Toll road and NextEra PUBLIC FORUM

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

A good-sized crowd numbering well over 100 people turned out for the Jefferson County Republican Party (JCRP) forum on the toll road and high-voltage transmission line on Tuesday evening, Nov. 5, at the former Apron Factory on Simpson Nurseries' property.
Unfortunately, the event proved less informative than promised, as four of the five invited speakers failed to show up.
The no-shows were Commission Chairwoman Betsy Barfield, who sits on the toll road advisory task force; a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) representative, listed as a possible on the agenda; a NextEra Electric Company representative, also listed as a possible; and Commissioner Stephen Walker.
State Representative Jason Shoaf was also expected to make an appearance, but last-minute legislative business reportedly kept him from coming. And his aide, who was supposed to come in his stead, inexplicably ended up in a hospital emergency room, it was reported midway through the forum.
That left three persons to address the audience: Colin Barton, chairman of the JCRP executive committee; Curtis Kiser, a former Florida legislator who was called in as a substitute speaker; and Attorney David Collins, who represents the county in its dealings with NextEra.
Barton made clear at the onset that the forum was strictly for educational purposes and that the JCRP took no position on either project. The audience was asked to write their questions on index cards and pass them to the front, where they would be answered in the order received or forwarded to the appropriate missing speaker.
Kiser, a legislator who by is own telling was instrumental in establishment of the Suncoast Parkway that now is being considered for extension into Jefferson County, was asked to give a historical perspective of the state highway system and legislative initiatives in general.
He explained that the general reason for the expansion of the state highway system stemmed from Florida's continuing explosive growth in population and tourism. He offered that when I-75 was completed in the early 1990s, a debate ensued in the Florida Legislature whether to retire the bond and cease building superhighways or float another bond and construct additional roads, especially along the state's west coast, which was then rapidly growing.
“We had a showdown in the Legislature whether to redo the bond and build new roads or let it die on the vine,” Kiser said of the bond.
As Pinellas County's legislator, Kiser said he pushed for redoing the bond and establishing the Suncoast Parkway, even though the FDOT had determined that the ridership wasn't there to justify the road's construction. But, said Kiser, his persistence had eventually paid off and the road had been approved, despite the FDOT's resistance.
The original intent, however, had been to build the Suncoast Parkway only as far as its present terminus near Homosassa Springs in Citrus County to alleviate the traffic congestion in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, he said. A second plan at the time, he said, called for the highway later to be pushed to Yankeetown in coastal Levy County. And the third phase envisioned, he said, called for another leg to loop east and connect with I-75 at Wildwood.
Back then, however, it was never envisioned that the road would extend farther north than Levy County, he said.
So why, asked an audience member, was the Suncoast Parkway now coming into Jefferson County?
Kiser's response was that it was essentially a legislator's prerogative; or more specifically, it was the prerogative of Senate President Bill Galvano, who represents the Manatee and Hillsborough counties area.
“Because the Legislature approved it, that's the simple answer,” Kiser said. “This was the Senate President's biggest priority; that's why we're here talking about this. Galvano wanted it and that's the way it is.”
Kiser cited as another example of a legislator's prerogative the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee, built in 1977 at cost of more the $30 million in honor of a former Speaker of the Florida House of Representative. It was built, Kiser suggested, because Tucker wanted it.
Kiser cautioned the audience against taking a dead-set opposition to the toll road, as it was likely to be built regardless. Better, he said, to stay involved and take a more measured approach, working in the meantime to mitigate the project's potential negative impacts on the environment and local economy.
He also appeared to offer a semblance of hope that the road wasn't a done deal until the FDOT completed its studies and determined the road's exact route and if the ridership was there to justify its construction.
“The FDOT doesn't want to build a road if it can't pay for itself,” Kiser said.
Of course, as he proved in the case of the original Suncoast Parkway by his own admission, if a legislator is determined and motivated enough, the road will get built regardless of the ridership numbers or other obstacles.
A mild mention by Barton as to the road's potential for economic development benefits to rural counties and serving as an evacuation route in the event of a hurricane, met with an immediate response from a member of the audience, which overwhelmingly opposed the project, as indicated by a show of hands.
The evacuation justification, yelled a woman from the rear, was a bogus justification.
“The current evacuation is to shelter in place,” she said. “”The last storm, they didn't reverse the expressways. They said shelter in place. This is an excuse that the politicians are using.”
In terms of the economic development benefit, a gentleman in the audience responded that it was in fact shown that small towns died when big roads were built.
“One of the reasons that we live here is because there are so few unspoiled areas left in the state,” the gentleman said. “Why would you want to put a road here?”
Collins, when it came his turn to speak on the high-voltage line, was highly animated, passionate and entertaining.
His presentation, he asserted, would be one of facts supported by evidence. He noted that NextEra, a company with annual revenues of $18 billion, was not answerable to the Public Service Commission (PSC) or to the authority of local governments.
Nor could citizens expect help from the Governor and legislative branch, he said. The Governor and Legislature in fact were at the heart of the problem, he said.
Collins related the story of a transmission line that Florida Power and Light (FPL), a subsidiary of NextEra, wanted to build in South Florida across environmentally sensitive lands and highly populated urban areas. When the local governments opposed the project, FPL sought remedy in the courts, which ultimately ruled against the company.
Rather than accept the legal ruling, Collins said, an undeterred FPL appealed to the Legislature and had the law changed, so that the definition of development was amended to exempt transmission lines from local regulations.
Incidentally, Collins noted, former Governor Rick Scott, who signed the legislation into law, had received a $805,000 campaign contribution from FPL.
A coincidence? Collins left the question hanging.
“We may be small, but we're not stupid,” he said.
In terms of NextEra's plan to bring a high-voltage transmission line across Jefferson County, Collins said he had been trying to negotiate with the company to no effect.
“Do you really think they (NextEra) think you matter?” Collins asked.
The only hope left, he offered, was the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
“If the PSC can't regulate it and local public officials can't regulate it, the FDEP is the only one that can stop it. Right?” Collins said.
“The FDEP, I thought, is the one that can save us,” he continued, noting that the agency had earlier found NextEra's application incomplete and had returned it to the company for resubmission within the coming weeks.
Collins then proceeded to recite, based on his research, all the recent FDEP heads who, upon leaving the agency, had gone to work for either NextEra or a law firm whose number one client was NextEra. Never mind that the present FDEP head had been handpicked by Scott, who by the way, was heavily invested in NextEra stocks, he said.
His message to affected property owners, Collins said, was not to expect rescue from the FDEP relative to the transmission line.
Collins then dropped a bombshell announcement that the Jefferson County Commission had earlier in the week given him the go-ahead to sue NextEra. Which announcement, in journalistic terms, would qualify as a buried lead.
“We are in the process of preparing a federal lawsuit based on the 10th Amendment, traditionally called the States' Rights Amendment,” Collins said.
The 10th Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, states that powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states and the people – the people being the operative words in Collins' argument.
“Who knows better than the people and the local government where transmission lines should go,” Collins said.
The idea, he said, was to challenge the state law that exempted transmission lines from local control under the redefined definition of development.
Collins conceded that the legal challenge was a long-shot. But it was, he said, the right thing to do.
“Most lawyers will say, 'How can you challenge the state legislature?'” Collins said. “But it's the right thing to do. A federal judge not encumbered by state law will decide. It's based on what's right.”

The voice of the people

The results of the Monticello News' poll on the proposed toll roll are in, and the nays definitely dominated.
Of the 1,609 votes cast overall – 1,600 via Facebook and nine in person via the ballot box set up in the Monticello News office – the overwhelmingly majority of voters said no to the toll road. The numbers translate into 1,480 'no' votes (92 percent), and 129 'yes' votes (eight percent).
The poll, which the Monticello News announced in the Wednesday, Oct. 30, issue, asked readers to express their
feelings on the proposed road.
The poll asked readers to vote electronically via Facebook at; or if the
person lacked access to a computer, to come to the Monticello News office and vote in the ballot box set up in the lobby.
On Friday, May 17, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law the legislation that set up the framework and funding for the toll road, called a Multi-Use Corridor of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORE). All told, the legislation set up the framework and funding for three toll roads, with the one that is supposed to come into Jefferson County an extension of the Suncoast Parkway, which currently ends in Citrus County.
As proposed, construction on the road is to begin in 2022 and terminate in 2030.