OUR POSITION: Maybe the state should put the projected toll road projects on hold until the budget recovers from the pandemic.

The state should reconsider how fast to move on an expensive plan to build or expand three toll roads from southern Florida north.

The Legislature signed off on the toll road plans when we had money. Now, thanks mostly to COVID-19, the state doesn’t have money. Gov. Ron DeSantis is trimming a billion dollars from our budget and only federal aid will keep the state from floundering deeper into the red as tax revenues plummet.

There really is no real hope for that scenario to change soon. The only miracle would be for the number of new cases and deaths to suddenly trend downward, or if a vaccine is rushed into production and sent to Florida before the Christmas holiday. Otherwise, we shouldn’t expect to see the normal wave of tourists and snowbirds this winter. Heck, most countries don’t even want to rub elbows with Americans right now — especially residents of hard-hit states like Texas and Florida. The border with Canada, for all practical purposes, is still closed.

Plans to spend an initial $428 million for engineering and planning consultants and buying land in the next three years for toll roads, that many believe will be detrimental to our environment, is the first expenditure that will stretch the state budget. And that $428 million figure could swell to more than $700 million before we even talk construction.

The toll roads are hyped as a way to take traffic off our interstates and to bring an economic boost to rural areas of Florida.

Well, both those ideas sound good. Heaven knows our interstates are crowded and dangerous. Some say, however, the economic boost will be felt more by large landowners, who will sell rights of way to the state, than any mom and pop businesses in the path of the toll roads.

If the project is completed, the expansion will be the largest such road project in decades in Florida. The plans call for extending the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County; extending the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway and building a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County. The latter project would benefit us most.

The state formed a task force for each project that have been meeting online because of the pandemic.

The meetings are entering the next phase when public comment can be made in person — following the CDC guidelines of masks and social distancing — or online. One of those meetings, concerning the Polk to Collier roadway, is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. today at the Lee County Civic Center in North Fort Myers.

Supporters of the toll roads believe they will supply alternative evacuation routes and boost growth. Those arguing against the expenditure, worry about the roads cutting across sensitive lands.

If you have an opinion, go online or trek down to Lee County this morning.

We believe we need better evacuation routes and safer roads. And, we understand the longer we wait the more expensive these roads will be. But, after these initial spending sprees, we may want to hold off until the state’s income recovers to the record-setting numbers we were enjoying before COVID-19.


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