Opposition forms against three new Florida toll roads

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A coalition has formed to oppose a plan to build three bond-financed toll roads that would cut through some of Florida’s most pristine and undeveloped areas.

Speakers at the state capitol building in Tallahassee Thursday said they have formed the “No Roads to Ruin Coalition” of 55 organizations and businesses to begin a statewide campaign devoted to stopping the construction of 330 miles of new toll roads, a project championed by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7068 in May, requiring the Florida Department of Transportation to create task forces to conduct studies to determine the exact routes and costs. Those task forces have been appointed, although some members in the groups have questioned the need for the roads.

“We are building a large, diverse coalition that will take a very hard line against these roads to ruin until they are stopped in their tracks,” said Ryan Smart, executive director of the Florida Springs Council. “The task force process is nothing more than a sham.

“The Florida Legislature may think that highway interchanges, fast food, and sprawl equals progress but the communities in the path of these roads have different values and deserved to be heard and served,” he added.

The projects constitute the state’s largest new road building project in decades, in addition to one of the largest bond financing programs approved by lawmakers in years. The three toll roads would be part of the Florida Turnpike Enterprise system.

The coalition announced its campaign on Thursday to coincide with the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s one-day Transportation, Growth & Infrastructure Summit in Hollywood, on the state's Atlantic coast.

The summit included a session on the toll road project, which has been dubbed M-CORES, for Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance Program.

Chamber President Mark Wilson said the corridors “will play an important role in connecting urban and rural communities and supporting local economies,” language similar to that used by Galvano during the legislative session to generate support for the bill.

“As Florida prepares to add 4.5 million more residents and three million more drivers by 2030, Florida must approach the changes ahead with smart growth, innovation and long-term planning to ensure Florida’s economy continues to thrive,” Wilson said.

The chamber and various transportation companies and builders were the main backers of Galvano’s initiative.

Environmental organizations have warned that the roads, particularly one that will slice through the rural heartland of the state 150 miles from Lakeland to Naples, will threaten the environment and Florida’s unique animal species.

“One of the leading threats to wildlife in Florida is the fragmentation of habitat,” said Peter Kleinhenz, president of the Apalachee Audubon Society. “The toll roads, by definition, will do just that.”

Katrina Shadix, executive director of Bear Warriors United said, “Vehicle strikes are the leading cause of death for Florida black bears and the nearly extinct Florida Panther.

“If the three tolls rolls are built, it will have devastating impacts on all wildlife species and may push our iconic Florida black bear back on the state's endangered and threatened species list, as it was from 1974 to 2012,” she said.

The other two toll roads would extend the existing 60-mile-long tolled Suncoast Parkway, which runs from Hillsborough County to Citrus County on the west coast and has never met revenue projections, in two directions: 150 miles north to the Georgia state line, and 40 miles to the east linking it with Interstate 75.

When DeSantis signed SB 7068, he made assurances to those concerned about the projects.

“These infrastructure improvements will be built with great sensitivity toward the protection of the environment and there are mechanisms within the legislation that help ensure that occurs,” DeSantis said.

The bill requires the task forces for each corridor to issue written reports on their planning efforts by Oct. 1, 2020.

The bill also states that “to the maximum extent feasible,” construction of the projects must begin no later than Dec. 31, 2022, and that the roads should be open to traffic no later than Dec. 31, 2030.

Lawmakers passed the toll road bill in the same session during which they passed a bill to undercut the toll-setting authority of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, an action that has led to litigation and multiple rating downgrades of the authority's toll revenue bonds.

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Toll revenue bonds Transportation industry Ron DeSantis Florida Department of Transportation Florida Department of Transportation Financing Corp State of Florida Florida