Money for broadband access near toll roads advances in Senate
With Senate President Bill Galvano’s push for building three new toll roads drawing stiff opposition from communities in their path, a bill cleared a panel Tuesday promising $5 million to improve broadband access for residents near the highways.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law last year the state’s biggest highway expansion in six decades after Galvano endorsed the road work proposed by the transportation industry but opposed by many environmentalists and planners.
Public hearings underway on the 330 miles worth of projects have drawn a chorus of critics. And Galvano said efforts this year in the Legislature would focus on improving water, sewer and broadband connectivity in areas near the roads, a move which could mute some of the criticism.
The measure (SB 1166) approved Tuesday by the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee would set aside as much as $5 million a year beginning in 2022 to improve broadband access in the mostly rural communities adjacent to the toll roads.
The money would come from the $35 million the state expects to spend annually, with construction targeted to begin in 2022.
“It’s part of a comprehensive approach that assures the toll roads are bringing value to the region,” said Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, whose district includes part of a proposed new highway from the ranch and citrus groves of Polk County to the Gulf Coast, near Naples.
“We need to be thinking about the environmental aspects (of the roads) as well,” he added. “So we’re bringing a balance. It seems reasonable to me.”
Albritton said the roads will “bring some level of development for a part of Florida that largely gets left behind.”
Under legislation DeSantis signed in May, the Tampa-area Suncoast Parkway, which now stretches less than 60 miles from Hillsborough County to Citrus County, would extend another 150 miles to the Georgia line.
The new highway would serve as a hurricane evacuation route, but also bring development to central and north Florida counties. Many residents have criticized the roads as potentially hurting some existing businesses in the small towns along the routes, while threatening freshwater springs and greenspace.
The third toll road is a proposed 30-mile extension of Florida’s Turnpike from where it connects to Interstate 75 near Wildwood to the expanding Suncoast Parkway, a roadway expected to ease travel on the crowded interstate.
The Florida Department of Transportation is expected to draft plans for possible routes for the road before another round of public hearings in mid-February.
DOT officials have maintained that not building the roads remains an option for task forces reviewing the proposals and which are to release final recommendations in October. But few opponents think that’s likely, especially since state law doesn’t give them the final say on road construction.
This story originally published to heraldtribune.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.