J.D. Alexander, the now termed Frostproof legislator, has gotten what he wants time and again from Florida’s taxpayers. Most of this year’s Alexander headlines have related to his quest to create a new 12th state University in Lakeland, but his slipping of the Heartland Parkway into this year’s budget may have greater ramifications.
The following is from the Tampa Bay Times:
“Despite a $1.4 billion budget shortfall and at times heated rhetoric about finding ways to spend fewer state dollars, budget writers have tucked $34.7 million into this year’s proposed spending plan for the design of a portion of the Heartland Parkway — a long-dormant road project in Central Florida.”
First proposed in 2005, J.D. Alexander met repeatedly with state officials about the proposed highway. The Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Task Force, or HEART, was founded in 2005 to push for the road. The non-profit organization consulted heavily with Alexander on lobbying and strategy for the road.
Charlie Crist, citing environmental concerns, very low projected traffic volume and more pressing transportation needs, wisely killed the project in 2007. The Parkway would run through largely rural areas providing little in the way of transportation benefit to Florida’s overburdened urban counties. While the road might stimulate growth through towns such as Arcadia, Wauchula and Bartow near the highway, the only way the highway could be justified would be with massive development of parts of the state that the post 1970 population boom has clearly passed by. Even more worrying would be the negative affect the road would have on the developing towns that lie on US 27, the primary route from Polk County to southern Florida.
When the legislature in 1988 authorized the extension of Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to Lebanon Station in Levy County and the upgrading of US19/27 northwards toward Tallahassee, an outcry came from urban counties. The extension was never built and instead the focus shifted towards toll roads such as the Apopka Connector, Veterans Expressway and Polk Parkway in populated areas.
Many of the areas that the Heartland Parkway would traverse between southwest Florida and Polk County are as sparsely populated as the Big Bend region of the state, the area where a similar project has been ignored for over twenty years. The rationale advocated by Alexander and his allies is that of a hurricane evacuation route that would also stimulate economic development and population growth in the corridor around the highway.
Rick Scott’s decision to embrace this expensive boondoggle has also exposed his continued preference for cronyism
over merit in determining whom he involves in major decisions. Moreover, Alexander stands to benefit directly from the highway. Again here we quote the Tampa Bay Times:
The proposed 110-mile road stretches through the ranches, farms and swamps of inland Florida, from Collier County to I-4. In real estate, that’s a good thing. Land prices typically skyrocket for property adjacent to newly built transportation facilities.
Nearly all of Blue Head Ranch, a massive piece of property controlled by one of Alexander’s companies, lies directly in the path of the proposed roadway. The company, Atlantic Blue, plans 30,000 residential units and 11 million square feet of nonresidential development on 7,500 acres of the ranch, according to its website.
The Heartland Parkway has been compared in its size, scope and possible impact to that of the Suncoast Parkway which was completed in 2001, but some very staggering differences are apparent. The Suncoast Parkway was built as an important traffic reliever for US 19 which was becoming over-burdened with cars in the late 1990s. It also connected to the Veterans Expressway, giving easy access to Tampa International Airport for residents of Citrus, Hernando and Pasco Counties. The Heartland Parkway serves no such purposes.
This appropriation comes as real transportation needs in urban areas are being ignored. In some cases Gov. Scott and his administration seek to solve Florida’s infrastructure issues by levying expensive user fees on motorists in the form of increased tolls and more “express lanes.” Existing express lanes in Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties continue to to see steep increases in tolls, while new lanes along I-95 and I-595 in Broward County are under construction. Meanwhile, toll lanes along I-295 in Duval County and I-4 in Orange/Seminole counties are being seriously contemplated. These areas need new roads and other solutions to the pressing transportation needs of their areas, but instead are finding half solutions from state government.
While the Heartland Parkway may ultimately be useful for the counties it would run through, it is a matter of opportunity costs. With so many highways in urban areas needing enhancement or replacement, we cannot afford to waste money on this project. That is not to mention the potential environmental damage from the road, which would cut through marshland and other sensitive areas, damaging Florida’s fragile ecosystem.