Toll road projects, including Polk-Collier corridor, gets kick-start in House

Author: News Service of Florida and Anika Henanger
Published: Updated:
Roadway sign blocks off entrance. (WINK News photo)
Roadway sign blocks off entrance. (WINK News photo)

The Florida House started moving forward Thursday with a proposal that could lead to three major toll-road projects, a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano.

The House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee voted 9-3 to support a bill (PCB TTA 19-02) that would set aside $45 million next fiscal year and establish separate task forces to study the economic and environmental impacts of each road project.

Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City, said taking up the measure didn’t involve any trade of priorities among House and Senate leaders. He said the House could have considered the proposal earlier in the legislative session but was awaiting the numerous parts to come together.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on,” Trumbull said after the meeting. “We’re creating three different task forces. There’s a lot of money associated with it. You’re essentially adding a significant amount of roads to the state of Florida. So, it just takes a lot of time to do some vetting.”

The House proposal is identical to a measure (SB 7068) that awaits an appearance before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The proposal would extend the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area north to the Georgia border, extend the Florida Turnpike west to hook up with the Suncoast Parkway and build a new transportation corridor from Polk County to Collier County.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, has said the roads would 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.

Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens, voted against the proposal, in part raising concerns that earmarking money before the roads are approved could “starve” other state needs.

“If it’s only a study, why are we already putting in revenue?” Willhite said. “I don’t think we need that much money to create a commission to do a study. Those are usually much less than that, I would hope.”

The funding would grow from $45 million next fiscal year 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.

The task forces would have to complete their work by June 30, 2020, with the proposal calling for construction to begin by the end of 2022 and the roads to open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030.

Watson, who questioned whether the potential road layouts would be adequate for emergency evacuations, noted the proposal “does nothing for my district.”

However, Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said he’s willing to study the projects, hoping the task forces look at the potential for sprawl, a concern of environmental groups.

“These might be the three worst ideas we’ve heard,” Geller said. “They might be totally terrible roadways. I don’t know. And I don’t think any of us really know until somebody studies them.”

Trumbull said he’s willing to entertain expanded roles of the task forces, noting there is already a directive to look at panther and other wildlife crossings along the route between Polk and Collier counties.

“That’s why the task force makes a lot of sense, we have to make sure we’re putting as much of a concerned look and view on these things as possible,” Trumbull said.

Critics, such as Sierra Club Florida, Friends of the Everglades and the Florida Conservation Voters maintain the potential impacts of growth on rural communities should be addressed before the roads are approved.

“There is no congestion where these corridors are proposed,” said David Cullen, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. “It is entirely possible that rather than improving the economies of the communities that this is ostensibly designed to take care of, it will further isolate them, because it will reroute traffic around these communities.”

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