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Toll road routes could emerge in early 2020

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Potential environmental impacts from a series of controversial toll-road projects could start to be known shortly after the start of the new year.

Will Watts, chief engineer for the Florida Department of Transportation, said Wednesday that preliminary routes for the three projects will be based on input from task forces over the next couple of months, with a focus on what to "avoid and minimize first."

"Once we understand where we don't want to go, from an environmental standpoint, then lines will start being drawn in January," Watts told members of the House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee.

With Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, making the issue a priority, lawmakers this spring passed a plan aimed at building and extending toll roads. The proposed roads are intended to expand the Suncoast Parkway from the Tampa Bay area to Jefferson County; extend the Florida Turnpike west to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and add a new multi-use corridor, including a toll road, from Polk County to Collier County.

The projects were put on a fast track, with three task forces created to consider issues such as routes and environmental impacts. But the timeline for mapping out initial routes, in advance of project development and environmental studies, appeared "pretty fast" to House Transportation & Tourism Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City.

Trumbull told reporters that maybe "a few more" task force meetings are needed before preliminary lines are set.

"I would imagine the onus is on the department to make sure there is enough public input, so it doesn't look like a card trick," Trumbull said.

Watts said that the project development and environmental study process, takes some time because of required environmental documentation.

"So, the earlier we can start the planning and segmentation, the earlier we can start PD&E," Watts said.

The task forces -- known as the "Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance," or M-CORES, task forces -- have met once, in a joint introductory session in August. Two of the panels will meet again next week.

Watts said after Wednesday's meeting that no routes have been drawn for the roads.

The legislation establishing the task forces outlined environmental areas to avoid, such as springs, aquifers and conservation lands.

"Building new facilities is not something new to the department," Watts said. "We try to avoid and minimize all environmental areas as best we can."

Galvano has described the roads as a "new approach" in planning the state's future, reducing congestion, providing alternative evacuation routes and offering a way to "revitalize" rural communities through the expansion of broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.

But the proposals have drawn opposition from some environmental groups, particularly the Sierra Club and the Florida Conservation Voters, which have argued that extending or adding toll roads would lead to sprawling development and endanger habitats.

The roads have been backed by organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.

The task forces are comprised of local officials, environmentalists, representatives of agricultural interests, transportation planners, members of business groups and educators.

Despite his concerns about fast-tracking where the routes may go, Trumbull said the roads will result in a "significant investment" in parts of the state.

"Those are big dollar amounts that employ a lot of people," Trumbull said. "These are economic drivers to some counties."

A final report to the governor and Legislature is supposed to be ready by Oct. 1, 2020. Construction would begin by the end of 2022, with the roads open to traffic before Dec. 31, 2030. Lawmakers designated $45 million toward the work in the current year, with annual funding expected to grow to $140 million.

The Northern Connector Task Force, which will study the extension of the turnpike, will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the College of Central Florida Citrus Learning Center in Lecanto. A day later, the Suncoast Connector Task Force, which will study the extension of the Suncoast Parkway to Jefferson County, will meet at 10 a.m., also at the Lecanto facility.