As this recent editorial clearly states, the toll-road boondoggle diverts limited state funds for a project no one (except the special interests) wants.
Originally published by the USA Today Network on July 6, 2020
Now is not the time for roads to nowhere
USA TODAY Network-Florida
Before, during and — someday, we hope — after the COVID-19 pandemic, Florida’s most challenging unmet need remains the same: attainable workforce housing.
This was supposed to be the golden year when the state’s Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund would be spared a legislative raid on its resources, which are collected from real estate transactions. A generous $340 million was specifically allocated to the construction of lower-cost housing in Florida. Not enough, but certainly an advance.
Then came the coronavirus retreat: When Gov. Ron DeSantis trimmed the Legislature’s budget by $1 billion on June 29, in a preliminary nod to new realities, he tucked $225 million back into the fund. The fate of that money is undetermined, probably until the Legislature reconvenes to make more budget cuts, which the dominant Republican Party prefers to delay until after the November election. But one thing is certain: That $225 million won’t be out circulating in the economy, building houses for working families, anytime soon.
Contrast this cutback — which can certainly be defended — with DeSantis’ recent decision to commit more than $700 million to his dream of three fabulous new highways that will take us where almost nobody wants to go. This superfluous toll road project cannot be defended, and if ever there were a time to pack such an overweening gambit on ice, that time is now.
“A toll road to nowhere is not going to benefit anyone in 2020. It just isn’t,” Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, told the Tampa Bay Times.
Unlike the $2.1 billion in scheduled infrastructure repair projects that DeSantis has sensibly fast-tracked during a period when Florida’s traffic burden is lighter, this five-year, $738 million outlay for land buying and site engineering makes even less sense now than when the Legislature provided a pre-COVID cheering section for the concept.
Back then — not so very long ago in terms of calendar time — the price tag for the planning phase, from now through 2024, was $393 million, according to the Times. Now that number has ballooned to $988 million, which does not include even the first shovelful of concrete.
“A department spokeswoman said the people who could explain the difference were gone for the holiday weekend,” the Times story noted.
Clearly there is money to be made here — for land speculators, litigators and engineering firms. But bear in mind that the people of Florida, whose pockets are being turned inside out so they might one day travel more expeditiously from Polk to Collier County, may never see any actual pavement laid. And the estimated $117 million that is funneled into this political aspiration in 2020 alone could evaporate like exhaust fumes, when it could have gone for, say, affordable housing.
Environmental concerns about tolls roads crisscrossing rural Florida, including their hazards for panther habitats, got little traction in Tallahassee. But they might fare better in court, and could hold up such projects for years.
Even more likely: With costs already bloated and a clear estimate of the billions needed to build these roads nowhere in sight, plus a profound lack of public support, this not-great notion appears destined to suffer an ugly political death in Tallahassee.
Or so we hope.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune Editorial Board on behalf of the USA TODAY Network-Florida.