Central toll road open house in Wauchula

State transportation engineer Jennifer Marshall (left) listens to questions from Visit Hardee Director Andrea Thompson at the first open house held in Wauchula, for the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, a proposed toll road. They stand before maps of the multi-county region where the road could pass, ranging from Collier to Polk counties. Each map shows where resources of interest are, from wildlife to agriculture. At least 64 people showed up.

WAUCHULA — Not all Floridians oppose the idea of a giant toll road running through the center of the state.

At least 63 people attended an open house run by the Florida Department of Transportation Tuesday night in downtown Wauchula. On hand for questions were several dozen FDOT staffers and consultants, who stood in front of large color maps of the southern section of the proposed corridor.

“I wanted to see where the off ramps would be,” said Wauchula resident Barbara Stevenson, “so I could see if we could get some stores here.”

Stevenson and her mother, Danielle White, were somewhat disappointed that no route has yet been specified, but still encouraged that the project might bring some life to their downtown that has a lot of empty space.

“Everything that comes in gets closed down,” Stevenson said of the commercial options.

“There’s a lot of old timers that don’t want things to change,” said White.

In May, Florida’s legislature narrowly passed a bill ordering FDOT to begin plans for the central corridor toll road that would run approximately 350 miles from somewhere in Collier County to somewhere on the Georgia border. FDOT had concluded in a study in 2012 that a central toll road would not pay for itself and would not significantly lower traffic on I-75. This time, the purpose of the road is listed as bringing economic prosperity to the state’s rural interior as well as providing alternative emergency evacuation routes.

Charlotte and DeSoto county officials are represented on the southern-most task force of 47 people. The proposed toll road could cut through the two counties. The southern section is the largest of the three segments.

Support from locals is in contrast to opposition from environmental activists who have dominated task force meetings elsewhere in the state.

“I think in the long run, it will benefit our county,” said Dawn Start, administrator coordinator of Visit Hardee County. “It’s going to bring in not just tourists, but people to come here and live.”

People come for the small town feel, said Andrea Thompson, director for Visit Hardee.

“You still want to maintain the feel of a small town, of faith, of character,” she said.

Zolfo Springs Town Manager Linda Roberson is ready for some new growth.

“I’m excited about anything that’s going to connect and grow us,” she said.

Arcadia Town Councilor Keith Keene is also in favor of the project.

“I realize that we’ve got to have more than just agriculture to depend on,” he said.

Speaking of agriculture, one key group is not necessarily in favor.

“I’m a landowner. I would love to see it not go anywhere,” said Roger Wright. “It’s going to bring more rooftops, more congestion. Florida needs more open space.”

By landowner, he meant rancher and citrus farmer.

“I’d like to see it disappear,” he said with a mischievous smile, about the future road.

Every rancher and farmer he knows opposes this project, Wright said, because they believe their land will be bisected.

“The pioneers that have been here all their lives think it can disrupt their homestead forever,” he said.

His suggestion to the task force?

“Double deck I-75.”

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