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Janet Cruz, Darryl Rouson defend controversial toll road votes

“I saw people with their cars … stranded there with their families.”

At around the same time Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he signed the controversial toll roads bill, two Tampa Bay area Democrats were defending their votes in favor of it.

Sens. Darryl Rouson and Janet Cruz both voted in favor of a bill (SB 7068) that serves as a launch point for three new tolled highways. Environmental groups statewide opposed the bill claiming it was bad for natural habitats and unnecessary to alleviate traffic congestion.

“At the time that I voted for the bill that seemed reasonable,” Cruz said during a Tampa Tiger Bay luncheon recapping the Florida Legislative Session, according to video taken by WMNF.

Cruz said her support was merely to study and evaluate the usefulness of the proposed project. The bill will set aside $45 million to begin planning the three new highways. One would extend the existing Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to the Georgia state line from its current terminus north of Tampa Bay. Another would create a 150-mile expressway from Polk County to Naples. The third a shorter span, would add an east-west spur from the Suncoast Parkway.

“Look, I don’t like toll roads and I know that the environmentalists are upset about the possibility of this, but the last time that people had to evacuate the state … I saw people with their cars on the side of the road because they didn’t have access to gas, stranded there with their families,” Cruz said.

She ended her remarks questioning whether there were better ways to alleviate congestion. Someone from the audience shouted, “trains.”

Rouson agreed with Cruz’s concerns about emergency evacuations. Florida residents flocked by the thousands from the Tampa Bay area ahead of Hurricane Irma in 2017, making Interstate 75 resemble a parking lot.

But Rouson also reminded opponents of the project that this year’s bill does not make it a done deal.

“Nothing in the bill obligated the road to be built right now and quite frankly some of the leadership that pushed this bill won’t be around when the task force returns its recommendations and it comes back to the legislature for appropriation,” Rouson said.

The bill was a top priority for Senate President Bill Galvano. Galvano is serving his first of two terms as Senate President this year.

Rep. Wengay Newton, another Tampa Bay area Democrat, also supported the bill. He didn’t attend the Tiger Bay forum, but in a Legislative recap last week in Pinellas County, Newton offered similar concerns about congestion during emergency evacuations as support for his vote.

Janelle Irwin Taylor has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in Tampa Bay since 2003. Most recently, Janelle reported for the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She formerly served as senior reporter for WMNF News. Janelle has a lust for politics and policy. When she’s not bringing you the day’s news, you might find Janelle enjoying nature with her husband, children and two dogs. You can reach Janelle at Janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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