Sprawl Highways Back On State Agenda

I guess if anyone had any hopes of the new administration in Tallahassee’s reviving strong growth-management regulations in Florida, all they had to do was to listen to Senate President Bill Galvano’s announcement this week.

Galvano announced that he was going to push for the revival of some controversial toll roads that would cut through the still relatively rural Florida heartland.

The one that affects this part of the state is what I jokingly called the Loughman-LaBelle Expressway, a road that would cut from around the Polk-Osceola line at Interstate 4 almost to the Gulf of Mexico north of Fort Myers.

It was unveiled several years ago in a lengthy piece in Florida Trend magazine as a plan by some well-connected large landowners to open the rural lands to future development.

The only surviving segment of that idea at the moment is a section of the Central Polk Parkway, which is a proposed local toll road that would supposedly handle the projected increase in truck traffic generated by the CSX freight terminal and surrounding proposed industrial development on the south side of Winter Haven near State Road 60 on the outskirts of the rural community of Alturas.

Another section that would run through rural areas of northeast Polk County to I-4 is on hold at the moment after state turnpike officials concluded it wouldn’t generate enough toll revenue to justify its cost.

The idea behind these roads is a familiar one heard from the development/road-building lobby is that providing new highways is the path to prosperity, though they often couch the need in the old standby of improving hurricane evacuation routes to mask their true intentions.

The fact is that there already is a state highway system serving a lot of these areas, just perhaps not serving the exact tract that some people have in mind for development and perhaps not ample enough to handle the traffic from a new city.

Galvano reportedly brushed off past criticisms of these roads from the environmental community, arguing we’re always going to be opposed to something.

The facts are that we have sound reasons for our opposition.

The first is that these roads encourage urban sprawl that would cut off any chance of protecting Florida’s remaining network of wildlife corridors that would allow wide-ranging species such as Florida panthers and Florida black bears to survive. If you doubt this, look at the accompanying map of the study corridor and compare it with the alternative 2070 growth scenario for Florida and see if you see a pattern.

The second is that the existence of new roads restricts the ability to manage public and private conservation lands that already exist by presenting more challenges for smoke management related to the prescribed fire that is necessary to maintain healthy habitat.

Finally, it seems that public transportation funds could be spent in a more environmentally sustainable way.

The good news so far is that the expense of these projects will give us time to build a case against them because it will take years to generate the funds even to conduct some of the preliminary work to try to justify them.