TALLAHASSEE — The biggest expansion of the state highway network since the mid-1950s looks poised to gain approval from Florida lawmakers, pushed into action by roadbuilders and contractors eager for work.
House leaders are joining Senate President Bill Galvano’s push for three major toll roads, which he says will bring jobs and fresh opportunity to overlooked regions of Florida. Environmentalists and many planners warn the move threatens waterways and will promote sprawl.
But those in the paths of the proposed roads have been mostly left out of the debate in Tallahassee.
Some aren’t sure if mass ribbons of asphalt will equal prosperity.
“I think a lot of people here aren’t sure about the idea that if you build it, they will come,” said Wilbur Dean, coordinator of Levy County, through which a lengthy expansion of the Suncoast Parkway is likely to course under the plan.
Road builders, though, are convinced the massive highway plan is a game-changer.
“Our existing infrastructure is already at peak, and because of the geography of the state visitors coming from points north or the west have only a few routes to get to our urban areas,” said Ananth Prasad, president of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, which represents the road construction industry.
Prasad headed the Florida Department of Transportation under former Gov. Rick Scott for seven years.
Prasad’s organization along with the Florida Trucking Association, the state’s Ports Council, Asphalt Contractors Association and Florida Chamber of Commerce have been the lead promoters of the roads package at hearings in the House and Senate.
The transportation builders’ organization also steered the idea to Galvano in response to projections that over the next decade, another five million residents and a growing tourist population will gridlock the state’s current road corridors.
Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who represents Citrus County, said local chamber and business leaders there are eager for the proposed extension of the Suncoast Parkway, one of the most ambitious parts of Galvano’s roads effort.
Simpson, in line to succeed Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, as Senate president next year, was asked what residents think of the idea.
“I don’t know what they think,” he said. “It’d be interesting to know.”
In some areas touched by the proposed Suncoast expansion, political intrigue also has spiked.
Billionaire Republican donor Thomas Peterffy, a Palm Beach resident and member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, owns 561,000 of timber land across five North Florida counties, the Florida Phoenix and Florida Trend has reported, property that could be ripe for development when the road comes.
“Reaction around here is mixed,” said Malcolm Page, vice chairman of the Taylor County Commission. “There are some people who see it could be an economic boon, including me."
“And there are others who are following the conspiracy that this is all about helping people who own land, especially here in Taylor County,” he added.
The three toll roads envisioned would demand $45 million in the roughly $90 billion budget now being put together by the House and Senate. That would climb to $90 million in 2020, $132.5 million the next year and a recurring $140 million starting in 2022.
Task forces analyzing the economic and environmental impact of each project are to complete their work next year, with construction starting by 2022. The roads are expected to open by the end of 2030.
The Tampa-area Suncoast Parkway, which now stretches less than 60 miles from Hillsborough County to Citrus County, would extend another 150 miles to the Georgia line, under the Legislature's plan (SB 7068, HB 7113).
It would serve as a hurricane evacuation route, but also bring development to central and north Florida counties still reeling from job losses rooted in the 2008 recession, Galvano said.
Another new road proposed would stretch as much as 150 miles, from the ranch and citrus groves of Polk County to Collier County and the Gulf Coast, south of Fort Myers.
Once dubbed the Heartland Parkway, variations of the highway concept have been around since the 1980s. But the parkway idea has moved at a snail’s pace, having been started or stopped by a string of recent Florida governors.
The Heartland Parkway had been supported by companies with large landholdings in the region that would be bisected by the new road, including major agribusinesses such as Alico Inc., A. Duda & Sons and Lykes Brothers and phosphate giant Mosaic.
But it continues to draw opposition from environmentalists and many rural residents, worried about disruption brought by a new highway coursing through outlying areas of Hendry, Glades, Highlands, DeSoto, Collier and Polk counties.
Still, the Polk County Commission recently sent Galvano a letter of support for the parkway.
Galvano’s final ribbon of road is a proposed 30-mile extension of Florida’s Turnpike from where it connects to I-75 near Wildwood to the expanding Suncoast Parkway, a roadway expected to ease travel on the traffic-choked interstate.
Most environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Florida Conservation Voters and 1,000 Friends of Florida have pushed against the road-building.
The Suncoast expansion would bring damaging sprawl to rural counties in its path and slice dangerously close to the Ichetucknee, Santa Fe and Suwannee rivers and the springs feeding into them, opponents say.
Galvano said he doesn’t have particular routes in mind for the highway expansions and denies that landowners with eyes on future development are driving his proposal.
But a FDOT Interstate 75 Relief Task Force recommended in 2016 that rather than new roads, a better approach was expanding the vehicle capacity of the interstate and connecting highways.
Thomas Hawkins, policy and planning director for 1,000 Friends, served on that task force. He said the idea now being floated is clearly a potential money-maker for builders, especially at what is forecast as a construction cost of $10 million-per-mile.
“This money could be used in a lot of ways to ease congestion in more urban areas,” he said.
But with the House now joining the Senate in advancing legislation that contains the road projects, it looks all-but-certain to win approval by the time lawmakers adjourn next month.
“Marion County would like to be involved in any future planning that may impact our community,” said Michelle Stone, chair of the Marion County Commission. “Protecting our farmland preservation area is important to us and we remain confident that the state will keep this priority in mind as time progresses.”
At the Capitol, with lawmakers entering the final weeks of the two-month session, the House has only lately shown interest in Galvano’s idea.
In exchange, the Senate appears poised to drop its long opposition to eliminating state control over hospital expansion, a priority of House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami.
The political horse-trading is adding momentum to the road expansion, although Oliva and Gov. Ron DeSantis are cautious about pledging an iron-clad commitment to the projects.
Oliva acknowledged that even if approved this spring, the road effort could be halted in coming years.
“That’s certainly a possibility,” Oliva said.
DeSantis, who said he is “sensitive” to the cost of toll roads on average Floridians, said he needs to know more about the massive projects. But the governor said he is more focused on areas where traffic is now dense.
“Reducing congestion, particularly in areas where the problem is acute – like South Florida and Central Florida – is a priority for me,” DeSantis said. “And that will require some additional ways to get around the state and I think roads are going to be part of that.”