The Florida House is ready to put the state on a path toward three new or expanded toll roads in mostly rural regions, despite fears from environmental groups and Democrats about sprawling development and damage to wetlands.
With the issue a priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, the House on Tuesday set itself up to vote Wednesday on a bill (SB 7068) that would set the stage for the projects. The bill, in part, would establish task forces to study the economic and environmental impacts of the toll roads.
“We did not know we were going to have 1,000 people a day moving to the state of Florida 20 years ago, even 10 years ago probably,” said Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican leading the issue in the House. “With that, we have to be forward-thinking and make sure that as we try to get goods and services in the state or try to get people out of the state, as it relates to hurricane evacuation routes, the onus is upon us to ensure that we’re able to look at new opportunities and look at roads across our state.”
The projects would extend the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area north to the Georgia border; link the Florida Turnpike west to the Suncoast Parkway; and build a new transportation corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.
Democrats, skeptical about the proposal, asked Tuesday about environmental impacts, protections for Florida panthers and what would happen if tolls fail to meet revenue projections. Also, they asked about where traffic from the extended Suncoast Parkway would go when it reaches Georgia.
“One of the major problems the state is having in addition to overcrowding on our roads, is a water pollution issue,” said Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Davie. “We’re taking away a significant portion of the Everglades to build this (Polk to Collier) connector, which is where our clean water flows for those of us who live in Southeast and Southwest Florida.”
House Democrats failed Tuesday to make seven proposed changes to the plan, including one that would have required the results of the task-force studies to return to the Legislature.
“We need this body to be able to look at the feasibility studies, to look at the necessity and the viability and the environmental impact before making this type of decision where we are expending at least $1 billion on these projects,” said Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat who called the roads “unnecessary.”
Trumbull said the roads have been discussed since former Gov. Jeb Bush was in office, and issues such as water, congestion, hurricane evacuation, alternate transportation and wildlife impacts are expected to be addressed by the task forces.
Galvano, R-Bradenton, has championed the roads to help rural communities, address the state’s continued rapid growth, provide new hurricane-evacuation options, expand bicycle and pedestrian trails and lay the groundwork for new water and sewer lines and broadband.
Environmental groups, led by the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida, have announced plans to fight the projects, which they say would lead to sprawl, harmful wildlife impacts and water pollution.
The bill has backing from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Ports Council, the Florida Trucking Association and the Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida.
The proposal calls for spending $45 million next fiscal year, with the amount growing to $90 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, about $135 million the next year and a recurring amount of $140 million starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
Legislative budget chiefs have already agreed to set aside $45 million in next year’s budget in anticipation of the policy being approved.
As a possible sign of the maneuvering that happens at the end of each legislative session, the House took up the toll-road bill a day after the Senate approved a series of health-care measures sought by House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.
The toll-road task forces, which would feature state officials, local government and planning officials, and a few representatives from environmental groups, would have to complete their work by Oct. 1, 2020.
The proposal calls for construction to begin by the end of 2022 and the roads to open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030. The Senate backed the proposal in 37-1 vote last week.