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Controversial transportation bill puts Gov. DeSantis between a rock and a hard place

Megan Holmes

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Protesters gathered in St. Petersburg and Broward County Tuesday evening for the first of two days of protests aimed at urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto SB 7068, a massive transportation infrastructure bill passed by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. The bill now sits on DeSantis’ desk.

A self-described “Teddy Roosevelt conservationist,” the governor has thus far made conservation and increased funding for environmental restoration and protection a major focus of his administration. On his third day in office, DeSantis signed an executive order calling for $2.5 billion in Everglades restoration over four years, opposition of offshore drilling and fracking, and a task force to combat blue-green algae. The order also created numerous governmental agencies to to oversee climate issues. State environmental groups have so far lauded his efforts, but SB 7068 represents a pivotal moment moment for DeSantis’ administration, a choice between environmental interests and the interests of his colleagues in the Florida Legislature.

The measure, which was a top priority of the 2019 Legislative Session for Bradenton Republican and Senate President Bill Galvano, would begin the expansion or construction of three toll-road corridors totaling more than 300 miles in new construction. It would divert more than $1.3 billion from Florida’s general revenue fund to expand the Suncoast Parkway from Tampa Bay to Georgia; connect the Suncoast Parkway with the Florida Turnpike by extending the Turnpike west; and create a new toll road through Polk and Collier Counties.

Supporters of the measure, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Asphalt Contractors Association of America and the Florida Transportation Builders Association have touted infrastructure as a bipartisan issue, and say the bill would not only bring much-needed economic stimulus to small towns in Florida, but provide infrastructure to meet the challenges of growth and provide alternative hurricane evacuation routes.

In an Op-ed for the SunSentinel, Florida Chamber of Commerce President Mark Wilson urged DeSantis to sign the measure. He wrote, “Florida can expect another three million new drivers by 2030. Think about that for a second – that means that Florida’s roadways will have millions of more cars in about a decade. Though a decade may seem far off, in infrastructure terms, that is right around the corner. Simply put, we need to plan smart and work fast to keep up with Florida’s growth, or risk becoming like California.”

The bill has drawn ire from a broad coalition of forces, most notably for its price tag and the environmental impact such extensive new construction could have. The coalition is comprised of more than 90 environmental groups, including the Florida Conservation Coalition, Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida; as well as the League of Women Voters, the New Florida Majority and affordable housing advocates. Opponents say that the bill bypassed normal procedure, and that the proposed routes came as a surprise even to the Florida Department of Transportation. Environmental groups argue that the expanded road system will damage some of the few remaining wildlife habitats in the state and cause sprawling development along the corridors.

Tuesday’s rally brought out State Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg to urge DeSantis’ veto on the measure. Diamond cited DeSantis’ identity not only as an environmentalist, but also as a fiscal conservative, as reasons to veto the bill.

Diamond, a member of the House Appropriations committee, pointed to the cost of the measure. “Read the math in this bill – it just doesn’t add up. The significant money that we are going to be diverting for these projects out of our state’s general revenue fund; it just boggles the mind.

“This bill poses all the wrong solutions,” Diamond continued. “Are we willing to just turn this state over to the asphalt companies and the developers and those that want to see this state look like one big strip mall?” he asked. “We’re all here today to reject that idea – and I hope the governor will reject that idea.”

Former Governor and U.S. Congressman Charlie Crist sent a representative to the rally to speak on his behalf, becoming the second former Florida Governor to urge DeSantis to veto, after former U.S. Senator Bob Graham.

“I vetoed a similar bill during my time as Governor because there are smarter ways to grow and develop our transportation infrastructure – investing in public transportation, updating our current road and bridge system, and prioritizing sustainable growth,” said Crist in a statement. “A prudent approach would be to invest this funding in the infrastructure of the future, rather than doubling down on the mistakes of the past. I hope Governor DeSantis vetoes this bill.”

The bill has also drawn some national attention from a nonprofit organization called Strong Towns, “an international movement that’s dedicated to making communities across the United States and Canada financially strong and resilient.”

In an article titled, “Want to be prepared for future growth? Do the opposite of this” author Daniel Herriges, argues that the “preparation for growth” argument from supporters of the bill is circular.

“The biggest city on the 150-mile proposed Suncoast Parkway route has 7,000 people. I cannot stress enough how remote and unpopulated this area is. Do we need a toll freeway through that region to ‘prepare for growth?’ Only if we take it as a given that the projected growth is coming to that part of Florida.”

According to Herriges, it is the road itself that induces growth.

“This logic gets used to defend speculative infrastructure investment that serves primarily to open up huge tracts of land for development,” he explained.

Instead of creating more infrastructure to finance, construct, and maintain, Herriges argues these funds should go toward already-burdened existing infrastructure. “The future that Florida needs to prepare for is one in which ballooning maintenance liabilities, as well as growing challenges like sea-level rise, combine to strain the resources of existing cities to the breaking point,” Herriges continued.

“Seven million new Floridians and the taxes they pay could actually be enormously helpful in resolving that set of issues – if the state accommodates most of them in its existing cities, through patterns of growth that make better use of the pavement and pipes we’ve already committed to maintain.”

DeSantis has until May 28 to sign or veto the bill.

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