Proposed toll road from Polk to Collier draws concerns from some environmental groups

Southwest Florida could be in line for a new toll road that would connect Polk County, south of Orlando, to Collier County. But an aggressive schedule, the potential for more sprawl and the possible fragmenting of Florida panther habitat has some environmental groups worried.

Although some see the ambitious plan as a potential driver for the local economy and a way to take pressure off existing north-south routes, others are wary of the damage they say the project could cause to wildlife and environmentally sensitive lands.

“The toll road itself is a disaster and it shouldn’t be funded,” said Julianne Thomas, a senior environmental planning specialist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES, program was born out of a bill passed during the past legislative session.

A map shows the area the Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force will study for a potential toll road from Polk to Collier counties.

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The proposed roads were a top priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has described the roads as a “new approach” in planning the state’s future, reducing congestion, providing new evacuation routes and offering a way to “revitalize” rural communities by expanding broadband, water and sewer infrastructure. 

Aside from adding a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk to Collier, the program would expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to the Georgia border and extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway. The proposals mark the biggest expansion of the state’s highway system since work on Florida’s Turnpike began in the mid-1950s.

Three task forces, made up of elected officials, environmentalists and other stakeholders, have been formed, one for each proposed corridor. They have been asked to make recommendations and deliver a final report to the governor and Legislature by October 2020.

“This is really a defining moment for our state...,” Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said during the first meeting in August, thanking the task force members for their willingness to serve “in these critical roles.” 

“And these roles are essential to be able to achieve what is in front of us, a Florida that is prepared for growth and population but still protects everything that makes the Sunshine State the best in the country.”

What the task forces will be asked to do

Officials from Southwest Florida are well represented on the task force for the connector from Polk to Collier, but the agency that will ultimately draw up the alignment for the roads is FDOT. For some task force members — who attended their first meeting last month in Tampa — that came as a surprise. 

“They were surprised that we weren’t gonna actually put pen to paper, do different routes,” said Margaret Wuerstle, executive director for the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. She attended the first meeting and is an alternate representative for the council on the Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force.

Florida residents are fleeing Hurricane Irma as it approaches the state. These are taken from an airplane showing Interstate 75 at the Florida Turnpike entrance in Wildwood on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017.

Other local representatives include Naples Councilman Reg Buxton who will represent the Collier Metropolitan Planning Organization on the task force and Commissioner Penny Taylor who will represent Collier County.

The corridor task forces are charged with a variety of responsibilities, including addressing issues such as hurricane evacuation; congestion mitigation; trade and logistics; broadband, water and sewer connectivity; “autonomos, connected, shared, and electric vehicle technology"; and other transportation modes, such as shared-use non-motorized trails, freight and passenger rail, and public transit. 

For the Southwest-Central Florida Connector the task force will also be asked to address the impacts of construction on panther and other critical wildlife habitat. It will be tasked with evaluating the need for acquisition of lands for state conservation or as mitigation for construction, and assessing wildlife crossing design features to protect panther and other critical wildlife habitat corridor connections.

“As we move forward we are continuing that commitment to protect and enhance Florida’s wildlife corridors and all of those environmentally sensitive areas that are identified within these different corridors,” Thibault said. “We’re also committed to protecting and enhancing the primary springs protection zones and the farmland preservation areas.”

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With some “pretty outspoken” members on the task force for Southwest and Central Florida, Wuerstle said she thinks FDOT will get “a lot of pushback,” if the agency makes many bad decisions. 

The connector “has the potential to really change Florida” and the rural counties, and is going to have a “major impact” on Southwest Florida, Wuerstle said, in part because it would open up “new land for development.”

It will be up to the task force members to know the issues and stay on top of things, she said.

“We need to watch it every step of the way,” Wuerstle said.

'It's fast-tracked'

The brisk pace at which the task forces are expected to move and make their recommendations has not gone unnoticed. With the final report due in just over a year, construction would begin by the end of 2022 with the corridors open to traffic before the end of 2030.

“I will say this, it’s fast-tracked,” said Collier County Commission Chairman Bill McDaniel who sits on the task force as the representative for the regional planning council. 

“They want their report out of the M-CORE committee by next October, within a year. So this is a take no prisoners, high impact agenda.”

To McDaniel the proposed road should follow the corridors that already exist “where it’s going to have the least amount of environmental impacts for habitats.” It could follow the US 27 and US 29 corridor, he said.

“To me that makes the most plausible sense,” he said.

McDaniel said he envisions it not being “an expressway from Orlando to (Interstate 75) down through the middle of the state on a new alignment,” but rather a “toll facility that goes through segments.” A perfect segment could be from LaBelle in Hendry County to Immokalee, he said.

“You put two lanes — two new lanes — that are funded by the toll and if you don’t want to travel on the Old 29 you travel on the New 29 and then you pay the toll,” McDaniel said.

McDaniel, whose district includes Immokalee, said his goal has long been to turn the rural farming community “into the economic epicenter of Collier County.” That is done via infrastructure, he said.

“If I give manufacturers the ability to come here, import raw materials, hire my people, produce finished goods and services and then ship those finished goods and services out by road or by air, everybody wins,” McDaniel said. “And infrastructure is the key to that.”

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For Immokalee, the proposed toll road could drive business to the rural but growing community and bring year-round jobs to an area that still largely depends on seasonal work, said Danny Gonzalez, president of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce.

"It opens the door for economic development here," said Gonzalez, who is supportive of the project and also owns Lozano's Mini Mart and Lozano's Mexican Restaurant in Immokalee.

The proposed road could help bring a big-box store like Walmart to Immokalee and would also benefit the town's airport, Gonzalez said.

"It'll help Immokalee," he said.

To Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, who also sits on the task force representing his county, the proposed north-south road could also give relief to I-75. The interstates were “clogged up” during Hurricane Irma two years ago and gasoline wasn’t able to get here, he said.

Pendergrass, too, agrees that expanding along existing corridors would hopefully mitigate the impact on the environment.

“Those roads are already in place,” he said.

Conservancy: toll road is 'environmentally reckless'

But for some environmental groups concerns remain.

The toll road, from what is known to date, looks to be “financially irresponsible as well as environmentally reckless,” said Thomas, who attended the August meeting for the Conservancy but does not sit on the task force. 

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The group doesn’t believe the road is necessary, she said.

“It’s difficult for us to conceive of a path that would be acceptable,” Thomas said. “That wouldn’t impact a huge amount of wetlands, that wouldn’t fragment Florida panther habitat, that could in any way be acceptable to our organization.”

A female Florida panther trips a camera trap set up by USA TODAY NETWORK - FLORIDA photographer Andrew West at the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. The panther likely has kittens, said Dave Onorato, Florida panther research scientist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. There is a teat visible in the photo. How the notch came to be in her ear is unknown.

The Conservancy is most concerned about the recovery and survival of the endangered panther and fragmenting the existing habitat “is not going to help” with that, Thomas said. The project is going to increase the possibility for vehicle-panther collisions and potentially open up areas of additional development for both commercial or residential uses, which would take even more much-needed habitat, she said.

Because the panther is considered an “umbrella species,” protecting it also would help protect other habitats for other endangered species, Thomas said. And while wildlife crossings are important, “it’s better to not build the road if it’s not necessary,” she said.

Instead of a toll road, Thomas said, the initiative should focus on hardening infrastructure, building safe hurricane shelters, creating programs to extend broadband to rural counties and connect more people to sewer — all things that are part of the goals of the M-CORES effort.

“Just because we don’t think that a toll road is good, it doesn’t mean that none of the goals of this program are good,” she said. “But what we hope is that the task force moving forward will focus on the areas of the program that do make sense for our part of the state.”

Thomas, too, noted the project’s “extremely aggressive” time frame, which she said doesn’t leave an appropriate amount of time to determine whether there is a need "and because of that we do sort of feel like they’re operating as if there’s going to be a toll road regardless of what the recommendations are."

“That is a concern that makes it feel like it’s a done deal even if it isn’t,” she said.

Roads present challenge to conservation efforts

Another concern for some environmentalists is how a proposed road could impact the region’s hydrology. 

Roads transform landscapes and are “one of the greatest challenges that we face in conservation efforts,” said Meredith Budd, Southwest Florida field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation.

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Budd, who also attended the first meeting in August, pointed to the Picayune Strand State Forest where roads are being removed as part of an effort to help restore the forest. 

“If you’re thinking about roadways, they act almost as dams,” she said. “They alter hydrology, they end up conveying, you know, polluted runoff into our water, and as a state we’ve been spending billions of dollars to help to restore the Everglades.”

The Federation was among the groups opposing the bill that created the toll road proposals. 

Now that it has passed and the effort is moving ahead, having experts and stakeholders on the task forces, Budd said, presents an opportunity to make sure “that these projects don’t at least undermine all of the good conservation work that we’ve done and worked for and invested heavily in over the years.”

This isn’t the first time building a north-south connector from Polk to Collier has been considered. 

The newest proposal is sort of a successor to what was called the Heartland Parkway about a decade ago, said Brad Cornell, Southwest Florida policy associate for Audubon of the Western Everglades and Audubon Florida, which has a representative on the task force.

But whereas the Heartland Parkway was “basically a whole new road being dictated to us without any real planning or accommodation of good protection” of resources, water, wildlife, farms and ranches, Cornell said, in this case planning is being put first.

“I’m concerned, but I’m reassured that planning has been required up front,” he said. “And so that gives me some comfort.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

Connect with the reporter at or on Twitter @PatJRiley.