Governor Ron DeSantis has approved a measure that could pave the way for the state’s first major highway expansion in decades. The effort has been led by state Senate President Bill Galvano who pushed the roads as a way to aid in evacuations, promote growth in rural parts of the state and help transport an ever growing population. But environmentalists argue the idea could be a disaster for fragile ecosystems.
A recent protest drew about two dozen people to the Tri-Rail station in Hollywood. Sue Caruso with the Sierra Club spoke with public radio station WLRN in Miami.
“There’s no way they’re not going to disrupt some of the last remaining natural areas—disturbing habitats and human resource," she said of the construction that would have to take place.
The Sierra Club is one of some 90 environmental organizations that lobbied Governor Ron DeSantis to veto the measure that would lead to three new highways in the state. Jonathan Webber with Florida Conservation Voters called the plan a “disaster”.
“These highways will go through some of the most pristine and rural lands we have left in Florida," he argues. "And it won’t just be highways, it’s also all the infrastructure needed for urban sprawl….I can’t really think of a much worse bill in my entire time in politics.”
Webber and other environmental advocates worry about the impact the new toll roads will have on agricultural areas and wetlands—places the state has worked for decades to preserve, and rehabilitate. Right now, there’s no planned route for the roads. But the general idea is to extend Tampa’s Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia Boarder through Jefferson County, lengthen the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway, and build the Heartland Parkway to run from Polk County down to Collier, near Naples.
“I think we can improve evacuation, access to our rural communities, multi-purpose corridor access," Senate President Bill Galvano said as he announced the plan earlier this year.
At times, it appeared the plan was going nowhere. It didn’t get a hearing in the House until the final few weeks of the annual lawmaking session and the final version of the proposal is substantially different. It calls for local state and regional input to mitigate potential ecological damage, and in the early years of planning, it shifts state transportation dollars to more rural areas of the state so communities can invest in infrastructure.
Speaking to Public radio station WUSF in Tampa, Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nunez recently said Governor Ron DeSantis was evaluating the measure.
“I know that they have looked at it from a readiness standpoint with regard to hurricanes and the ability to really facilitate with folks that are trying to avoid a storm, like what we saw with Irma. So I know that’s an issue that comes up from time to time, so he’ll look at it from a wide variety of perspectives," she said.
And DeSantis had previously expressed his concern about toll roads but also noted the need to relieve congestion in South and Central Florida.
“We really want to focus our transportation strategy on alleviating all the congestion in South and Central Florida, which has really been bad, and we want to embrace innovation.”
He signed off on the measure Thursday. Construction of the projects must begin no later than December 31, 2022, and be open to traffic no later than December 31, 2030.