Questions remain on Florida toll road projects

With a mid-November deadline looming, task forces have been unable to determine if there is a need for three controversial toll-road projects they have been reviewing for more than a year.

In draft reports released Tuesday by the Florida Department of Transportation, the task forces said --- in somewhat similar language --- they couldn’t reach conclusions on specific needs for the roads because of the information available and displayed a preference for first improving or expanding existing highways and utility corridors.

The drafts also expressed a need for the department to consider a “no-build” alternative --- as desired by environmental and conservation groups --- in future project development activities until final recommendations are made.

The three proposed projects are an extension of the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County near the Georgia border; an extension of Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway, and a new multi-use corridor linking Polk and Collier counties. State lawmakers last year approved moving forward with the projects, a priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

The legislation would eventually dedicate up to $101.7 million a year for the projects, which also involve expanding utilities and broadband services in rural areas. The task forces, which started meeting in August 2019, are each comprised of about 40 people, including local officials, environmentalists, representatives of agricultural interests, transportation planners, members of business groups, and educators.

Support for the roads has come from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council, and the Florida Trucking Association. Proponents say the roads would prepare the state for future growth and aid in disaster evacuations.

Opponents include groups such as 1000 Friends of Florida, Florida Conservation Voters, and Sierra Club Florida. They have expressed concerns about urban sprawl and threats to wildlife. Florida TaxWatch raised questions this summer about the potential cost and need for extending the Suncoast Parkway.

Projecting a cost between $4 billion and $10.5 billion, TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro urged “further analysis of the costs, benefits, and practicality of the Suncoast Connector, especially now that our state is facing unprecedented revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19.”

The task forces are expected to finalize their reports by the third week of October, with the reports due Nov. 15 to the governor and legislative leaders.