Legal challenge looms after Florida governor approves three new toll roads

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Florida environmentalists have vowed to take legal action after the governor approved a bill they say will lead to the construction of three toll “roads to nowhere” in rural parts of the state.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7068 on Friday creating the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance Program. DeSantis said he supported the measure because it will mean building new infrastructure that will benefit residents and visitors.

The bill takes effect July 1, and requires the Florida Department of Transportation to conduct studies to determine the exact routes and costs. It also provides for the roads to be financed with bonds.

“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 Sierra Club of Florida, among dozens of groups that urged DeSantis to veto the bill, said in a statement that the legislation will lead the state to “spend billions of taxpayer dollars to build 320 miles of toll roads traversing Florida’s pristine nature coast and rural heartland.”

Frank Jackalone, the club's president, said the poorly thought out toll roads to nowhere plan is a “gift to developers who want to convert hundreds of thousands of acres of forests, wetlands, and ranches into new cities, towns and subdivisions.

“Sierra Club Florida will take every action in our power to prevent the construction of the three toll roads,” Jackalone said. “We will go to court, demand a rehearing by the Legislature, and hold elected officials accountable for voting for this ruinous plan.”

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, even though the need for them has yet to be determined.

The program was a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. While he touted it as a way to boost economic development in less prosperous rural counties, the projects were pushed by the Florida Transportation Builders Association and the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The bill requires FDOT to create a task force for each corridor to propose exact routes, evaluate environmental and land use impacts, and issue written reports on those efforts by Oct. 1, 2020.

"To the maximum extent feasible," the measure states, "construction of the projects must begin no later than Dec. 31, 2022, and be open to traffic no later than Dec. 31, 2030.

The project would finance a new 150-mile-long toll road to be built through rural counties from central Florida in Polk County to the Naples area on the southern Gulf Coast.

The existing 60-mile-long tolled Suncoast Parkway, which runs from Hillsborough County to Citrus County and has never met revenue projections, would be extended in two directions under the program: 150 miles north to the Georgia state line, and 40 miles to the east linking it with Interstate 75.

FDOT is expected to require intensive studies be done on each corridor in order to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, particularly if federal highway funds are used to purchase right of way and construct the roads. The studies will also give the public opportunities to comment.

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