A bill that would lead the state down the road to three major toll road construction projects now sits on the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis. He now has 15 days to decide whether to allow the bill to become law with or without his signature, or veto the legislation.
The bill was a priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, during the 2019 legislative session that ended earlier this month.
DeSantis has expressed reservations about toll roads and the impact they have on the finances of average Floridians.
“You look at places like South Florida and some of these people in Miami who are commuting and they’re paying huge amounts of money for tolls,” DeSantis said last month when asked about his reviews on the three new highway corridors. “These are generally working people who aren’t making huge amounts of money, which is something I’m sensitive to.”
But he left open the possibility that he would allow the bill to become law. A veto of the toll roads legislation could jeopardize the good relations the two men shared this session in their roles of leadership.
“Our D.O.T. secretary has said that reducing congestion, particularly in areas where the problem is extremely acute like South Florida and Central Florida, is a priority for me and that will require some additional ways to get around the state,” DeSantis said. “And I think roads are going to be a part of that.”
Galvano’s plan would extend the Suncoast Parkway north of Tampa all the way to the Georgia border. The Florida Turnpike would be extended west and intersect with the Suncoast Parkway. The third corridor would be constructed from Polk County to Collier County.
The corridors run through what Galvano describes as “the spine” of the state, rural areas that have largely been ignored when it comes to past infrastructure funding and now face economic challenges and a loss of jobs.
The road projects are coming under attack from some environmental groups who say the highways will threaten environmentally sensitive wetland areas and contribute to urban sprawl.
“It is the worst bill for Florida’s environment we have seen in more than 20 years,” says Sierra Club Florida in a statement on its web page. “Florida taxpayers will pay over $1 billion for these needless roads over the next decade. Money that could be spent on relieving our actual highway congestion issues will now instead be funneled into 320 miles of toll roads that will create massive sprawl and traffic.”
The Sierra Club is urging the governor to veto the legislation. The group will hold three demonstrations this week to rally opposition against the road projects. The protests will be held in Hollywood, St. Petersburg and Gainesville.
Earlier this month, a statewide alliance of 90 conservation and civic groups, along with businesses, came out in opposition to the construction of the major toll roads. They sent a letter to DeSantis urging him to veto the bill.
“These hugely expensive road projects and accompanying urban sprawl will devastate habitat for the Florida Panther and dozens of other endangered and threatened Florida species,” the groups wrote the governor. “They will destroy important wetlands, forests, springs, and aquifer recharge areas from Florida Bay to the Georgia border even though they would not serve an identified transportation purpose.”
The bill on the governor’s desk would set aside $45 million next fiscal year to create three separate task forces to study the economic and environmental impacts of each road project. The plan would increase funding to $90 million in fiscal year 2020-2021. The funding would increase to about $135 million the next year with a recurring amount of $140 million starting in the 2022-2023 fiscal year.
The bill would require the three task forces to complete their work by June 30, 2020. If the projects proceed, construction would have to begin by the end of 2022 and the roads to open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030.