Publication: The Ledger

The impact of COVID-19 could have Florida’s economy reeling for a long time to come. Tax revenue will be down. The state budget will be stretched to the point of snapping. Hard — even cruel — decisions will be made.

Here’s what Floridians don’t need now: Three brand-new and largely unnecessary toll roads cutting through rural communities and severing critical wildlife corridors, sucking hundreds of millions of dollars (that will likely never be recouped in toll revenue) from state coffers. It’s a project that’s looking more and more like a gift to the state’s well-heeled road-building industry and a few fortunate landowners — an ill-considered use of state funds in good times, but an utter travesty considering Florida’s new fiscal reality.

The “toll roads to nowhere,” as many call them, were a pet project of outgoing Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. His influence, and a frenzy of last-minute dealmaking, got the roads approved in the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session. They include a 150-mile extension of the Suncoast Parkway, from Citrus County to the Georgia state line, as much as 150 more miles of road from Polk County to the Gulf Coast and a 30-mile extension of the Florida Turnpike to connect it to the Suncoast Parkway.

It’s hard to find anyone besides the handful of very powerful proponents who thinks the roads are a good idea. Environmental and smart-growth groups are still nearly unanimous in their opposition, and last week, the Levy County Commission approved a resolution objecting to two of the roads expected to cut through the county, as reported by Craig Pittman of the Florida Phoenix.

So far, Pittman reports, the coronavirus crisis seems to have had only one impact on the road projects: Three task forces, one on each road, have been given an extra month and a half to submit their reports.There are already signs that some members of the task forces feel the skids are greased, if a January letter from the state’s leading smart-growth group, 1,000 Friends of Florida, is any indication. In the letter, 1,000 Friends’ board chair Susan L. Trevarthen says each task force is being discouraged from asking whether the roads are really needed, and denied data needed to evaluate the roads’ economic feasibility.

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