Toll road plan rolls forward in Senate

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate is poised Wednesday to approve plans for three toll-road projects that environmental groups decry as inviting sprawling development into rural parts of the state.

With little discussion, the Senate on Tuesday set up for a vote the proposal (SB 7068), which is a priority of President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

The House, which has raised concerns about issuing bonds to pay for the roads, is waiting for the Senate to advance the bill before acting on its version (HB 7113).

Before rolling the Senate bill into place for a vote, Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who is carrying the bill for Galvano, made amendments Tuesday, including one that would require the Department of Transportation to consider several environmental groups — 1000 Friends of Florida, Audubon Florida, the Everglades Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, the Florida Sierra Club and Florida Wildlife Corridor —for seats on task forces that would study each proposed road.

“It may be a different group for each corridor,” Lee said.

The task forces would be charged with studying the economic and environmental impacts of extending the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area north to the Georgia border, extending the Florida Turnpike west to hook up with the Suncoast Parkway and building a new transportation corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.

Others on the task forces would include representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Economic Opportunity, Department of Education, Department of Health, local water management districts, local governments and metropolitan planning organizations.

Galvano has said the roads would help rural communities, address the state’s continued rapid growth, provide new hurricane-evacuation options, expand bicycle and pedestrian trails and lay the groundwork for new water and sewer lines and broadband.

“There are places in this state that don’t benefit from the economic improvements that have taken place in Florida,” Lee said. “There are the hurricane evacuation issues with the transportation and what have you.”

On Monday, the Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida led a news conference announcing plans to fight the projects, which they say would lead to sprawl, harmful wildlife impacts and water pollution.

Paul Owens, president of 1000 Friends of Florida, said Monday the state should prioritize critical agricultural lands and natural resources.

“It’s unfortunate and ironic that at the same time the Legislature is planning to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in programs and projects to restore the state’s impaired waterways, it’s on the verge of approving three new highways that would splice through landscapes with fragile rivers, natural springs, wetlands and aquifer recharge areas,” Owens said.

But David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, praised Galvano and other senators Tuesday, saying they were “helping to ensure we prepare Florida’s infrastructure for smart growth and enhanced mobility,”

“With an additional 5.5 million residents in Florida by 2030, and annual tourism growing from 126 million to 150 million visitors, these smart infrastructure investments will help ensure Florida is poised for its growing population and future economic prosperity,” Hart said in a prepared statement.

The proposal calls for spending $45 million next fiscal year, growing to $90 million in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, about $135 million the next year and a recurring amount of $140 million starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year.

The task forces would have to complete their work by Oct. 1, 2020. The proposal calls for construction to begin by the end of 2022 and the roads to open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030.

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