Still No Toll Road Route Map; Panel Getting Restless About Uncertainty

Backers of the plan to build a toll road though southwest Florida’s heartland have been dangling the prospects of bringing better broadband and other utility infrastructure to rural communities to gain support for the project.

The idea created some backlash at Wednesday’s latest task force meeting in Sebring. That’s because, as local officials pointed out to the staff transportation staff who should already know this, it is hard to plan where to put water and sewer lines or fiber cable until you know where the road is going. And, that also means you have to know whether the road will run so you can decide whether it is feasible to even consider extending infrastructure to meet it.

That was true even for project supporters such as Polk County Commissioner Rick Wilson, a task force member. He said he was frustrated after sitting through five meetings since last summer that he still doesn’t have a clue where the road is going to run. This is vital so local officials will know where to invest, he said.

Other task force members said they were concerned about the disconnect between plans for the road and local growth plans, especially since state oversight of local growth plans has lapsed in recent years. Others said conservation planning ought to also be part of the discussion because of the great amount of environmentally sensitive lands containing rare and endangered species that lie within the study corridor.

The lack of good maps showing environmentally important lands that the road should avoid or mitigate was a recurring criticism from task force members and the public that commented after the formal meeting.

Ancient Islands Chair Tom Palmer and Conservation Chair Marian Ryan testified. Palmer said the idea that a new road can solve traffic congestion problems in the third most populous state in the nation is delusional. Ryan detailed the large amount of missing information in the mapping of conservation areas potentially in the road’s path.

Additionally, since the law requires local governments to amend their growth plans to accommodate the project, a number of local officials said state transportation officials have to give them detailed information on the route soon enough to act, citing the length of time it takes to develop amendments and to go through the review process.

There were also were unanswered questions about just what segment of the traffic on existing roads would use any new road that is built. That’s because a lot of the traffic on sometimes congested existing highways such as Interstate 75 is local traffic rather than long-distance traffic. That is, the new road may not go where they’re going.

That means unanswered questions remain a major component of the discussion though task force members are continuing to ask intelligent questions.

The next meeting will occur April 28 in Arcadia. Bring your questions.