The battle was between, “Let’s talk about no-build” and “Let’s make sure it gets built right,” at the second meeting of the southern toll road task force Wednesday.
The 47-member task force met at Polk State College in Lakeland — Florida’s heartland.
Opposition to the road came mainly from environmental groups, although DeSoto County Commissioner Elton Langford expressed fear that a way of life for farmers and ranchers would be disrupted with no promise of real economic benefit.
The task force’s job at this meeting was to set priorities for natural resources, members were told by facilitators from the Florida Department of Transportation. They were told to stick with the themes of “avoid and minimize” this meeting.
“One of the things I would like to ‘avoid’ is constructing any roads,” was the retort from Shannon Estenoz of The Everglades Foundation. “That’s what I’m willing to talk about.”
Countering the no-build agitators, local officials urged collaboration.
“It’s going to happen,” Highlands County Commissioner Jim Brooks said later of the project, which was ordered by the legislature this summer. “We have got to do this in a way that has the least impact.”
This was the second meeting since August in the race to complete a report to the state legislature by Oct. 1, 2020. They are one of three task forces developing guidelines on how to the build their section of a 350-mile toll road that would stretch from Collier County to the Georgia border through the state’s rural center. The southern third is the largest of the three sections with the most counties and the highest populations. Charlotte and DeSoto counties are on the task force, although only slivers of land could be included.
Two Charlotte County commissioners expressed initial dismay in August that they were not being asked to help locate the road. Commissioner Chris Constance told the Sun he is more optimistic since his initial uncomfortable feelings.
Speaking to the task force, Constance said Southwest Florida has an opportunity to avoid the over-urbanization that has engulfed Southeast Florida.
“It is paved from stem to stern,” he said of Southeast Florida. “There is a cost to putting the corridor in, but there’s also a cost to not planning. We have opportunities here.”
Constance recommended, for example, identifying mining locations and considering sending the road through those as already compromised.
Other task force members questioned the authority of their body, saying the state legislature short-cut both the task force and FDOT when it narrowly passed the law this summer, ordering the massive project to begin by 2022. FDOT has studied a heartland toll road in the past and concluded that it would not pay for itself, nor would it alleviate congestion.
Outside the meeting, FDOT District One Secretary L.K. Nandam told the Sun that the authority of the task force will be apparent in the final analysis.
“When the road is routed in this area, we will say it is because the task force said to minimize this (resource destruction), and when it is routed here, it is because the task force said to minimize that,” he explained.
FDOT can still recommend the so-called “no build” option, he insisted. He acknowledged, however, that given mandates in the legislation, FDOT would have to get legislative approval in that case.