OUR POSITION: The multi-billion-dollar plan to build three toll roads in Florida is no longer a good idea.
When it was first proposed, there was some merit to legislation to build three new toll roads that would make it easier for Floridians to get from the bottom of the state to the top. Anyone who drives a lot realizes it can take half-a-day to get from the state's most southern cities to the Georgia border.
That's why former Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, pushed for a bill in 2019 to build three toll roads that would connect with current highways and open up new routes to traverse our narrow but every long state. The pitch was it would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia, extend Florida's turnpike across the state and provide an internal route from Naples to Polk County.
At the time, Florida's finances were in great shape. There were howls from the environmental groups that were justified. But otherwise, most parties seemed on board with the idea — even at the astronomical costs.
But, as we alluded to in previous editorial, that was then. This is now. And now is a state crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic. Our Legislature reports back to work in a couple of months with a budget deficit that could reach $5 billion or more.
Recently, the governor heard back from the three task forces he empowered with the challenge to investigate the best routes for the roads, the costs and the public's perception. Their task included looking into how badly the roads would impact the environment and wildlife habitat, the state's water supply, etc.
The reports did nothing to justify spending the money.
According to a Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau story, local officials along the proposed routes of the toll roads were anything but excited about the idea. The one consensus the members of the task force did come up with is that the toll roads should be built on top of existing roads and should avoid environmental areas.
Talk about a challenge. We're not sure how you can build roads that make it easier to travel through the state and build them on roads already there. And, how do you avoid environmental areas?
Of even more concern is the cost and the time table. The 2021-22 state budget was to include the first phase of planning for the roads at a cost of $738 million. That is just a small down payment on the billions needed to finish the project.
On top of that, the legislation approved in 2019 calls for the start of construction by 2022 and the roads to be finished in 2030.
That will be a huge challenge considering the approvals needed go through pristine areas of the state — routes that could trigger needing authorization by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already warned the Polk-to-Collier counties route could lead to extinction of the Florida panther according to the Times/Herald story.
Apparently, lawmakers are on record that no project is safe when they return to Tallahassee and begin looking at where to cut the budget.
We strongly suggest the money promised to begin planning for the toll roads — and all future expenditures — be wiped off the books. Toll roads that, according to the task force, may never pay for themselves are not a priority for a state struggling with a pandemic and budget shortfall.