Editorial: No no-build option reveals intent of toll roads
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L.K. Nandam, secretary for Florida Department of Transportation District 1 in Bartow, looks on during a discussion of a new toll road connector from Lakeland to Collier County. Provided by Florida Department of Transportation Hide caption Earlier this month a trio of advisory committees tasked with studying various facets of Florida’s biggest highway expansion program in a half-century began their work.
Comprised of government officials and people representing nongovernmental interests, the panels were created to help plan three new additions to the Florida Turnpike System and make their recommendations to Gov. Ron DeSantis and legislative leaders by Oct. 1, 2020. The projects include a highway from Lakeland to the Fort Myers-Naples area, an extension of the Suncoast Parkway from its endpoint in Citrus County to the Georgia state line and a link from the Suncoast Parkway to the northern end the Florida Turnpike, at the intersection of Interstate 75.
As The Ledger reported, a number of people showed up for the inaugural meeting of the task force overseeing the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, which will connect Polk and Collier counties. Some encouraged the panel to tell the Florida Department of Transportation to reject the road. In response, some committee members expressed doubt as to whether that could, in fact, be their recommendation, based on the law governing the projects. (From Polk County, the committee includes Winter Haven Mayor Pro-Tem Nat Birdsong, who is also chairman of the Polk Transportation Planning Organization, as well as County Commissioner Rick Wilson; Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Katie Worthington-Decker and Polk State College President Angela Garcia Falconetti.)
For instance, a cursory look at a map shows these highways will pass through some of the largest chunks of rural Florida that remain largely unmolested by development. Proponents of the roads argue they will help with public safety (as hurricane evacuation routes), ease congestion and promote “trade and logistics,” particularly in revitalizing rural communities.
Yet, according to state law, among the 11 “intended benefits” of these highways, “protection or enhancement” of wildlife corridors and environmentally sensitive areas, or of primary springs protection zones and farmland preservation areas, rank next to last and dead last, respectively.
Along those lines, a Senate staff summary of the law outlines its potential benefits. For the private sector, those include “increased transportation options,” “energy distribution,” opportunities for “other transportation modes, such as passenger rail and shared-use trails,” and “preparation for emerging technologies,” such as autonomous vehicles. Individual businesses “may” benefit from improved “trade and logistics options ... as well as improved possibilities for business site selection due to availability of broadband access in the corridors,” which “may provide improved opportunities for education, skills training, and host of other services available online.”
Local governments along the corridors would see similar benefits as well as opportunities to improve water and sewer connections and access to funding for local road projects.
Again environmental protection suffers.
State law says each committee “shall coordinate” with FDOT on “pertinent aspects” of proposed routes. Those include location of “multiple types” of infrastructure and evaluations for the “economic and environmental impacts” of hurricane evacuation and land use.
Interestingly, the statute says, “to the maximum extent feasible,” FDOT “shall” listen to the recommendations of the task forces in designing transportation modes and infrastructure. And each task force “may consider and recommend innovative concepts” for right-of-way acquisition and that of land or easements “to facilitate environmental mitigation or ecosystem, wildlife habitat, or water quality protection or restoration.”
But recommendations for environmental stewardship are non-binding. FDOT, under the law, “in consultation with the Department of Environmental Protection, may incorporate those features into each corridor during the project development phase.” (Emphasis added.)
The Southwest-Central Florida Connector corridor task force “shall” weigh the impact of construction on panther and other “critical wildlife habitat,” the law says. Its final report should address acquiring land for conservation or construction mitigation, and consider potential wildlife crossings in order to protect panthers and other “critical wildlife.”
But in evaluating all those factors, as The Ledger noted, per FDOT’s guidance the committees must judge such issues per an “acceptability scale.” In other words, committee members are to grade those matters along the following categories: wholehearted support, support, minor reservations and major reservations.
No apparently is not an option.
By creating the planning committees, developer-friendly lawmakers can claim they will accept public concerns about the environment. But by also excluding a no-build recommendation, they reveal they never really intended to consider objections of those who don’t want to see these pristine areas plowed under. For proponents of this program, keeping growth from spoiling these areas wasn’t an afterthought. It didn’t appear to receive any serious thought at all.