure as part of the road planning.

“We have to live in a state and have to plan in the state for the future. We cannot continue just to remediate. We have to anticipate the future needs of this state,” Galvano said.

“With the numbers that we have here in the state of Florida, the population growth, and the difficulties that we experienced during Hurricane Irma with the evacuations, these corridors need to exist,” he added, referring to a massive 2017 hurricane.

The current timeline is for construction to begin by the end of 2022, with the roads open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030.

Lawmakers designated $45 million toward work on the projects in the current year, with annual funding expected to grow to $140 million. However, $90 million expected to further the road planning next fiscal year, along with all future funding, must be approved annually by the Legislature.

That requirement of annual funding is what drives hope for opponents.

Lindsay Cross of the Florida Conservation Voters called the road planning “a very archaic way of developing, where you are doing this green fill development through essentially these pristine natural areas and ag lands.”

“It does not address our current infrastructure needs, but rather creates a taxpayer-funded scheme to pave over and pollute what is best about our state; our natural beauty, our freshwater resources and our cultural heritage,” Cross added.

The state’s Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force, which is working on the plans from Polk County to Collier County, will meet Monday in LaBelle and will host a town hall Dec. 12 in Naples.

The Suncoast Connector Task Force, which is working on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway, will meet Dec. 17 in Perry, while the Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force, which is working on the turnpike extension, will meet Dec. 18 in Ocala.