Hidden intent of toll roads

Staff Writer
Northwest Florida Daily News

Earlier this month a trio of advisory committees tasked with studying various facets of Florida’s biggest highway expansion program in a half-century began their work.

The panels were created to help plan three new additions to the Florida Turnpike System and make their recommendations to Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders by Oct. 1, 2020. The projects include a highway from Lakeland to the Fort Myers-Naples area, an extension of the Suncoast Parkway from its end point in Citrus County to the Georgia state line, and a link from the Suncoast Parkway to the northern end the Florida Turnpike at the intersection of Interstate 75.

Saying no should be an option, but those who hold out hope for that should understand officials see these highways as an a fait accompli — which is the real shame of this process.

For instance, a cursory look at a map shows these highways will pass through some of the largest chunks of rural Florida that remain largely unmolested by development. Proponents of the roads argue they will help with public safety (as hurricane evacuation routes), ease congestion and promote “trade and logistics,” particularly in revitalizing rural communities.

Yet, according to state law, among the 11 “intended benefits” of these highways, “protection or enhancement” of wildlife corridors and environmentally sensitive areas, or of primary springs protection zones and farmland preservation areas, rank next to last and dead last, respectively.

Along those lines, a Senate staff summary of the law outlines its potential benefits. For the private sector, those include “increased transportation options,” “energy distribution,” opportunities for “other transportation modes, such as passenger rail and shared-use trails,” and “preparation for emerging technologies,” such as autonomous vehicles. Individual businesses “may” benefit from improved “trade and logistics options ... as well as improved possibilities for business site selection due to availability of broadband access in the corridors,” which “may provide improved opportunities for education, skills training, and host of other services available online.”

State law says each committee “shall coordinate” with FDOT on “pertinent aspects” of proposed routes. Those include location of “multiple types” of infrastructure and evaluations for the “economic and environmental impacts” of hurricane evacuation and land use.

Interestingly, the statute says, “to the maximum extent feasible,” FDOT “shall” listen to the recommendations of the task forces in designing transportation modes and infrastructure.

But recommendations for environmental stewardship are non-binding. FDOT, under the law, “in consultation with the Department of Environmental Protection, may incorporate those features into each corridor during the project development phase.” Its final report should address acquiring land for conservation or construction mitigation and consider potential wildlife crossings in order to protect panthers and other “critical wildlife.”

But in evaluating all those factors, as The Ledger noted, per FDOT’s guidance the committees must judge such issues per an “acceptability scale.” In other words, committee members are to grade those matters along the following categories: wholehearted support, support, minor reservations and major reservations.

No apparently is not an option.

A longer version of this editorial first appeared in The Ledger, a News Herald sister paper with GateHouse Media.