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If anyone was wondering about the status of the proposed toll road that could ostensibly come through Jefferson County, know that the measure is moving forward. Not only did Gov. Ron DeSantis approve the legislation in May, but the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) recently started assembling a task force to evaluate the project's viability.
On Thursday, July 18, at the request of the FDOT, the Jefferson County Commission appointed Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield as its representative to the toll road task force, with Clerk of Court Kirk Reams selected to serve as the alternate.
Barfield's take on the appointment was that it was a good thing, as it would give the county a voice in the process.
“It's better to be at the table and have representation than to bury our heads in the ground,” Barfield said.
The goal of the task force – per the legislation that passed in the last legislative session and that is credited to Florida Senate President Bill Galvano – is to do an analysis of the environmental, land-use and other impacts of the proposed corridor on each of the communities that it crosses. The task force has until Oct. 1, 2020, to submit a written report of its findings to the state, with construction projected to start “no later than Dec. 31, 2022,” and the road opened to traffic “no later than Dec. 31, 2030.”
All told, the FDOT is convening three separate task forces, one for each of three toll corridors that the legislation proposed be constructed.
The toll corridor that would impact locally is the SunCoast Connector, which would extend from its present terminus in Citrus County, proceed through Jefferson County, and go into Georgia.
The other two proposed toll corridors are the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, extending from Collier County to Polk County; and the Northern Turnpike Connector, extending from the northern terminus of the Florida Turnpike northwest to the SunCoast Parkway.
The proposed toll road is opposed by scores of civic, conservation and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, 1,000 Friends of Florida, Friends of the Everglades, League of Women Voters of Florida and Tall Timber Research Station and Land Conservancy.
These organizations argue that the three projects will be extremely expensive, with the funding expected to increase from $45 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, to $90 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, to about $135 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, and then become a recurring $140 million annual expenditure starting with the 2022-23 fiscal year.
And that's just for the planning phase, according to the project's critics. Billions, they say, will be required to construct the hundreds of miles of limited access highways – a debt that Floridians will be paying for more than a generation, instead of funding education, healthcare or needed infrastructure.
These organizations argue that the new roads will spawn urban sprawl and lead to the degradation, if not devastation, of habitat for endangered and threatened Florida species, as well as destroy wetlands, forests, springs and aquifer recharge areas from the Florida Bay to the Georgia border.
Galvano, who as Senate president set the toll roads as a priority and orchestrated passage of the legislation approving them, argued that the roads were needed for economic reasons, namely to boost the economies of small towns in rural areas of the state.
To which assertion the opponents counter that road building is not a sustainable economic development strategy for rural communities and the new roads will in fact divert traffic away from established rural communities on existing roads, essentially harming these communities' economies.
Besides providing funding for road building, the legislation includes money for water, sewer and broadband internet access, which are generally viewed as “the building blocks of any massive development.”
Galvano is supported in his goals by road and home builders, engineers, and trade groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Transportation and Builders Association and the Florida Trucking Association.
The legislation does not define the exact route of the three proposed roads, nor does it assure that all three roads will be built. Rather, it sets up the legal and financial framework for the three roads' construction. Ultimately, the FDOT is charged with controlling the fate of the projects, with input from the governor. The FDOT does not need even to abide by the recommendations of the task forces that it is assembling.