Does Florida still need that trio of billion-dollar toll roads?

M-CORES projects through Florida, including toll roads. Credit: Florida Department of Transportation

Florida’s controversial new toll roads hit a potential roadblock this week.

Two of them are supposed to cut through rural Levy County, near Ocala. But Levy commissioners voted 3-2 on Tuesday to say they do not want them — primarily because of the development they would bring.

“I don’t want to see Levy County become another Tampa Bay, and that’s what’s going to happen if we don’t stand up and say no,” said Levy commissioner Lilly Rooks, who brought up the resolution.

The vote wasn’t as close as it seems. The two commissioners who voted against it said they agree with Rooks’ position, but believed the county should wait to take such a stand until later this year. The majority didn’t want to wait because they believe the governor and Legislature were rushing everything through to start construction in two years.

“The people of this county do not want this road. They have voiced their opinion. I’m here to speak for them because there’s a lot of opposition,” Commissioner Mike Joyner said.

“’No-build’ is always an option and all proposed transportation projects must ultimately meet financial and environmental feasibility,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Beth Frady said. The department “appreciates the input” from Levy County, she said.

“There’s really no strong appetite for these roads”

Florida already has more toll road miles than any other state. But with the coronavirus pandemic keeping cars and trucks parked, the state’s toll roads are producing far less revenue than they brought in last year. (DOT’s turnpike officials did not respond to a request for exact figures.)

There’s no telling when – or if — traffic will return to the level it was at before the pandemic struck, especially if the nation falls into a recession. The sudden emptiness of Florida’s once-packed roadways has raised the question: Does Florida still need that trio of billion-dollar toll roads that Gov. Ron DeSantis approved last year?

“There’s really no strong appetite for these roads,” said Charles Lee of Audubon Florida, who sits on one of the advisory groups appointed to study the toll roads.

Lee questioned whether the loss of toll revenue will make it impossible for the state to borrow enough money to build the new highways without cutting into money for maintenance of the existing toll road system.

So far the Legislature’s sole concession to the disruption caused by the pandemic is pushing back the deadline for the three advisory committees studying the roads to file their reports. Originally the deadline was Oct. 1 and now it’s Nov. 15.

Cutting straight through prime Florida panther habitat

To the head of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, former Florida DOT secretary Ananth Prasad, the coronavirus shows the need for the new toll roads is stronger than ever. He believes Florida’s financial slump, with jobless claims higher than any previous year, is only temporary.

“When this crisis is over, our state will again continue to grow in population and tourism and as such we should continue planning these corridors to address such need,” Prasad said. “The effects of this pandemic will acutely highlight the economic needs of these rural communities and the need for much needed infrastructure.”

The roadbuilders’ group, not the DOT, first proposed spending taxpayer dollars on planning the three highways, a position supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce. Both groups donated thousands of dollars to Senate President Bill Galvano’s political action committee. After meeting with them in 2019, Galvano announced that he saw a need for new three new highways.

Galvano pushed a bill through the Legislature that started the ball rolling on the three roads. One road would extend the little-used Suncoast Parkway all the way to the Georgia state line (although no one told Georgia officials, and they were surprised when a reporter informed them what was planned).

Another would link the Suncoast with the heavily traveled Florida Turnpike. The third would connect Polk County with Collier County, cutting straight through prime Florida panther habitat. That road would follow a route similar to the Heartland Parkway, a developer-powered project that was canceled by two different Republican governors.

“We need access to our rural communities” Galvano said in announcing the trio of road plans. “We need to improve access so prosperity can return there.”

Galvano does not live in a rural community. He is a Bradenton lawyer.

Coronavirus, toll roads and jobs

But the senator said the roads would do more than just pave the way for new development in places now dominated by farms, fields and forests. He said the highways would bring with them water and sewer lines to replace septic tanks, and broadband connections to the Internet where none now exists.

Because the three highways would have multiple uses, the toll road project has been tagged with an unwieldy name: Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES for short.

Despite the Levy County vote and the loss of traffic on the highways, Galvano contended Wednesday that the M-CORES roads are still worth building — even for Levy County. He said Levy is “one of the counties most underserved by fixed broadband,” which schools are now relying on to educate students.

“The fact that Floridians are isolated in their homes and reducing their visits to local brick and mortar retailers in favor of ordering products online, which must be shipped in some cases over a great distance, further highlights the need for enhancements to our statewide transportation infrastructure,” Galvano said.

To Galvano, the economic disaster caused by the pandemic is an argument for building the roads anyway — just to provide badly needed jobs for Floridians thrown out of work by the pandemic.

“As Florida moves forward from the coronavirus, economic development opportunities like M-CORES, and the jobs created both during and after construction, will be critical to our recovery,” the Republican senator said.

Raising tolls

Toll roads and bridges are supposed to pay for themselves. They’re built with borrowed money that’s then paid back using the toll receipts. But Florida has a history of building toll roads and bridges that can’t support themselves, then covering their shortfalls using the money from more successful facilities like the Florida Turnpike and the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.

The Suncoast Parkway and the Polk Parkway are two that were built based on rosy toll projections that were later downgraded to show they could not support themselves – after construction had already been approved.

The prime example of such a boondoggle is the Garcon Point Bridge in the Panhandle, which was built using false traffic projections and shaky financing. It was pushed through at the behest of a former Democratic House speaker Bolley “Bo” Johnson who had an interest in property near the bridge and waived state rules on lending the bridge taxpayer money.

On the day “Bo’s Bridge” opened in 1999, its builder had already incurred huge fines for environmental destruction (while Johnson was headed to prison for tax evasion). By 2011 it was broke.

Because the bridge owes so much money, the DOT has kept raising its toll. In February, the rate went up to $5 – the highest toll charge in the state.

Many drivers go out of their way to avoid it.