A coalition of citizen and environmental groups finds public opposition is overwhelming to a giant toll road proposed through the length of Florida.
Coordinated by No Roads To Ruin, volunteers tallied nearly 10,000 public comments sent by email to the Florida Department of Transportation over the past 15 months. That does not include comments made in person at task force meetings or comments made on dedicated phone lines, the group said.
They found 93% of the emails opposed the road, 4% were in favor and 3% were unclear.
No Roads to Ruin and five environmental groups reported their findings in a virtual teleconference on Wednesday.
“It’s really about a failure on the part of the Florida Department of Transportation in being transparent,” said Ryan Smart of Florida Springs Council.
The opponents accuse the FDOT of hiding the opposition from the public, but also, from the three large task forces. Each task force of appointed citizens and officials are assigned to create guiding principles for each of the three sections of the system that would stretch from Collier County to the Georgia border. The corridor would veer from high cost Collier County, into the state’s rural center counties and then back out to poor rural coastal counties north of Tampa.
Charlotte and DeSoto counties are represented in the southern and largest task force.
“People from all parts of the political spectrum don’t want this road,” said Kimberly Heise, a Palm Beach County educator and volunteer counter. She is also a wildlife painter and believes the road would force the rare Florida panther into extinction.
FDOT said it is preparing a special report on how it would protect the panther with this road. Charlotte County Commission Chris Constance, who is on the task force, has said he believes the project could result in more protection for animals such as the panther, by using newer engineering systems to allow animal passage through transportation corridors.
No Roads to Ruin said FDOT should have been providing a tally of support and no support to the task force members all along.
“If the opposite were true, would the Department of Transportation hide it from the public?” Smart asked. “Of course not. They’d be shouting it from the rooftops.”
In response to the opponents’ accusations, FDOT Communications Director Beth Frady said she has given task force member direct access to the emails.
It did not give direct access to the public or media, but instead advised the use of public records request, which is what the No Roads group used.
FDOT created tallies for the task force of based on the topic of concern, not the sentiment, such as opposed or in favor, Frady said. That is because the determination of build or no-build, she said, is scheduled for later in the process.
Much later. If the first phase is coming to an end after 15 months, the determination of build/no build comes in the third phase, after the second phase — a costly planning and evaluation. Since the project was authorized by legislation in 2019, the state has spent or set aside about $70 million for the first phase, now nearly complete. The state plans to allocate over $100 million a year after that, and is hoping for a public-private partnership to reduce costs.
Frady emphasized that the corridor cannot be built unless the phase two and three studies show that it would be environmentally safe and financially feasible. If it is built, it would likely be located alongside existing roads rather than an entirely new corridor.
The continued spending of millions of tax dollars while the Legislature must soon cut $1 billion has alarmed taxpayers and even Republican officials such as Charlotte County commissioners Joe Tiseo and Ken Doherty.
“People were passionate. They were very angry,” said one of the volunteer counters, Kimberly Wheeler of Levy County. “They are against the toll roads, because of the cost — worried more now with the revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”