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Florida road project has nine lives

A little more than a decade ago, a handful of large landowners and land-use attorneys got together to map out a new future for the agricultural interior of central Florida. The linchpin was a new, nearly 150-mile-long toll highway linking the outskirts of Orlando with the southwest Florida coast — and unlocking development potential on all the ranchlands and citrus groves in between. They called it the Heartland Parkway.

To the people and companies behind it — heavyweight Florida agribusinesses including Alico, A. Duda & Sons, Lykes Bros. And Mosaic, among others — the Heartland Parkway made sense. The development of Florida’s interior was inevitable, they argued, as more people moved to the state and control of agricultural companies passed on to a new generation of heirs with little interest in cattle or citrus. A highway would create a corridor in which landowners could develop portions of their property more intensely and more rapidly while setting the rest aside in conservation easements.

The essential first leg of the Heartland Parkway was to be a 40-mile stretch in Polk County that the boosters dubbed the “fishhook.” Beginning at the existing Polk Parkway, the road would have traveled east just below Winter Haven and then curled north to connect with I-4 near where the counties of Orange, Osceola, Lake and Polk meet.

The Heartland Parkway couldn’t happen without the fishhook and the link it provided to I-4. But with metro Orlando continuing to sprawl in all directions, the land in the Four Corners region was developing. Locking in right of way was the top priority.

“If you can’t get there before it’s built up, then you really can’t do the expressway,” says Charlie Gray, a founding partner of the Orlando law firm GrayRobinson, who sketched one of the first maps of the Heartland Parkway.

Opposition builds

But as the plans for the Heartland Parkway became public, they became politically toxic. Environmentalists warned of more sprawl. Others accused the landowners of trying to use state resources to make themselves richer. In late 2006, after Charlie Crist succeeded Jeb Bush as governor, he ordered state transportation planners to halt work on the road.

Heartland Parkway boosters fought to keep the fishhook, at least, alive. But in 2011, the Florida Department of Transportation commissioned a study of the fishhook — evaluating it as a standalone road, now named the “Central Polk Parkway” — and found that it was not financially feasible. The tolls were projected to generate just under $300 million in bonding capacity — a little more than 16% of the road’s projected $1.8 billion price tag.

The project seemed dead.

But then it wasn’t.

A year later, FDOT resurrected the fishhook, adding $34 million to begin work on the 40-mile Central Polk Parkway. There was no mention of any larger toll road.

The department added the road to its work program at a time when a prominent Heartland Parkway booster happened to be one of the most powerful members of the Legislature: Former Sen. J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales), who served four consecutive years as Senate budget chairman from 2008 to 2012. Alexander was also, at the time, CEO of Alico, one of the agricultural landowners along the Heartland Parkway corridor.

Alexander says he was not involved in the decision to get the fishhook into the transportation budget, although he says he still believes the Central Polk Parkway — regardless of whether the rest of the Heartland Parkway is built — is important for Polk County’s future. “I think long term it’s a huge deal,” Alexander says. “If you talk to economic development folks, they’ll tell you very quickly if you don’t have good transportation facilities you can’t possibly attract better employers.”

FDOT continued to work on the Central Polk Parkway for the next three-plus years. Term limits forced Alexander to leave the Legislature, but another Polk County lawmaker emerged to keep watch over the project: Former Rep. Seth McKeel (R-Lakeland), the House budget chairman from 2012-14.

Dead again?

In late 2015, a year after term limits forced McKeel out, FDOT announced that it was canceling the Central Polk Parkway, after spending more than $20 million on the project. The department said it would reallocate the remaining money to other local road needs, such as widening U.S. 27, 17 and 92.

FDOT told everyone it canceled the road because it wasn’t financially feasible — something its study had determined four years previously. The agency says the original decision still made sense. “Even if an entire project may not appear to be financially feasible, our experience has shown that over time a project may become feasible,” DOT spokesman Dick Kane says.

The fishhook — and, with it, hopes for the longer Heartland Parkway — seemed dead again.

But then it wasn’t.

A few months after FDOT’s announcement, Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven), a developer and longtime advocate for the Central Polk Parkway, persuaded House and Senate leaders to insert a provision into the state budget requiring FDOT to continue working on the road.

Other supporters who joined the Central Polk Parkway lobbying effort included CSX, which opened an intermodal terminal in Winter Haven near the proposed road in 2014, and Legoland Florida, which opened on the former Cypress Gardens site in 2011 and has since been lobbying for traffic improvements to make it easier for tourists to get from Orlando to Winter Haven. Locals say the campaign has also included more developers, such as Six/Ten and Highlands Cassidy, and prominent leaders, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

But then, days after the Legislature passed the budget, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the Central Polk Parkway language.

The fishhook, once again, seemed dead.

But then it wasn’t.

Even as he vetoed the language, Scott had a deputy chief of staff call Wood to tell him that the governor was interested in reviving the project. A few weeks later, Wood says, he got another call — from current FDOT Secretary Jim Boxold, who promised him the department will take another look.

Boxold confirmed that FDOT is once again studying the Central Polk Parkway. Boxold says there are several options — such as reordering phases or linking the parkway into another state toll road rather than directly into I-4 — that could make the project feasible.

Everyone involved with the Central Polk Parkway says that it is no longer viewed as a precursor to the Heartland Parkway. Boxold says the Heartland Parkway “is not an active project that we’re working on.”

Some who have been fighting the road for more than a decade — such as Marian Ryan, a Sierra Club activist in Polk County — think the end game is still the bigger Heartland Parkway.

“We all know once a road gets put on a map,” Ryan says, “they tend to never die.”