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Future corridors: planning or payola

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 04:59 PM

Florida needs an integrated and well-maintained transportation system.

But the cost of building and maintaining roads far exceeds the money the state has for that work. We have an infrastructure deficit. Despite not having the necessary funds through tolls and general revenue dollars to proceed with the projects already included in the work program, well-connected landowners have applied political pressure to purchase rights-of-way and build new toll roads to direct development near their land.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) describes this plan, the Future Corridors, as a cooperative effort with the Florida Transportation Commission to work with statewide, regional, and local partners to identify corridors that will be significantly improved, transformed or built over the next 50 years.

Wow, that sounds pretty good. Could this be a visionary plan or simply a way to direct road building to people with the right political connections?

Well, let's look at some of the major players and their roles in how this program got started and how it weathered three gubernatorial administrations.

The Future Corridors Program generally refers to at least four toll roads that would crisscross the state's rural areas to spur economic growth. Over the past six to eight years, a well-hatched plan was put into motion often with the Legislature and FDOT taking action that got little or no scrutiny. Some examples:

The Need for a State Report:

A group of politically influential landowners primarily based in the state's interior organized to devise a plan. With the help of lobbyists and a few like-minded legislators, they urged Gov. Jeb Bush to support their plan to acquire right-of-way and to start planning highway projects. "Florida's Future Corridors Action Plan" was released in 2006 by FDOT "in cooperation with its partners."

The Legislature designates areas of critical state concern:

The report describes the need for rural economic development and the Legislature designates three regions as Rural Areas of Critical State Concern. They are the interior counties of South Florida; counties around the Apalachicola River along the Northwest Gulf Coast; and the area between Gainesville, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. These areas match up with the group's plan for their highway corridors.

Extending the period for feasibility:

An attempt to push the development of a corridor in the "heartland" was rebuffed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who cited the fact that there would not be enough traffic to generate the tolls to pay for the highway. Florida law requires that a proposed toll road become profitable in 20 years. After Crist left office, those same legislators quietly changed the legal threshold to 30 years, making it much easier to justify construction.

Increasing Bonding Authority:

In 2007 the Republican-controlled Legislature, which generally opposes more debt, increased the bonding authority so the state could borrow more money for its roads program.

As the economy soured, money for roads was drying up. A few legislators tried repeatedly to increase the bonding authority even though a bond finance report showed that the state was dangerously close to its debt limit.

Folding Expressway Authorities into the Turnpike Authority:

Several high-ranking senators proposed the merger on the assumption that a single large authority would be able to borrow money more easily. In 2011 a coalition of Tampa and Orlando senators, who saw the merger as a raid on the tolls collected through their expressway authorities, killed the plan. Undeterred, the same players tried a different tact in 2012. They kept the expressway authorities as independent entities but provided for revenue sharing to assist in their desire for increased bonding capability.

Funding A Small Future Corridor Segment As A Connector:

The Heartland Parkway had been put on hold to the chagrin of its powerful supporters. To justify the need for a new north/south corridor through the state's interior, some of the landowners and their allies directed state-funded projects into the vicinity, building potential ridership. Proponents hoped their chances to resurrect the Heartland Parkway would fare better under Gov. Rick Scott. The new effort was a smaller bite of the apple. Using their political influence, they were able to persuade FDOT to add an extension of the existing Polk Parkway as a connector to their much desired Heartland Parkway, jumping over many projects further along in the planning, design and engineering. While one can make a case for addressing future needs, what about our present needs?

Is it fair to the residents of Poinciana, an unincorporated area spanning Polk and Osceola counties, who have been begging for a road that would connect the greater Poinciana area and its 83,000 residents with Interstate 4 via County Road 54? With their transportation needs underserved for more than a decade, isn't this where we should concentrate our limited transportation dollars? On the taxpayers who are in an underserved area?

A New State Study By The Same Cast Of Characters:

The Associated Press recently reported that "as part of its future corridors effort, the state is spending as much as $106,000 to have consultants interview major landowners across the state to find out about their development plans. The consultants are also supposed to come up with ways that the state could strike deals with these landowners to set aside land for what would most likely be toll roads."

The Players?

The two people conducting these interviews are Billy Buzzett, formerly of the St. Joe Development Company and Scott's head of the Department of Community Affairs until the agency was dissolved in 2011, and Chris Corr, also formerly with St. Joe and now the executive vice president of AECOM, a development consulting company.

The landowners include Lykes Brothers, U.S. Sugar Corp, Collier Enterprises and Alico. Many of them were part of the original group that first approached the governor and FDOT with their idea of a Future Corridors Program.

It seems we've come full circle. Was it an informed Legislature openly debating the need for future corridors at the expense of current projects? More likely, it was the tail wagging the dog.


Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at pdockery@floridavoices.com.
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