Controversial Polk toll road back in state’s hands

A year after the Polk County Commission voted unanimously to form their own expressway authority to try to find another way to build the controversial n Central Polk Parkway, I learned recently the idea has been quietly dropped and any future development of the project would be handled the Florida Department of Transportation’s Turnpike District.

Polk officials voted to form the authority after FDOT officials announced in late 2015 that they would not fund further planning for the road because their analysis showed it was not financially feasible at this time.

The only portion of the 50-mile, $1.5 billion project that is under active consideration at the moment is a short section between the Polk Parkway near the county landfill and the area around the CSX rail freight center in south Winter Haven. That section has not been controversial.

The controversy—Sierra Club has been on record in opposition—involves the larger section that would loop through rural areas east of Haines City in the Marion Creek basin, potentially opening the area to more development and making the use of prescribed fire for land management more difficult because of smoke management conflicts a new road and subsequent surrounding development will cause.

That section of the road has the backing of Haines City area economic development boosters who, to their credit, have been pretty up front in supporting the road primarily as an economic development project rather than the solution to traffic congestion on U.S. 27. The latter was the official line from Polk County planners when the project was first proposed in 2008.

It has been clear from correspondence I’ve seen that the proposed road’s ability to advance real estate development has been the main topic of local officials’ inquiries about the project’s status.

That’s in contrast to Lakeland leaders’ coyness about the purpose of the Polk Parkway, which began as simply the desire for another route between Florida Avenue and U.S. 98 and grew into a toll road that spurred a lot of new development in Lakeland and Auburndale.

Whether that road ever generated enough toll revenue to justify its construction remains an unanswered question.

Also unknown is when FDOT officials will re-evaluate the rural section of the Central Polk Parkway. This isn’t over yet.

Posted in Group Conservation Issues.