February 25, 2024

Cover Story - Developing the Heartland

Final Frontier

Growth is coming to Florida's heartland. Who gets to say where it goes and how?

Cynthia Barnett | 7/1/2006
In February, longtime Orlando lawyer J. Charles Gray, representing a consortium of rural landowners, sketched a suggested route for a new highway onto a road map and faxed it over to Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, the agency that builds and runs the state's toll roads.

HEARTLAND: Routes of two proposed toll roads pass through mostly agricultural land and intersect near the scrub ecosystem of the Lake Wales Ridge, Florida's oldest natural system.

Gray, along with former lawmaker Rick Dantzler, already had gotten the Turnpike Enterprise, a division of the Florida Department of Transportation, to consider building a north-south toll road stretching 100 miles from Polk to Lee County, where it would link up to Interstate 75.

Gray's map showed Turnpike officials how they could tweak a northern branch of the proposed highway to avoid a private golf community and to end closer to a recently announced intermodal hub for transportation company CSX Corp. in Winter Haven.

In March, the Turnpike Enterprise went public with proposed corridors for the north-south toll road, called the Heartland Parkway, and another big toll road, an east-west route called the Heartland Coast-to-Coast. The two huge highways would crisscross the last major undeveloped chunk of peninsular Florida -- a swath of orange groves and cattle lands stretching from south of Lake Okeechobee in Hendry County to the southern tip of Orlando International Airport north of Osceola County.

The plans made public by the Turnpike Enterprise followed Gray's cartography. In fact, internal DOT and Turnpike Enterprise documents show, Gray, Dantzler and Florida Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales citrus grower, so influenced the planning for the north-south route that they even convinced state officials to dub it the "Heartland Parkway."

Just as Gray custom-drew part of the north-south road, a different set of players set the route of the proposed east-west tollway. Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash wanted it to provide access to Port Manatee. Sebring Airport Authority officials made the highway part of their master plan for becoming a key transportation hub for the region.

The tiny groups of powerbrokers determined the footprints of both highways before the Turnpike authority ever ran its computer programs, which use up to 250 layers of GIS data to calculate routes with the least impact to wetlands, endangered species and the like.

All this activity was within the law -- in fact, the long process of building a highway frequently is prompted by private interests, says Randy Fox, planning manager for the Turnpike Enterprise. "There's nothing wrong with the business community lobbying on behalf of their projects," says Fox. "Sometimes I think the business community is better able to help the process than local elected officials."

The two tollways are by no means a done deal. The Turnpike Enterprise must first complete studies on whether the toll roads are economically feasible and if so, how to engineer them. Then the DOT would have to work with local governments on land-use issues and on acquiring rights of way -- work that could take a decade before any actual road building occurs.

Tags: Politics & Law, Central, Southeast, Southwest, Government/Politics & Law

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