SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ for the first month

Watchdog groups raise financial concerns over Suncoast toll road

Jeffrey Schweers
USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau
Walton Sun

Two government watchdog groups are urging fiscal oversight and more financial details for a proposed 150-mile toll road between Citrus and Jefferson counties, one of three projects to expand the state's toll road system and stimulate the economy in rural areas.

Florida TaxWatch and 1000 Friends of Florida released their recommendations Monday, a day before the task force for the Suncoast Connector is set to meet.

The Suncoast Connector is one of three new parkways to be financed with toll revenues as part of outgoing GOP Senate President Bill Galvano's signature Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance plan (M-CORES) approved by the Legislature in 2019.

More:Citizen Primer on M-CORES projects (1000 Friends)

"As reflected in these recommendations, we firmly believe that before hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on planning the three corridors, there first should be a formal determination of need and financial feasibility pursuant to state (and federal where applicable) guidelines," 1000 Friends said in an email. "Only if both need and feasibility are determined, should planning proceed for the applicable corridors."

While Florida TaxWatch said it supports transportation infrastructure projects, it also pointed out there has been no feasibility study, as required by state law, to ensure the project doesn't become overcome with debt and require a state bailout. In fact, the MCORES law was passed before any needs analysis or environmental impact study was conducted.

"But as with all taxpayer-funded investments, what must be carefully analyzed—and yet remains to be examined—is whether this multi-billion-dollar investment is likely to pay off for Floridians in the expected time frame," Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro said in his introductory letter to the report.

More:The Suncoast Connector: What We Still Need to Know (Florida TaxWatch)

"It is vitally important for these fiscal issues to be thoroughly examined beforehand to protect current and future taxpayers, as well as Florida’s financial health."

The Suncoast Connector Task Force meeting starts 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and is scheduled to go till 4 p.m. The purpose is to discuss high level needs and guiding principles.

The Legislature set aside $45 million for the first year. The 2020-21 budget signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis includes $760 million for M-CORES through 2025.

Road construction must begin by law by December 31, 2022 and open to traffic eight years later.

Galvano, business leaders tout the benefits such a large-scale project could have on rural communities, including hurricane evacuation, congestion mitigation, economic development and increased Internet connectivity.

Environmentalists have cautioned the project would open vast untouched wildlife habitats and farmland to unchecked development and potentially damaging Florida's water supply; 40% of Taylor County and 43% of Lafayette County are wetlands, the TaxWatch study said.

Among the recommendations from 1000 Friends is a “no build”.option.

But if the state goes forward with the Suncoast corridor, the group wants to see:

– Protection of existing downtowns and communities, and protection of community character

– Prevention of urban sprawl and protection of agricultural lands

– Avoidance of impacts to tribal lands and cultural sites with human remains

– Creation of sustainable business opportunities

– Protection of aquifer recharge areas, springs, Outstanding Florida Waters, lakes and other surface water, conservation areas, environmentally significant lands and state parks

– Location of roads in manner that minimizes fragmentation of biodiversity, wildlife habitat corridors and critical agricultural lands.

"A major new road will alter the flow of freshwater across the Big Bend, affecting rivers, wetlands and estuaries," the report said. At least 20 endangered species live within the corridor, and a new major high-speed road could increase the number of roadkill, some critics and task force members said.

Another 69% of the area is farmland, TaxWatch noted in its report, raising concerns that a major highway will bisect farms and harm the state's agriculture industry. Concerns about traffic and isolating small, rural communities have also been raised.

Since its passage, FDOT has conducted regular task force and community meetings to get input from local officials and residents.

"Despite this extensive public discourse, what they are arguing about is largely theoretical, as many questions remain about the program itself and the specific projects (that) comprise it," Calabro said.

After months of task force and community meetings, much is still unknown, including the potential routes for the three toll roads. Florida TaxWatch hopes to fill that gap with its own 32-page report of recommendations for the Suncoast Connector portion.

"Essentially, this analysis focuses on the need for, cost of, and revenue potential from the Suncoast Connector toll road as an expansion of Florida’s Turnpike System," Calabro said.

The entire 320-mile network of toll roads is projected to cost $1.1 billion, although environmental groups estimated costs could be as much as $20 billion based on similar projects.

The TaxWatch report estimated the cost could range from $4 billion to $10.5 billion, "which makes it doubtful that using bonds alone to pay for the construction portion of total costs would be feasible, at least with toll rates that are in-line with the rest of the Turnpike."

TaxWatch estimated the Suncoast Connector would have to produce $2.37 million a mile to pay off the bonds to cover 70 percent of the total cost of construction. If toll revenues don't cover the costs, then the rest of the Turnpike system will have to subsidize it, TaxWatch reported.

Contact Jeff Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

Subscribe today and never miss a story.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Watchdog groups raise financial concerns over Suncoast toll road