In the 2019 session, the Florida legislature passed a bill starting a process which could lead to the state building another 330 miles of toll roads by 2030.
Senate President Bill Galvano is the strongest proponent of the measure and Governor Ron DeSantis signed the bill. Over a hundred miles of toll roads were added when Rick Scott was governor.
The Florida Department of Transportation, interestingly enough, did not request these roads. FDOT was considering widening existing freeways and highways to reduce congestion. New toll roads weren’t in FDOT’s five-year plan.
In the 1970s, I can remember people arriving from New Jersey saying that one of the great things about Florida is that the state isn’t stitched together by toll roads. That was then. Today, Florida has more toll roads than any other state; 719 miles of them the last time I saw a figure. Orange County, for instance, may have more toll roads than any other county in the U.S.
I confess that I am allergic to toll roads. When I use MapQuest or any similar service, I put in the destination and get directions and a distance. Then I check “No Tolls” and recalculate. The distance without toll roads is often a mile or two shorter.
Toll roads won’t necessarily help tourism. Rental car companies have toll transponders on their cars but they often recover that cost by putting it on the customer’s credit card. Customers have also been billed by mail, sometimes with added fees. Class action suits have been filed over these practices.
The Sierra Club has calculated that the additional 330 miles of toll roads would pave over almost 53,000 acres of rural and wilderness lands.
Environmentalists are particularly concerned about intrusion into pristine areas like the Green Swamp, which forms the headwaters of four major rivers. The new toll roads would sever vital connections in the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
Several years ago, the state considered building a highway near Highlands County, the Heartland Parkway. Lindsay Cross, of Florida Conservation Voters, says that the proposed Southwest-Central Florida Connector is trying to resurrect the Heartland Parkway from the dead. We already decided that we don’t want it.
The amount of money collected at toll plazas is hardly trivial. The Miami Herald reports that drivers in Dade and Broward counties pay over $500 million every year. The tolls have been “steadily climbing” for a decade. The Orlando Sentinel reports that one driver saved $1,200 a year by changing her route to work.
Even the legislature shows some awareness of the cost of tolls. A law passed last year says that toll stations have to be five miles apart and requires a two-thirds majority of the governing board to raise a toll.
Are the toll roads we have a success at raising money? Not always. The Suncoast Parkway, which ends in Hernando County, is 42 miles and the charge for traveling the length of it is $4.75. It is not paying for itself.
Senate President Galvano says that putting toll roads through rural counties will spur development. At one hearing, a speaker pointed out that there are many square miles of rural territory adjacent to I-10. The freeway has been there for decades and hasn’t brought development.
Will these new toll roads relieve urban congestion? No, they pass through rural and wilderness areas. Florida is rated 40th in the condition of its infrastructure, which includes roads and bridges. You would think the legislature would be more interested in fixing that problem. First, fix the roads we have.
Dale Gillis is a Sebring resident. Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily that of the Highlands News-Sun.