Not trying to stop the toll road

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Despite a sustained push from opponents of the proposed toll highway, the Jefferson County Commission last week resisted the pressure, narrowly voting 3-2 to forgo a resolution that sought to have the Florida Legislature remove Jefferson County as the road's stated terminus.
All the while on Thursday evening, Nov. 21, Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield continued to catch fire for her perceived preference for the project, as opponents see it. It didn't help the perception that Barfield insisted that many in the county supported the road; they just weren't as vocal in expressing their views, she said more than once.
Notably, a few individuals did speak out in support of the project. Their number, however, was miniscule, compared with the many who spoke in opposition.
Held at the main courthouse in anticipation of a large crowd, the turnout didn't disappoint, with the audience filling the large courtroom to capacity and many sporting red clothing in declaration of their opposition.
The proceeding started with the usual admonishments at such large gatherings, especially when an issue is contentious, as is the toll road. The audience was asked to behave, show proper respect and civility, and be mindful that whatever peoples' differences, all were friends, neighbors and members of the same community in the end.
Barfield emphasized upfront that comments would be limited to three minutes; speakers should address the board, not one another; comments should be general, not aimed at any person; and once a point was made, it didn't warrant repeating.
First, however, Barfield called on two individuals associated with the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) – as the three proposed roads are officially called – to give a brief overview of the projects and processes. The two were Ryan Asmus, an engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), and Rosemary Woods, with Atkins North America, Inc., an engineering firm hired by the FDOT as a consultant on the M-CORES project.
The twos' presentations were dispassionate and largely adhered to the official talking points, constituting for the most part a reiteration of information readily available on the Florida M-CORES website at: floridamcores.com.
The project, Woods asserted, would create jobs, “move Florida forward,” and leave “a legacy.” It also anticipated the state's future growth, as by 2070 Florida was expected to have a population of 33 million people, she said. The project, she continued, would furthermore revitalize rural communities, create needed infrastructure, alleviate congestion, provide evacuation routes and protect wildlife.
In their individual responses to specific questions, the two were more forthcoming. But a key point that they repeatedly emphasized was that the project was in its infancy pre-planning, data-gathering phase. Which stage, they said, would be followed by the planning, project development and construction phases.
Their point was that it was too early in the process to say where the road might go, whether it would be collocated with existing roads, or what it would look like. All that would come later in the process, when potential swaths were developed and then refined into more definitive corridors, based on the guidelines set by the advisory boards, the data gathering and analysis phases, and other factors, including the public's input.
And always, a possibility existed that the analyses would ultimately lead to a no bill, which they said could stop a project. It's worth noting, however, that a former legislator who resides in Jefferson County recently remarked at a forum that he had almost single-handedly pushed forward the creation of the original Suncoast Parkway, notwithstanding that the FDOT at the time had reservations about the project and that its findings indicated that the road wasn't warranted or financially viable.
When it came time for public participation, a slew of citizens formed a long line at the rear of the courtroom, a line that was kept regenerating itself. The number of speakers were too many and their points too varied to include them all, so a few had to do to give a flavoring of the event. Suffice to say that the overwhelmingly majority registered opposition, and if some of their points were repetitive, their passion remained unabated.
Almost all who spoke in opposition to the project urged the commission to adopt one of the two resolutions on the table. The second, in support of the toll road, never even came up for a vote, however.
Among the many questions asked: Would the FDOT abide by the advisory boards recommendations? The answer was yes. What would happen if a different Legislator decided to kill the project or its funding dried up? The answer was that the FDOT would table the project until the funding became available again or the political winds changed.
What would happen when all the traffic reached Georgia, given that the Georgia Department of Transportation was not in the loop for the project? Good question, was the response. But again, it was too early in the process to say where the road might end. Maybe it would only go as far as I-10. But the point was that every project required a terminus, and Jefferson County happened to be it for the Suncoast Connector.
Who had decided that North Florida needed revitalization? Jack Carswell asked.
“We don't need to be revitalized,” he said, expressing a common theme. “We're being asked to solve the problem for another area that's outgrown its resources.”
Doug Darling followed. “Not to shoot the messengers,” he said, “but people were frustrated with the lack of information.” “What”, he asked, “was the point of all the meetings and community forums if none of the necessary studies had yet been done and no real answers could be offered to people's questions.”
The reason for the lack of answers, Asmus said, was that the project was in its infancy stage. But once the process got down to the granular analyses level, all the questions would be answered, he said.
Woods agreed.
“I've been doing this for 33 years,” she said. “And part of the process is that you give us input. But we can't provide answers now because we just started gathering the information.”
In time, however, would come the traffic analyses, wetlands and air quality studies and myriad other considerations and the answers would become available, she said. But again, it was still too early in the process to respond to such questions, she reiterated.
Even so, the questions about specifics persisted. How much land would the road take up in Jefferson County? Answer: It wasn't yet known, because the corridor hadn't yet been determined. Again, all that would be answered in time.
Gordon Dean declared that he had been hearing so much “claptrap.” “You're going to relieve congestion by building another road!” he said. “Come on, if you built it, they will come.”
He took issue with a recent letter to the editor alleging that the opposition was largely composed of moneyed interests.
“If you want to know who has the money, ask who payed (Senate President) Bill Galvano to get this bill passed,” Dean said. “And look to the landowners where the road is going to see who's going to make the money. And the rest of us will get screwed.”
Dr. George Cole pointed that a vast part of the county was wetlands and that other parts were rich in archeological and historical artifacts, many of which would be destroyed if the road came.
Protection of the county's natural and historical resources and its quality of life were others of the abiding theme expressed by opponents. Others saw darker motives and machinations behind the road, suggesting that it could be a ploy for a water-starved Central Florida to get North Florida's abundant water resources? Follow the money trail, extorted another. Follow the money and it would show who truly was benefiting from the project, and it wasn't Jefferson County.
Marty Wood offered that the project promised a pot of gold. But gold pots were supposedly at the end of rainbows, which came with thunderstorms, he said. He had traveled the world and had chosen Jefferson County because it was a gem, he said. And he didn't want to see it destroyed. He had seen what U.S. 19 had done to Thomasville. It had nearly killed the town, and it had required a Herculean effort to revive it.
“I urge, I urge, you to take Jefferson County off the list,” he said.
One of the few who spoke in favor of the project was Franklin Brooks. Brooks reminded the audience that when the prison had been proposed here, people had opposed it. Twice the project had been rejected before it had finally been accepted, he said. And when the state threatened to close the facility down a few years back, the community had risen as one to demand that the state keep it operational, including many of the same people who had originally opposed it, he said.
“Have an open mind and do what's right for all the citizens of Jefferson County,” Brooks said.
Phil Calandra was another who spoke in support of the project. He called the toll road statute that created the road not only the law, but a sound, factual and well-written document.
“What the opposition has done is cherry pick items to spin people's emotion and create fear,” he said.
Calandra said he felt the toll road program addressed real transportation needs and regional economic development needs for citizens of Jefferson County.
“How can anyone say no to something they don't really have the facts about, and accept the risk of walking away from substantial benefits?” Calandra asked.
And on the debate continued for more than two hours, with speaker after speaker coming to the podium and expressing their views, urging the board to vote for the resolution, challenging the official assertions or simply venting their frustration.
The tension transferred to the board. At one point, a citizen asked how the advisory board representative had been selected, meaning Barfield and underscoring the criticism that Barfield wasn't adequately representing the people's views on the advisory task board.
“Commissioner Barfield appointed herself,” Commissioner J.T. Surles said.
Barfield appeared stunned.
“That was uncalled for,” she said.
Surles didn't back off.
“This county has been misrepresented to the task force regardless of the people's feelings,” he said.
As a downtown businessman, Surles said he was constantly approached by citizens, as well as receiving their phone calls and emails. And the overwhelming number of people who contacted him were against the toll road, he said.
In fact, he had yet to receive a single comment in support of the road, and if the county's representative wasn't conveying that message to the advisory board, the person was failing to do the job, he said.
Surles next moved for adoption of the resolution to have Jefferson County removed as the terminus for the toll road, which motion Commissioner Stephen Walker seconded. When it came to the vote, however, Commissioners Stephen Fulford and Eugene Hall sided with Barfield, carrying the majority.
As for the removal of Barfield from the task force, it was noted that it would require a board vote to do so, and the 3-2 vote was indication enough that such was unlikely to happen.