Toll road coming through Jefferson County?

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.

A proposed toll road that could cut in part across Jefferson County is drawing opposition from at least 75 environmental, conservation and civic groups, which are calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the legislation.
The governor, who received the bill on May 13, has until May 28 to act on it.
The 75 organizations – which include the Sierra Club, 1,000 Friends of Florida, Emerald Coastkeepers Inc., Friends of the Everglades and the League of Women Voters of Florida – wrote the governor a letter objecting to a measure that legislators passed in the recent session and that paves the way for the creation of three toll roads across rural areas of the state.
The legislation, the brainchild and top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, calls for one of the roads to travel north to Georgia, ostensibly through Jefferson County. Galvano argues that the toll roads are necessary to boost the economies of small communities in underdeveloped areas of the state.
The three proposed corridors are: the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, which would extend from Collier to Polk County; the Northern Turnpike Connector, which would extend from the northern terminus of the Florida Turnpike northwest to the Suncoast Parkway in Citrus County;
See TOLL ROADS page 3A
and the Suncoast Connector, which would extend from Citrus to Jefferson County and on to Georgia.
The groups opposing the proposed road expansion argue that the enterprise would be extremely expensive, with the funding expected to grow from $45 million in the next fiscal year, to $90 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, to about $135 million in the following fiscal year, and then become a recurring expenditure of $140 million annually, starting with the 2022-23 fiscal year.
“And that's just for the planning,” states the letter that the 75 organizations sent legislators and the governor. “Billions will be bonded to actually build hundreds of miles of limited access highways. Florida will be paying off the debt for more than a generation instead of funding education, healthcare or needed infrastructure for wastewater, drinking water, and the roads and bridges we already have.”
Moreover, according to the organizations, the road projects will spawn urban sprawl and lead to the degradation, if not the devastation, of habitat for endangered and threatened Florida species. Never mind that the roads will destroy wetlands, forests, springs and aquifer recharge areas from the Florida Bay to the Georgia boarder, the groups argue.
The letter cites the findings of the Interstate 75 Relief Task Force of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), which in 2016 recommended that “rather than new roads, a better approach was expanding the vehicle capacity of the interstate and connecting highways.”
The letter further cites the American Society of Civil Engineers' 2016 Report Card, which noted that “only two percent of Floridians commuted to work via public transit and that what Florida needed was to develop and connect its transit networks with an additional $1.3 billion investment.”
The groups finally argue that road building is not a sustainable economic development strategy for rural small towns, as the new roads will divert traffic away from established communities on existing roads, harming their economies.
“We urge you to spend Florida taxpayers' dollars wisely and reject the toll roads,” the letter concludes.
As reported in the Tampa Bay Times, Galvano has never contented that the extension of the Suncoast from its current terminus in Citrus County would ease traffic problems or improve hurricane evacuation times. Rather, his arguments has been “strictly economic,” saying that the roads will spur economic development. The legislation, besides providing money for the three roads, additionally includes funding for water, sewer and broadband internet access – generally viewed as “the building blocks of any massive development.”
“I believe it's a good idea,” Galvano, a lawyer whose district includes Manatee and part of Hillsborough County, is quoted saying in the Tampa Bay Times. “We need access to our rural communities. We need to improve access so prosperity can return there.”
As Senate President, he assigned the task of working out the funding and time schedules for the toll roads to Senate Transportation Committee chairman Tom Lee, a fellow Republican and home builder who also represents part of Hillsborough, as well as part of Pasco and Polk counties.
The legislation does not define the exact routes of the three roads, nor does it guarantee that all three will be built. Nonetheless, proponents and opponents of the projects are already lining up on either side of the proposal, which is viewed as Florida's largest toll roads' expansion in more than 50 years.
The project's supporters so far include road and home builders, engineers, and trade groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Transportation and Builders Association, and Florida Trucking Association.
“We need to plan smart and work fast to keep up with Florida's growth or risk becoming like California,” Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, is quoted saying in a prepared statement.
The legislation instructs the FDOT to convene a task force for each of the three roads to do analyses, environmental and land-use impacts, and any other pertinent impacts that the corridors may pose. The task forces are to be composed of various stakeholders, including state and local officials and “a representative from an environmental group.”
Each task force must submit a written report by Oct. 1, 2020, with construction projected to begin “no later than Dec. 31, 2022,” and the roads to be open to traffic “no later than Dec. 31, 2030.”
That said, the FDOT, whose head reports directly to the governor, will largely control the project had have a final say over its fate. The agency is also under no obligation to follow the recommendations of the task forces that it forms.
Insofar as Jefferson County, local officials have yet to voice any opinion on the project. One thing that is sure to interest them, however, is a component of the legislation that sets increased funding for road improvement programs that the county regularly uses. Per the legislation, starting in Fiscal Year 2022-23, $10 million annually will be authorized for the Small County Road Assistance Program (SCRAP), $10 million annually will go to the Small County Outreach Program (SCOP), and $10 million annually will go to the Transportation Disadvantaged (TD) Program.
To date, Jefferson County has received more than $40 millions in road improvement funding from these programs since 2000.
One local entity that is expressing concern about the proposed project is the Tall Timbers Research & Land Conservancy (TT), which owns the Dixie Plantation in the northeastern part of Jefferson County.
Among TT's stated concerns is that the Suncoast Connector, if it traverses Jefferson County, “will fragment farms, rural lands, and vital wildlife habitat.”
“These highways will encourage costly sprawling growth that will route traffic away from our rural communities on existing roads,” a TT memo states. “They will divert tax dollars away from other critical needs, including the recovery from Hurricane Michael and providing adequate funding for land conservation, as directed by Florida voters who overwhelmingly supported Amendment 1 in 2014.”