Broadband projects could be linked to Florida toll roads

Up to $5 million a year would be set aside for broadband services that would accompany controversial highway corridors planned from Southwest Florida to the Georgia border, under bills ready to go to the full House and Senate.

With little comment, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a proposal (SB 1166) that would shift broadband policy responsibilities from the Department of Management Services to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

With the shift, a new Florida Office of Broadband would be created to develop, market and promote broadband.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, also would require the Department of Transportation, starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year, to fund projects that assist in the development of broadband infrastructure within or adjacent to three proposed toll-road corridors.

A similar measure (HB 969), filed by Rep. Brad Drake, R-Eucheeanna, has cleared three committees without opposition and can be taken up by the House.

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Lawmakers last year approved a plan aimed at extending the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border, building a toll road from Polk County to Collier County and extending Florida’s Turnpike west from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway.

Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has been the key backer of the projects, has repeatedly stressed that they would involve infrastructure, such as broadband, in addition to toll roads.

About $112 million for the projects is expected to be included in the Department of Transportation’s work program next fiscal year.

Opponents of the roads have repeatedly warned the new roads would cause Broward County-style sprawl for people who want to live in small communities and will devastate already-endangered wildlife. Nobody contested the broadband proposal on Thursday.

The Department of Transportation last week released graphics indicating areas that the corridors would avoid, including spring heads, cemeteries, tribal lands, land acquired through the Florida Forever program, high-risk coastal areas, state forests and parks, wildlife refuges, airports, hospitals, prisons and military bases. For the Southwest corridor, the state said the road wouldn’t impact the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve.

“I am confident that the avoidance graphic articulates our promise to protect and preserve Florida’s environment, while also planning for the state’s inevitable future growth,” transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said in a prepared statement.

The corridors, which received first-year funding of $45 million during the 2019 session, have been promoted as providing more emergency evacuation options, along with handling the state’s expanding population.

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Annual funding is projected to reach $140 million by 2023 and to continue through 2030, totaling $1.1 billion. Critics contend the cost estimates are low.

In addition to the broadband funding, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday backed a proposal (SB 7020) to design and construct emergency staging areas as part of the state turnpike system. The bill would require the Department of Transportation to give priority consideration to placement of such staging areas in counties with populations of 200,000 or less in which the proposed toll roads are located.