Vague, multi-billion-dollar plan to build new toll roads across Florida passes Legislature

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Despite a plea from one state representative that the Legislature is “just handing over a blank check,” lawmakers approved a multi-billion-dollar toll road plan Wednesday and sent the measure to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval or veto.

The massive toll road plan (SB 7068)– which critics complained will not go back before the Legislature for approval again before planned construction in 2022 – passed 76-36. Eight representatives did not vote.

“Let’s not greenlight a project without having the facts,” Rep. Bobby Dubose, a Democrat who represents the Fort Lauderdale area, said in fighting the proposal. “I cannot recall a project that we have given such financial latitude in the past. We are essentially just handing over a blank check.”

It is Florida’s largest state highway construction project since the 1950s – a toll road network that would stretch across the state. Only broad corridors, and not specifics, were available for legislators or the public to review. Republicans rejected attempts by Democrats to give locals veto power over where the road corridors would go and resisted attempts to give the broad plan more scrutiny by elected officials. It was a top priority for Republican Florida Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, and passed the state Senate 37-1 last week with no debate.

Ninety conservation organizations, civic groups, and businesses representing the Panhandle to the Keys sent a letter to DeSantis urging him to veto the measure. Predictably, Galvano’s toll road plan has support from the state’s developers and road builders.

As the Phoenix earlier reported, one main toll road route, through North Central Florida, would benefit Florida’s richest man,  Thomas Peterffy. Peterffy is a Republican donor who gave hundreds of thousands to Gov. Ron DeSantis. He has a mansion on Palm Beach’s Billionaire’s Row and is a member of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club.

Peterffy owns tens of thousands of acres of already master-planned land in North-Central Florida. Critics have dubbed the toll road plan “Billionaire Boulevard.” Peterffy claimed in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that he knows nothing about the planned highway corridor through his master-planned acreage.

Again, the exact corridor for the toll roads isn’t yet mapped out for the public. But, generally, the plan calls for:

– A “Suncoast Connector” highway to extend the Suncoast Parkway from north of Tampa up to North Florida’s Jefferson County, along the Georgia border.

– A highway to link Polk County to Collier County, the “Southwest Central Florida Corridor.”

– A “Northern Turnpike connector” to extend the Florida Turnpike northwest from I-75 in Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway on the state’s west coast.

The legislation creates task forces made up of state and local officials to plan the corridors over the next year. It envisions construction starting in 2022 and the roads open by 2030. The state Department of Transportation would be in charge, and would coordinate with other state agencies, including those that oversee wildlife and the environment.

The plan calls for $45 million next year, $90 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, about $135 million the year after that and a recurring amount of $140 million starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year. The money would be spent on planning the massive project; billions more would be bonded to fund the toll roads.

“This is why Floridians are so cynical about government,” said Jonathan Webber, deputy director for Florida Conservation Voters. “Legislative leaders let billionaire landowners and high-powered lobbying groups treat taxpayer dollars like their personal piggy bank.”

In their letter urging a veto, 90 groups complained that massive roads in rural areas won’t do anything to ease the biggest transportation problems Florida faces: urban congestion.

“In fact, the FDOT Interstate 75 Relief Task Force recommended in 2016 that rather than new roads, a better approach was expanding the vehicle capacity of the interstate and connecting highways,” the letter said.

Last month, Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone called the toll road bill “the worst environmental bill that I have seen in 20 years.”

Other previous Phoenix coverage includes Ignoring pleas for more scrutiny and local control, Republicans advance multi-billion dollar toll road plan; Groups blast Legislature’s proposed new toll road plan as “worst ever” bill; and Who needs trees? We want toll roads!

Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.

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