When plans unrolled for a new toll road through Florida’s Heartland in 2019, business leaders cheered. While the highway expansion drew instant ire from environmentalists, it had support from those dreaming of commercial growth.
But legislation awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis‘s signature nixes the plan entirely, calling instead for any road investment in the rural area to support existing infrastructure. It’s bittersweet for those representing the region, some of whom reluctantly support the repeal at a time when gas taxes are on the decline, and feasibility studies show a troubling fiscal path for the project. At a time when lawmakers want to boast at home about securing local spending, many now have to explain why this major plan will soon be off the books.
“Rural Florida wants opportunity just like everybody else,” said Sen. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican. “Of course, the Heartland wanted the Heartland Parkway, or whatever you define it as.”
It’s not the first time visions of an expressway through the region have arisen, then shortly after faded from view. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush, in the early 2000s, favored the construction of the Heartland Parkway, a corridor stretching from east of Lakeland to the Fort Myers-Naples area. But the plan faded into obscurity after Bush left office, and the Great Recession altered Florida’s economic landscape.
The toll road plan, championed two years ago as the top legislative priority of then-Senate President Bill Galvano, never actually bore the name Heartland Parkway, but a Polk County-to-Collier County corridor immediately was cast as a resurrection of the road. The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES, plan called not just for a toll road but the expansion of internet and water utilities.
Late in Galvano’s time as presiding officer, as the coronavirus pandemic once again remade Florida’s fiscal climate, the former Senate President defended the vision as viable. If anything, he said the pandemic highlighted the need for better infrastructure in rural Florida.
“School choice is not a realistic proposition for K-12 students in counties underserved by fixed broadband, or for higher education students choosing to study remotely this semester,” Galvano told The News Service of Florida. “Employees seeking a remote work environment and businesses trying to adapt their work models to engage in e-commerce opportunities are also at a disadvantage.”
But in the first Session under new Senate President Wilton Simpson, lawmakers in near-unanimous votes approved the road’s repeal. The Legislature approved a bill (SB 100) that, while leaving in place a plan to extend the Suncoast Parkway through the Big Bend area, kills the Heartland toll road as well as a Florida Turnpike extension.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican, said the pandemic changed expectations on gas tax revenues. But feasibility studies also showed the roads could be far more costly than anticipated.
“We took a long look at the task force reports as part of the M-CORES process and had to reevaluate the state position,” said Harrell, chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. “We had to address how we can use existing roadways to address the growing transportation needs of the state.”
While Harrell still calls the vision for a toll road “bold,” she said there are simply better ways to improve traffic through the region. If the state needs less traffic on Interstate 75, there are north-south corridors like State Road 98 that remain two-lane roads for large swathes. Sections of State Roads 70, 72 and 80 that run west to east could also bring improvements if the Department of Transportation put its energy toward identifying ways to improve traffic without carving an entirely new right of way through areas amid consternation from conservation advocates.
The repeal bill, sponsored by Harrell, directs transportation officials to look at improving rural roads. With the support of Simpson, the plan passed with little public pushback.
Galvano has not returned calls for comment on the issue. But other one-time backers of the toll road expansion did eventually support the legislation to mothball the plan. There’s no specific direction toward what projects will be reprioritized as a result. Still, the promise to do so was enough to bring some reluctant lawmakers in Heartland districts along for a change in itinerary.
“I know my district was excited about the M-CORES project and the opportunity to bring some much-needed economic development our way,” said Rep. Kaylee Tuck, a Lake Placid Republican, “but I think any investment in infrastructure and smart growth is a good thing.”
Albritton considers shelving the Heartland Parkway a loss but said investment in existing roads could still mean a net win for his district. Many roads have languished without attention for years. If improvements come sooner than expected, that could benefit growth in the region more than the toll road would have.
“Ultimately, in the near term, the Senate President has come up with a better plan for enhancing our roadways,” Albritton said.
The Senator notes that evacuation routes and commercial transportation, major selling points for the Parkway, will benefit from this new course.
“The Heartland left Session full of transportation opportunities,” Albritton said. “It just won’t look like the Heartland Parkway — yet.”
So will the region ever see such a corridor? Of note, the next Republican in line for Senate President, Kathleen Passidomo, represents Collier County and much of the rural area where the parkway imagined one of its terminus points. Presuming the GOP maintains control of the Senate in 2022 when every seat will be on the ballot with new district lines, should Tallahassee expect the Heartland to rise again?
Passidomo said she’s not bringing that agenda with her now. She’s more focused on bringing some of the benefits expected to accompany a parkway into the Heartland even without the road itself.
“What I really want to do is provide as much economic opportunity to rural communities as possible,” Passidomo said.
The important part, Passidomo said, is making sure jobs in the area exist so the best and brightest students growing up in the region don’t decide after graduating high school that they must pursue a future elsewhere. That could be achieved with investment in technical centers and education, not just by pouring asphalt.
The Governor already signed legislation sponsored by Polk City Republican Rep. Josie Tomkow that looks to expand broadband availability in rural areas. The new law encourages broadband companies to expand to rural areas by creating a path for necessary infrastructure, including identifying federal grants available for local spending. Once that utility availability comes online, business growth should follow, Passidomo said.
As for a new roadway, Passidomo made clear the roadway wasn’t imagined as some kind of superhighway akin to a Miami interstate.
“It was never supposed to be a giant freeway,” she said. But reigniting Parkway politics gives the potential President pause. Environmental groups fiercely opposed the road, and if discussion of a new north-south road of any sort ever is put on the table, she anticipates a similar response.
“I don’t anticipate doing that,” she said. “I want to know what my colleagues are interested in doing.”