Task force members still confused about process, need for proposed toll roads

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Some task force members planning for a mandated toll road from just south of Orlando to the Naples area seemed confused Thursday as to why they are considering the roadway at all. 

Although the group has met six times in recent months, mostly online due to the coronavirus pandemic, some members still aren't sure that a limited access toll road from central to Southwest Florida would serve local communities on the route or even help Floridians make it from one part of the state to the other.  

Unlike other major roadways, the idea for this and two other toll roads came from lawmakers, not from DOT engineers and planners — as is typically the case. 

Task force members have pointed that fact out in past meetings. 

Some attending Thursday's online Florida Department of Transportation meeting simply want to put the brakes on a project that was signed into law late in the 2019 legislative session.  

"If you look at the governor’s website, he has literally issued hundreds of executive orders changing how things are happening," said Andrew Dickman, a task force member representing 1,000 Friends of Florida. "He has the authority to slow things down, even pause it. We’re barreling toward the deadline and in no way is this the appropriate method." 

DOT presenters spent much of the day explaining the more than 11,000 comments that have been collected so far.

A DOT map shows the general area where the state's Southwest connector toll road is being planned.

Instead of separating the comments into sections of "in favor" or "against" the roadway, DOT put the comments in categories like environmental impacts, wetland impacts and pollution. 

DOT didn't break down the numbers to see how many of the respondents actually wanted the road. 

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Collier County commissioner and task force member Penny Taylor said she's worried the state is rushing the process, and that having recommendations completed and ready for the governor's office by November is unreasonable. 

"I think this is something we have to face squarely and I think we need to make adjustments and if we can get consensus of this group, I think a letter needs to be sent to whoever that asks to move forward, of course, but not because of a date that I’m not understanding," Taylor said. "I think we need to move in that direction and allow this to be moved out. It’s far too much given the duress and stress people are under today." 

Map of proposed M-Cores toll roads in Florida

Two other roads are being pushed at the same time, and both of those have tasks forces as well. 

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The Suncoast Parkway will travel from the Tampa area north to Georgia. This route could be built along the existing portion of Highway 19 or run parallel to it while the Northern Turnpike Connector will connect the future Suncoast Parkway with the existing Florida Turnpike. 

Backers of the three roadways say in addition to the highways bringing broadband to rural areas, they will take congestion off other major travel corridors and bring economic growth to local communities.

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DOT engineer Will Watts said some improvements can be made to the corridors ahead of construction, even though the planning area for the roadway spans from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Okeechobee. 

Again, no actual route has been proposed or selected. 

"As we progress with this corridor development, we can do a lot of enhancements and improvements, and that’s what we want to get to," Watts said. "What are some of those steps we can take while we’re still studying the corridor?" 

Several members of the public who spoke said they were against the toll road and that there has been no economic feasibility study to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a road no one seems to want. 

"There has been no needs analysis for this project and that’s the nail in the coffin," said Matthew Schwartz, with the South Florida Wildlands Association. "And (remember), this is not the first boondoggle that Florida has faced." 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadGillisNP on Twitter.