Legislators remind citizens that nothing
is final until toll road pavement is poured
ECB Publishing, Inc.
The toll road that state lawmakers approved in the last session to cross Jefferson County was the dominant topic of discussion at the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation hearing last week.
Opponents of the project, who wore red as a symbol of their opposition, crowded the courthouse annex on Wednesday evening, Oct. 2 , with many of the attendees having to stand outside once the room reached capacity.
The large turnout did not go unremarked by the two visiting legislators.
“This is a huge crowd; it's exciting,” said Representative Jason Shoaf, adding that this was his first go-round at such hearings the crowd size, given that a like hearing in an adjacent county earier had attracted a mere 10 people.
“It's nice to see you all come to see me out,” quipped Senator Bill Montford in his turn, noting that these would be his last delegation hearings, as he is being term-limited from office. “I'm glad to see so many people show up to tell me what a great job I've done.”
The initial levity aside, however, the rest of the hearing was serious minded. The Jefferson Legislative Committee, which lobbies the Legislature on behalf of the community, as well as several of the constitutional officers, variously welcomed Shoaf, thanked Montford for his long service, and touched on the legislative priorities of the city, county and school district for the coming legislative session.
Which priorities include funding requests for road improvement projects, the A-Building, an agricultural center, water main upgrades, the old high-school auditorium and the last mile of internet connectivity.
The major topic of interest, however, was the proposed toll road, which is supposed to extend from it present terminus in Citrus County and proceed northward to Jefferson County and beyond.
Curtis “Curt” Kiser, a former Florida legislator who by his own telling was responsible for the creation of the SunCoast Parkway – the very toll road that is slated to cross Jefferson County – said that in his day it was never envisioned that the road would go farther north than Yankeetown in Levy County.
“When the Senate President came up with this idea (to extend it to Jefferson and beyond), it was totally new,” Kiser said, referring to Senate President Bill Galvino.
That said, Kiser agreed with Jefferson County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield's assessment that the road would be built one way or another.
“There are too many things already in place to stop it,” Kiser said. “If you try to fight the whole thing, the people (pushing for construction of the road) won't listen to you.”
Instead, he said, the fight should focus on how the road was constructed and how far north it was extended.
Kiser's, however, was a minority voice in the room, compared with those who advocated for a full rejection of the idea, which views the audience generally applauded.
Michele Arceneaux, of Concerned Citizens Committee of Jefferson County (CCCJC), was the first to speak against the project.
“I think we need to fight the toll road,” she said, citing a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) study that reportedly found that bypasses killed small towns. She quoted a projected 43-percent drop in downtown traffic if the toll road were built.
“If we have a 43-percent decrease in traffic, downtown Monticello will be devastated,” Arceneaux said.
Limited access highways didn't bring in new businesses, she said. Instead, they only created gas stations and convenience stores, she said, referring to the I-10 interchanges as examples.
Jack Carswell, who traces his Jefferson County lineage to the early 1800s, waxed poetic about the county's cultural, ecological and historical assets, calling it a “Florida jewel,” and declaring its residents blessed with an enviable quality of life and independent spirit.
“I don't care about a toll road,” Carswell said. “And when it's said that we don't have a choice, we don't take kindly to that kind of talk here. Our fear is that the toll road will endanger our pristine nature and the quality of life that we enjoy. The idea that we're going to be like Central Florida and be blessed with more McDonalds is not a good idea. Not every region has to mimic every other region. It's not our obligation.”
He spoke at length of having moved to California when he was young and having experienced the ups and downs of that state's development, which at times he found overrated. Moreover, he said, it was difficult to see how a toll road would create jobs or bring economic development here.
“Abundant development is antithetical to what the old and new residents here enjoy and expect,” Carswell said.
Doug Darling, president of Citizens for Responsible Government of Jefferson County (CRGJC), likewise disagreed that the toll road couldn't be stopped.
“The toll road was not ordained by God,” Darling said. “It was a law made by men and women.”
Why, he wondered, had Jefferson County alone and specifically been named in the legislation as the terminus for the toll road, suggesting that the choice was likely not accidental, given that the area lacked representation in the House at the time. He was referring to Halsey Beshear's departure from the Legislature, and the subsequent a special election to fill his vacant seat.
“It takes all options away from the FDOT,” Darling said of the naming of Jefferson County as the terminus. “Was if there was a better route? The FDOT's hands are tied because Jefferson County is named. We need to put commonsense into the legislation so that it doesn't destroy Jefferson County.”
Byron Arceneaux offered that the project would not only not benefit Jefferson County, but it stood to jeopardize solar farms and other opportunities that were in the works for the area.
“I'm a civil engineer,” Arceneaux said. “I strive on development. But development shouldn't be artificial. It should be organic, natural and slow. If you jam a toll road here, it becomes a development for the rest of Florida. My concern is that north Florida is becoming a service territory for the rest of Florida but not for our benefit.”
Tom Randall, a local merchant who described himself as being well versed in the legislative process from his years working in the capitol, also expressed opposition to the toll road. He offered that 40 to 50 percent of the downtown businesses' clientele consisted of out-of-county or out-of-state license tags. If the toll road came, he said, it would not only destroy these businesses but also the quality of life that people here were trying to create.
Justin Johnson, of Johnston's Barber Shop, said he hadn't planned to speak, but felt compelled to do so for the sake of his two young daughters, whose future quality of life the road would stood to be destroyed. Having moved here from Bainbridge, Ga., where his family's business had been ruined by the recession and their lives changed, he didn't want the toll road to do the same here, he said.
“We don't want it and we don't need it,” Johnson said. “Send it to Madison if they want it. The last five year, the downtown has gotten a spark. We don't want it to backslide.”
Bill Brookes peppered his comments with defiance and bits of local history. He reminded the legislators and audience of the Texaco and Nestle's projects, which this community had successfully fought and defeated.
“When someone tells us it's a done deal, we're going to say, 'here, hold me beer,'” Brookes said. “This is America. You don't tell us that we don't have a choice. We may not win, but you'll know you've been in a fight. This is a road to nowhere. This is another South Florida boondoggle. It's going to get fought, folks.”
Mike Willis was another who described himself as a longtime county residents with family roots dating as far back as Carswell's.
“We're told there's nothing we can do about it, but the Constitution gives us the right to make changes,” Willis said. “We (Jefferson County) run from Georgia to the Gulf. We're happy to be a bedroom for Leon County. But we're not going to be transformed into an industrial junkyard for the rest of the state...We don't have a lot of people in Jefferson County, but we can make a lot of noise.”
He asked Montford and Shoaf to work in the next session to remove Jefferson County's name from the legislation so as to allow the FDOT other options.
“Terminus means the end,” Willis said. “And this is just the beginning, guys.”
Montford's response was to encourage the citizens to remain organized and continue to press their case about the project's impact on the community's quality of life. He urged them also to contact as many as possible of the state's other senators and representatives and make the case directly to them.
“The concern you have about it being a done deal, it's still too early in the process,” Montford said. “Your testimony has been convincing. There are a tremendous number of questions that we have about this, like who gains financially? Who loses? I urge you to stay involved.”
Shoaf likewise agreed that it was too early in the proces to write off the project as a done deal.
“I have heard a lot about it during the last three months,” he said. “I have to agree that there's nothing done until the pavement is poured. There was a tremendous force that pushed this through last year. But it's far too early. And when you have a county next door that wants it, I can't imagine why you wouldn't want to put it there. But I want to know what your officials think. This is not my hometown, so I depend on your feedback and that of the local officials.”