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State News

After Bad Reviews, Toll Road Plans Again Before Florida Legislators

map of florida
Florida Department of Transportation
A map of major Florida highways with highlighted sections showing where new or extended toll roads would be.

For much of the past year, state transportation officials heard strong opposition to plans for three major new toll roads in Florida. But the controversial projects aren’t dead. They were back before the Legislature just last week.

Thousands of Floridians criticized the planned roads at dozens of task force meetings held over the past year. As a result, the task forces sent a report to the Legislature in November with no consensus on whether they should be built. But the Department of Transportation is forging ahead with the next step — environmental and economic studies.

Two Democratic senators, Lori Berman of Boynton Beach and Randolph Bracy of Orlando, pressed DOT Secretary Kevin Thibault on how much public opposition the state received. But Thibault would go no further than to say a great many people “had concerns.”

“Clearly a large portion or a very significant portion…had concerns about the rural nature that they lived in or were familiar with or had been there before because they may have camped there before and were trying to protect that,” he said.

A coalition of environmental groups oppose the roads for multiple reasons. They cite the potential for more sprawl, pollution from more traffic and the impact on sea level rise. In addition, critics say the highways could threaten rivers and wetlands and the state’s endangered and shrinking panther population.

“The Florida budget does protect our priorities as a state and right now those priorities should be making sure Floridians are healthy and able to get back to work and school safety, said Jonathan Webber with Florida Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group.

"Throughout the 18-month task force process it was abundantly clear this was not a priority of the public either,” Webber said.

One of the three roads would extend the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County north into Jefferson County. That county’s commission voted last month voted 4-1 to oppose the road plan.

The toll roads were a priority of the previous Senate president, Bill Galvano. But now he’s out of office and the state faces a deficit of more than $5 billion over the next two years because of the pandemic. Tens of millions of dollars have already been spent on the road plans, but the Legislature has the power to pull the plug on the roads at any time and opponents plan to keep the pressure on lawmakers.