This legislative session has seen more discussion of toll roads and expressway authorities than any in recent memory.
The battle between Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and local legislators about the future of the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority (MDX) has been front-and-center throughout much of the media in southeast Florida the last several weeks. Toll rates, future road construction (like the SR 836 extension/Kendall Parkway) and allegations of cronyism as well as corruption have dominated the discussion. But it’s not the only fight that’s been brewing this session.
This week, The Tampa Bay Times reported on several ideas advocated by Senators Bill Galvano and Tom Lee including extending the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia (this would be quite odd considering if the Suncoast Parkway were drawn northward it would run into I-75 far short of the Georgia line – perhaps it is meant to hug US 19?), extending the Turnpike west of Wildwood (which by the way was authorized to be studied by the legislature in 1988 and again in 1999 but never got past the “proposed” stage) and the building of the Heartland Parkway. Interestingly we discussed each of these ideas in 2017 after Hurricanes battered the state and evacuation routes were clearly inadequate for a state who had grown beyond its current highway system.
The MDX fight follows in short order after scandals enveloped local toll-road authorities in Central Florida. The MDX and Orlando-area controversies are far from the first scandals that have undermined local expressway authorities and have in time empowered the state to make changes to the way road building and toll collection is governed. Broward County, for example long ago had to fold its local expressway authority into the Florida Turnpike Enterprise thanks to rampant corruption.
In recent years we’ve seen long overdue projects such as the Starke Bypass and Gateway Expressway approved but inertia in urban areas combined with proposals for roads outside cities.
It’s become commonplace in Florida’s urban areas to overdevelop without the transportation highway infrastructure to support such growth. But it has also become popular to build highways in exurban and rural areas before development to spur rapid home building and retail complexes. Examples of this are the various phases of the Greenway around Orlando built in the 1980’s and 1990’s as well as the Sawgrass Expressway around Fort Lauderdale, once dubbed a road to nowhere. Meanwhile areas like urban Tampa and Palm Beach County remain incredibly congested without any practical highway solution being offered. Mass transit is the solution but absent the political will to implement a real plan (we can hope this changes in the next decade), building new highways is the only practical solution.
Urban congestion in Florida isn’t improving and is not going to improve. The state has grown too big, too fast and the legislature hasn’t had the vision or the desire to deal with this growth. Meanwhile, local expressway authorities have been largely a disaster, though in the case of MDX it can be argued they helped kept Florida’s most populated county and important business center from continuing to send the bulk of its toll revenue to other parts of the state. But the promises of a more robust mass transit system in Miami-Dade have failed. The photo below shows where Metrorail was supposed to eventually go us based on a 2004 county plan, but instead much of the promised money raised through a sales tax hike simply disappeared.
What is the overall solution? I don’t know but am happy the legislature is finally weighing in on some of these topics. We need better roads that decongest urban areas and allow for more orderly evacuations from coastal areas during storms. At the same time we have enough people and development in most parts of this state, a unique ecosystem that needs protection and rising pollution and climate change concerns. We don’t need to build roads to stimulate future growth in areas now that are rural or exurban – we need to protect those areas from more growth.
I am sure we will have more discussions on this topic soon and look forward to the open conversation from everyone’s perspectives. Meanwhile we will continue to cover these issue as closely as we can here at The Florida Squeeze.