Rural roads tussle takes its toll

A good overview of a bad idea, looking at the three toll roads proposed by the Legislature last year to an unenthusiastic response. Unwanted development, habitat and rural land destruction, a taxpayer boondoggle — this one has all the trappings of a Florida fiasco — so we urge you to take action against this plan whenever the call comes out to contact lawmakers or attend hearings.

Originally published by Chad Gillis in the News-Press on Feb. 20, 2020

Hundreds of miles of roads without a home are being planned for rural swaths of Florida, and they will open up green forests and farmlands to uncontrolled growth and urbanization, critics say. 

These three proposed toll roads, they say, will destroy thousands of acres of the Sunshine State’s most pristine lands, expand development into relatively untouched areas and change the economies of small towns and communities throughout much of the state.

But backers, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Trucking Association, say the roads will boost local economies, bring broadband to areas that are lacking and help take congestion off other major travel corridors, especially important when hurricanes threaten the state. 

The roads were approved late in the 2019 legislative session — pushed by legislators and some pro-growth groups. 

State transportation planners don’t yet know exactly where the roads will be built, only generalized areas like connecting Polk to Collier County to create a more efficient corridor between the Orlando and Naples areas. 

A second road will traverse from north of the Tampa area to Georgia (which was surprised by the plan), and a third will connect the existing Florida Turnpike to the Tampa area extension. 

Opponents say the roads are not needed, that some property owners want the public to pay for roads and services to rural lands so developers and landowners can make larger profits. 

 “This is one of the worst pieces of sausage that came out of the grinder in (the 2019) session,” said Mark Ferrulo with Progress Florida. “This is the roads-to-ruin toll road plan and it’s one of the worst infrastructure ideas since the Cross Florida Barge fiasco, or the Everglades Jetport scheme.” 

The Cross Florida Barge Canal was a proposed plan to cut a canal from just north of Crystal River along the Gulf of Mexico and connect it to the St. Johns River, which flows through central Florida and connects to Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean. It was first proposed in the 1800s, according to state historic records, and eventually died in the 1970s after several federal reports said the canal was too expensive and unrealistic. Congress eventually de-authorized the project in 1990. 

Further south, the Everglades Jetport was proposed to be the largest international airport in the world in what’s left of the historic heart Everglades. 

The idea was hatched in 1960s, with proponents saying it would be needed for supersonic travel. 

Scientists reviewed the project and said it would destroy parts of Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park, which sits just six miles south of the airstrip. 

A landing strip was built just north of U.S. 41 in eastern Collier but the larger airport and infrastructure were never constructed.

But those projects were proposed decades ago, before many realized that chopping up Florida’s wetlands and paving over them is bad for the environment and can help lead to some of the crippling water conditions the state has experienced in recent years. 

Toll roads will hurt wildlife, water quality, some say

Florida’s known for its fragile environment. 

The state was once home to red wolves, the South Florida rainbow snake and even Caribbean monk seals. Panthers and several other species have been driven to the brink of extinction.

Many of the state’s prized critters are threatened or endangered, and some of those animals are becoming more rare because of habitat loss, scientists say. 

“I think the elephant in the room if there is one is the way this process came about,” said Elizabeth Fleming, with Defenders of Wildlife, at a public meeting in Lakeland. “Generally (the Florida Department of Transportation, or DOT) does a feasibility analysis or a need is determined. And this was not taken that way and now we’re all left with this. This is a very unconventional way to build and finance a road.” 

Others are clamoring for more information, and for the roads to actually be drawn on a map so they can be scrutinized by the public before final approval, which is expected later this year. 

“The one thing I’m certain I’d like to avoid is construction of new roads,” said Shannon Estenoz, with the Everglades Foundation, who is also a member of a task force about the roads. “I don’t have enough information because we don’t even have lines on a map.” 

Aliki Moncrief with Florida Conservation Voters said the proposed roads are a classic case of Florida’s bygone mistakes, a hint back to poor planning that has led to modern water pollution, traffic congestion and urban sprawl. 

“It’s a move straight out of the 1940s and ‘50s, and if you think about the billions of dollars to benefit a handful of developers and compare that to the failing infrastructure we have around the state, It makes no sense to build these roads to nowhere,” Moncrief said. “Folks who want these roads to be built are talking about it as if it’s a done deal but I actually don’t think it is.” 

Proposed rural toll roads prompt lots of concerns and little support. Julie Wraithmell, executive director Audubon Florida, said the roads will cut through lands that recharge drinking water aquifers, provide green space for the public and habitat for dozens of protected plants and animals. 

“Florida goes through these cycles where we’ve talked about these roads for years,” Wraithmell said. “Several of these routes have been explored and they’re back for discussion again. Just as in times past, it’s important that this discussion include the real impact on Florida, not the just economic impact they’re touted for but also the impact on the environment as well as our ability to protect water and recharge aquifers.” 

Economic impact of the proposed highways is a mixed bag

One of the selling points proponents of the toll roads have used recently is that the roads will bring new economic benefits to rural communities, areas that don’t see the tourism and real estate areas that coastal areas enjoy. 

Will the new toll roads lead to economic ruin or prosperity? There are strong arguments on both sides.

There’s no doubt the road construction — and the roads themselves — will create jobs. Some supporters in rural communities would welcome almost any new jobs the roads can generate.

There are opponents, however, who argue the roads won’t create the right jobs in the right places — and may actually do more harm than good to the rural communities they’re supposed to help. 

Cris Costello, an organizing manager for the Sierra Club and a leader with the No Roads to Ruin Coalition, said the new roads could result in sprawl, which is “certainly economic activity” that will benefit developers, builders and Realtors, but it would come at a huge cost to the environment. 

Another possible outcome? With the new limited access roads, rural communities could be bypassed, drained of their traffic and economic activity, Costello said. For example, many people in Southwest Florida take U.S. 17 to get to the Orlando area, going through towns such as Arcadia, Wauchula and Bowling Green.

“There is no promise of an economic boom with a toll road,” she said. “There just isn’t. We can’t promise it.” 

David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest supporters of the toll roads, said they’re desperately needed to support Florida’s growth — and without them growth could be stymied. 

“With a state like Florida, growing as fast as we are, we have to make investments in infrastructure, or we are going to have frustrated citizens, frustrated visitors, and in many ways harm our opportunities for economic growth,” he said. 

Roads, he argues, are often one of the best drivers of economic growth. 

Thomas Hawkins, with 1,000 Friends of Florida, is a task force member and he disagrees. The roads, he said, are simply a way of circumventing the DOT planning process and the public. 

“In recent history, FDOT has grossly overestimated how many people would use new roads, and the existing Suncoast road is a great example of that,” Hawkins said. “Those roads incredibly under-perform from a financial perspective.” 

Toll roads could lead to more urban sprawl, some fear

The roads have also sparked concern about development reaching into some of Florida’s last untouched lands. 

Paving a new road along the Big Bend area will disrupt aquifer recharge and sever wildlife habitat. 

A road from Polk to Collier will cut through the heart of panther breeding and hunting grounds. 

Tens of thousands of acres in eastern Collier are part of the National Park Service or are designated as preserve habitat for the panther and all the species that live in within its range.

But Ken Armstrong with the Florida Trucking Association said new roads don’t automatically mean sprawl or economic growth. 

“We may think that putting the road here is going to increase economic development and it’s going to increase this, but the population moves in ways sometimes we can’t predict,” Armstrong said. “We know that we can take traffic off I-75 and we know we can do some hurricane evacuation route. (You can’t) predict that it’s automatically going to cause economic development or population increase.”

Former state representative Matt Caldwell, a Republican from North Fort Myers, is a task force member and said the roads could be a good idea for Floridians if the routes use rural highways and already established rights of way. 

Building along current highway routes could help with congestion, provide better hurricane evacuation routes and bring broadband internet to regions that don’t currently have it and other services, he said. 

“Let’s not have new gas stations and Walmarts that drain downtown Sebring,” Caldwell said. “And if it’s going to include Collier County there’s some obvious things that jump out,” Caldwell said. “If you want to build it between (Interstate) 75 and Lake Trafford, you’ll have to deal with conservation land there. I’m not saying it’s a good or bad idea but obviously (County Road) 951 is a road that’s been proposed for (rural Collier) that’s been controversial.” 

Others say the roads could be built, but that precautions need to be in place to ensure small towns and rural communities won’t face vehicular melees.  

Jefferson County commissioner Betsy Barfield said placing the toll roads in existing rights of way, like Highway 19 along the Big Bend area of Florida, would make sense, but that precautions need to be taken to protect small communities from higher traffic volumes. 

“If we collocate, how in the world are we going to keep our small towns viable but not have those 18 wheelers come around the courthouse,” Barfield said rhetorically. “I think there’s a way to do that. Have a bypass that restricts commercial traffic.” 

One thing is certain: Florida’s population is only going to grow over the next several decades.

People are coming to the Sunshine State regardless of climate change, urban sprawl, poor water quality and grinding traffic.

Millions will move here in the next few years alone, adding to the 21 million already here, and they’re going to need roads to drive on and communities in which to live. 

“We’ve got about 900 Floridians that move here every single day,” said Christopher Emmanuel, with the Florida Chamber. “That’s roughly a city the size of Orlando that comes to the state every single year for the next 11 years. To people who wonder if they’re still going to come, I believe they will.”

Ferrulo, the environmentalist, called the corridors one of most dreadful plans in Florida’s history. 

“There was a push called the Heartland Parkway (under former Gov. Jeb Bush’s administration) and after all the engineering and looking at the finances and economic viability of it, it was defeated,” Ferrulo said.

The Heartland Parkway was a proposed road from Polk to Collier county that’s been shot down several times over the past few decades, by the Department of Transportation and the Charlie Crist and Rick Scott administrations. 

Ferrulo said the proposed corridors are nothing but another attempt to circumvent DOT, the public and the planning process. And the one that ends in Collier is a haunting blast from the past.

“Now it’s been brought back to life,” he said. “It’s the toll road that wouldn’t die.”

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