The idea of expressway and parkway building in far flung locations has become passe in Florida. Much like the revolts against urban expressways in the 1970’s, recent moves to build what appeared to be roads to nowhere have met stern opposition including on the pages of this website. But is it time for a rethink?
Florida has continued to overdevelop and stuff people into crowded areas while politicians have opted to feel good about themselves and claim they are environmentalists by opposing road building. While my preference is always for real mass transit instead of new roads, the mass confusion and panic caused by Hurricane Irma has me thinking that if Florida is really as backwards in its thinking as it appears with regards to mass transit, park space and environmental protection, perhaps it’s time to just let the roads that I and many other have previously opposed be built. This after all is more a public safety issue than an economic or ideological one.
Hurricane Irma’s approach to the state led to the clogging of the two major arteries out of Florida – I-95 and I-75. Unprecedented traffic jams ensued, which in reality probably posed as much danger as the storm did itself for most of Florida (with the exception of the Keys and southwest Florida). Given the state and most municipal authorities unwillingness to invest in mass transit, perhaps it’s time for us to soften our view of potential new highways like the Heartland Parkway, Red Hills Coastal Parkway and others. Maybe it’s time to seriously consider again extending the Suncoast Parkway further north and rebooting the Turnpike extension from Wildwood to Lebanon Station which was authorized in 1988 and again in 1999 but killed soon thereafter both times – both extensions would provide easier access to Tallahassee, one from the Tampa Bay area the other from southeast and central Florida. Would not be the time to reconsider a Tampa-Jacksonville Turnpike which was discussed at length in the 1980’s?
Take the devastation of southwest Florida and the Heartland from Irma. The Heartland Parkway which has been called a road to nowhere by many people including myself could have provided a quicker way out of danger for Collier, Lee and Charlotte County residents and easier access for rescue and relief crews servicing the heartland counties of Highlands, DeSoto, Hardee, Hendry and southern Polk.
About ten years ago the Red Hills Coastal Parkway which would have provided easier access from the coastal areas along Apalachee Bay and St Andrews Bay to points north was abandoned. The road which would likely have run through Wakulla and Leon counties (maybe Jefferson as well) never garnered much support. But in the event a storm of Irma’s intensity followed Hermine’s track, wouldn’t such a highway be useful for clearing out the most vulnerable areas of the Big Bend region?
The extension of the Suncoast Parkway further north through Citrus County into Levy and maybe even Taylor County would give residents of the Tampa Bay area and southwest Florida another alternative way to leave the state rather than pilling on an already crowded I-75. In 1988, the legislature authorized the extension of the Turnpike from Wildwood to Lebanon Station in Levy County to create quick access to US 19 heading north toward Tallahassee. That stretch was again authorized in 1999 but has never been funded – in fact the FDOT deauthorized it in 1999 within months of re-authorization. But given the number of cars that pilled from the Turnpike to I-75 to I-10 during the Irma evacuation, perhaps time has come to reconsider this 30 year-old idea.
In the 1980’s there was serious conversations within state government of a second Turnpike from Jacksonville to Tampa. This was eventually shelved as I-4 and I-95 have been upgraded to accommodate the increased traffic flows between the two areas. The southern portion of that proposed road now follows the path of the Suncoast Parkway and maybe a northern extension could eventually take the road toward Jacksonville or to I-75 north of Gainesville?
All of these roads I honestly would prefer NOT be built and the state opt for high speed rail or an upgraded All Aboard Florida like rail system (aka higher speed rail) between major cities. But if the state isn’t going to invest in that or create incentives for private companies to bring high speed rail or higher speed rail, I honestly don’t see an alternative to the new road building. Irma and Hermine should have woken up Floridians to the untenable nature of unchecked development without a complimentary network or transport or means for evacuation.