TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Three new toll roads in Florida will create jobs. That much is clear – but the rest isn’t when it comes to figuring out how the roads might benefit – or possibly hurt – the rural communities they’re designed to help.
Will these roads lead to economic ruin or prosperity? Will they create the right kind of jobs in the right places? Arguments are being made on both sides – and the answers depend on who you ask, where they are and who they represent in the state.
One reason the potential economic impact is so fuzzy? The exact routes haven’t been determined for the roads that would expand Florida’s toll system by more than 300 miles.
There’s been mixed reaction from government, business and community leaders in the counties, cities and towns that are part of the three study areas. Some want to see the roads move full-speed ahead, while others want to put the brakes on them, especially environmentalists who argue the costs will be much bigger than the benefits.
Then there are those who are somewhere in between, or just undecided.
One toll road, called the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, would go from Collier County to Polk County.
Another, known as the Suncoast Connector, would extend from Citrus County to Jefferson County.
The other, named the Northern Turnpike Connector, would link the northern end of Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway.
Road builders will benefit in a big way from the 10-year project. So will construction workers and landowners in their path. Supporters see lasting economic impacts in the communities they’ll touch – and a change for the better.
According to its website, the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program is “intended to revitalize rural communities, encourage job creation and provide regional connectivity while leveraging technology, enhancing the quality of life and public safety, and protecting the environment and natural resources.”
Some of the touted benefits? Improved hurricane evacuation routes, shorter travel times, more trade opportunities, better logistics and enhanced broadband services.
‘A very good thing’
In Collier County, some business and community leaders would welcome the new toll road with open arms, as a way to support growth, improve traffic flow and create jobs in poorer areas that need it most, such as Immokalee.
“Southwest and Central Florida will benefit dramatically from a connector road like this, mostly for improved freight and trucking and distribution. That is really the biggest impact we would see in Southwest Florida,” said Justin Thibaut, president of LSI Cos., a commercial real estate brokerage and development firm based in Fort Myers.
The message he wants to get across? “This is a very good thing,” he said. “This is something that is needed.”
The toll road will lead to more trade and commerce between Southwest Florida and other parts of the state and new construction and development along its route, translating to more jobs, Thibaut said.
Danny Gonzalez, a business owner and president of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce, couldn’t agree more. He’s a big cheerleader for the new road, saying it could put his heavily agricultural town “back on the map.”
“I will put my name on the line for this,” he said. The chamber hasn’t taken a stand one way or the other, but Gonzalez said he sees the many economic benefits that could come from the new road – including more development – and that’s why he’s “100% supportive.”
“We need more housing here,” he said. “There are a lot of people who want to live in Immokalee and stay in Immokalee, and this could open up jobs here. People can work and stay in Immokalee.”
His support for the new road, he said, doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the environment, or the potential loss of farmland to development. Gonzalez grew up picking tomatoes in Immokalee, but it’s a tough job that doesn’t pay well, he said, and he wants to see better opportunities for future generations. “We need to make some changes and infrastructure will make a lot of good changes around us,” he said.
The poverty rate in Immokalee is greater than 40%.
“We don’t have the Walmarts. We don’t have the big-boxes and it’s a struggle,” Gonzalez said.
Jace Kentner, Collier County’s former economic development director, said the toll road would be the “biggest economic engine” to affect Collier County since medical device manufacturer Arthrex came to town decades ago. The North Naples-based manufacturer, which continues to expand, is one of the county’s largest employers.
“The exposure of north and eastern Collier County to transportation opens an economic corridor that would significantly impact and propel the diversification of Collier County,” he said via email a few months ago.
While there aren’t many details on the proposed road yet, Kentner described the concept as “genius.” The county, he said, can’t compete for “great companies looking to move to Florida” because Interstate 75 is the only major artery and there isn’t railroad access to transport goods to other parts of the state – or beyond.
The Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce – a voice for Collier County businesses – hasn’t taken a formal position on the connector, which some are calling the Heartland Parkway, but it’s generally supportive, said President and CEO Michael Dalby. Such a parkway has been proposed before and never built.
“We believe that the road can provide hurricane access and also be an economic driver, particularly for the rural community along the pathway,” he said.
The new road could open the door for more manufacturers to locate in Southwest Florida, Dalby said, building on the opportunities that will arise from the expansion of the Airglades International Airport, which in itself is expected to add 1,000 jobs starting in 2021 with its transition into a multi-billion-dollar commercial hub for perishable cargo.
Environmental groups in Southwest Florida and elsewhere in the state aren’t as enthused about the toll roads, fearing they’ll lead to more sprawl and do more harm to wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther, which mostly roams in the southern parts of the state, including rural Collier County.
The project looks to be “financially irresponsible as well as environmentally reckless,” Julianne Thomas, a senior environmental planning specialist with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, recently told a Naples Daily News reporter.
“It’s difficult for us to conceive of a path that would be acceptable,” Thomas said. “That wouldn’t impact a huge amount of wetlands, that wouldn’t fragment Florida panther habitat, that could in any way be acceptable to our organization.”
No Roads to Ruin Coalition
Florida environmentalists have teamed up to fight each of the toll roads, forming the No Roads to Ruin Coalition. Cris Costello, an organizing manager for the Sierra Club and a coalition leader, said the new roads could result in sprawl or just the opposite – bypassing the rural communities they’re meant to help and draining away their traffic and any prospect of economic activity.
“Roads don’t necessarily bring people out of poverty,” she said. “They can add to it.”
She pointed out that South Florida has many toll roads, and it still has high poverty rates, especially Miami-Dade County. While the exits near the new toll roads could create jobs around them, Costello questions whether they’ll be the right kind of jobs.
“Do they want a McDonald’s and a gas station and a Burger King and a Kentucky Fried Chicken or maybe a Village Inn? Or do they want local businesses, where the profits actually stay in the community and don’t go out of the community?” she asked.
She suggests the new businesses could hurt the local mom and pops that have operated for years – and questions whether the new employers will pay a living wage.
Diana Umpierre, Everglades organizer for the Sierra Club, said a rural community doesn’t need a new highway to be strong. There are many factors that can make a community strong, she said, from the incentives they offer to help businesses thrive to the amenities they provide to help residents live a good life. The tight deadlines for the three task forces that are scrutinizing the projects – and the tight timelines for construction – could lead to poor planning and to the repeat of past mistakes, such as the draining of the Everglades, Umpierre said.
“These rural areas, these counties, we want them to prosper,” she said, “but we don’t want to make the same mistakes like we’ve done in the past.”
The task forces are slated to deliver their final analysis and reports by Oct. 1. The goal is to start construction by 2022.
Keeping up with growth
A coalition called Connecting Florida has formed to push for the toll roads. Members include such organizations as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the American Council of Engineering Companies of Florida, the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Trucking Association.
David Hart, executive vice president of the Florida Chamber, one of the biggest proponents of the toll roads, said they’re critical to support Florida’s growth – and without them growth could be hampered.
Between now and 2030, the state is expected to grow by 4.5 million people. The state has been adding more than 900 new residents each day – and at the same time tourism has been growing, putting more traffic and congestion on the state’s roads.
Although the state is thriving with historically low unemployment, some rural counties, cities and towns have been stagnant and feel left behind, including places such as Hendry County in Southwest Florida, which continues to have the state’s highest jobless rate, Hart said.
“With a state like Florida, growing as fast as we are, we have to make investments in infrastructure, or we are going to have frustrated citizens, frustrated visitors, and in many ways harm our opportunities for economic growth,” he said.
He points out there was strong opposition to Florida’s Turnpike, which opened in stages between 1957 and 1964, and to Alligator Alley, which debuted in 1968, connecting the east and west coasts of Florida via Broward and Collier counties.
“Can you imagine if we didn’t have those linkages?” he asked.
Roads can be huge drivers of economic growth, as shown by the construction of new highways and by expansion projects across the state over the years, Hart said. Based on the latest statistics he’s seen, Hart said investments in infrastructure can generate $4.40 of economic impact for every $1 spent.
The cost to build the three roads has been estimated at as much as $10 billion, so using that formula they could generate an economic impact of $44 billion.
The Florida Chamber supports the roads for several reasons, including the potential to improve internet connectivity and to make hurricane evacuations smoother and safer in the more rural areas of the state.
Ken Armstrong, CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, said his group supports the roads because alternative routes are needed for transporting goods and the interstate system – designed so many years ago – doesn’t cut it.
“Florida’s roads are so congested now that the cost back in 2018 from trucks going substantially under the speed limit was $5.6 billion. … So that is $5.6 billion extra people are paying for all those goods, milk, oranges, furniture and fuel and everything else, on those trucks,” he said.
In other words it isn’t just a problem for truckers, Armstrong argued.
“I want it to get better before it gets worse,” he said. “If Florida continues to grow and if we don’t find a way to reduce congestion, not just for trucks, but cars as well, we are all going to regret it.”
What happens to the communities alongside the new roads will depend heavily on what those communities decide they want, whether they want to draw in new industry and create jobs or to remain more quiet, slower-paced communities, Armstrong said.
“There are a lot of possibilities these corridors will open up,” he said, “but I don’t think anybody knows for sure what will happen in a certain county or certain city along the roads. We’re just too early in the process to know that.”
Matthew Simmons, a principal with Maxwell, Hendry & Simmons, real estate appraisers and consultants in Fort Myers, agrees. Unlike some critics, he doesn’t believe the new toll roads will lead to sprawl since they’ll be limited access roads, which means exits will be fewer and farther between and they’ll be designed for longer-distance commutes, not for day-to-day traffic.
“I think that so much of what this looks like in its impact is just going to be a function of where it goes, and we just don’t know that yet,” Simmons said.
As for where the roads will go, he said the state will likely look for the “paths of least resistance,” where owners are more willing to sell their land to make way for the projects. Otherwise, if the state has to take the land by eminent domain, it could increase costs and delay construction, Simmons said.
Several local governments have passed resolutions in favor of the toll roads, including Madison and Taylor counties. County commissioners in Madison want a road that will intersect with Interstate 10 in their backyard, said Brian Kauffman, county coordinator, in an email.
“We believe this project will help stimulate economic development for our communities,” he said. “Unlike the rest of the state, the rural counties in Florida have not recovered from the economic recession.”
While some opponents worry about urban sprawl, the financially constrained county desperately needs growth, Kauffman said.
“On average, we issue only two to three building permits per month,” he said. “One site-built house and one or two mobile homes, and one of those mobile homes is probably a replacement for a mobile home that is falling down.”
County leaders believe the M-Cores project will help Madison create more job opportunities, particularly in light industry and logistics, attract more residents and lure more tourists, as well as provide more affordable access to high-speed internet.
The poorest county in Florida, Madison has a poverty rate of nearly 32%, with 15% of its households earning less than $10,000 a year. The population has been shrinking, not growing.
Edward Dean, town manager of Greenville in Madison County, said his area is one of the poorest in the state, with a poverty rate of 48% – and a 60% unemployment rate for young adults, ages 16-24. “There is poor. There is dirt poor and there’s what I call clay poor. We’re clay poor,” he said. The town and the county are what the “lack of economic development stimulus looks like,” Dean said, and it isn’t pretty.
“Our community is crumbling right before our eyes. Literally,” he said.
Last year, he had to fight to keep Greenville’s elementary school, the city’s only public school and largest employer, open, due to budgetary concerns. He doesn’t want to have to do it again.
The toll road is the “thing that quite frankly we have been praying for,” Dean said, noting that the town started losing its luster when drivers no longer had to go through Greenville to get to Tallahassee, with the opening of alternate routes.
“You have to find some way to repurpose yourself, in order to be able to survive,” Dean said. “And this sort of thing with having a toll road, even if it only brings in convenience stores and gas stations, it would be enough to at least try and maintain the status quo and keep our schools open. But I think it will be much more of a boom.”
Dean would throw his arms open to any fast-food restaurant, from an IHOP to a Denny’s, and eagerly take the jobs they’d create. As for the local businesses in the town, Dean said he could probably count them on one hand, if he doesn’t include the ones that are shutting down.
“I have two gas stations that have been empty for over 10 years,” he said. “I had to condemn those buildings.”
Greenville will get its first new buildings in decades with the help of nearly $2 million in federal grants that will fund a project called City Center. The project will have a community center for youth and seniors and a much-needed grocery store. Now, the closest grocery store is about 30 minutes away by car – and many residents don’t have a car.
“Hope. That’s what Greenville’s new City Center is giving to the community by turning a food desert into fertile ground,” Dean said.
Other groups who see hope in the new roads include the Hernando/Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), whose board adopted a resolution in support of all three of them a year ago. The MPO’s board has consistently voiced the importance of extending the Suncoast Parkway to the north beyond Citrus County to ease traffic congestion, promote economic development and enhance public safety.
Floridians for Better Transportation are among other supporters, along with individuals such as former Florida Congressman Steve Southerland, now a lobbyist and partner with Capitol Hill Consulting Group.
“The M-Cores plan will allow Florida time to study innovative ideas that best utilize our state’s resources in meeting our future expansion and growth needs, and enable our state in developing our future trade and business opportunities,” he said in a statement.
In Levy County, county commissioners haven’t taken a position for or against the proposed toll road.
“We have more questions than answers,” said Matt Brooks, a county commissioner, via email. “It’s very much preliminary when there are zero proposed routes and we cannot determine the impact to our county or in a certain area,” he said.
In Jefferson County, there’s not as much excitement about the toll roads. Doug Darling, president of Citizens for Responsible Government of Jefferson County, said the majority of small business owners and landowners oppose the Suncoast Connector. There have been no economic studies done to show the jobs or long-term economic development the connector might bring to the county – or studies of the county’s environmental assets to ensure they’re protected, from its natural springs to its wildlife, he said.
“There have been no traffic studies saying we really need this,” Darling added.
The gas stations, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and hotels that would likely locate near the exits aren’t the kind of economic development the county needs, he said, or should want.
“We want organic economic development,” Darling said. An example of that: A new growing plant by Trulieve, Florida’s largest licensed cannabis company, which is going to create high-wage, high-skilled jobs in the county, Darling said.
He criticizes the review process for the new roads, saying the task force meetings run long and provide little information, with questions and comments from the public taken after the meetings conclude and some of their members have already walked out.
Jefferson County and its only city of Monticello are just recovering from the construction of Interstate 10, which created an alternate travel route to U.S. 90 that bypasses the heart of town, Darling said. Merchants have made a comeback by finding ways to lure drivers in from I-10, which is also a limited access road, but not a toll road, by creating a niche, from the charming shops that sell antiques to the quaint restaurants that serve farm-fresh food, he said.
A strong economy depends on having a trained and ready workforce, but that’s been a struggle in Jefferson County, where the public school system had to be taken over by a private operator after more than a decade of failure.
“If somebody wants to help Jefferson County,” Darling said, “come and help us fix our school system.”
© 2020 Journal Media Group, Laura Layden
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