Can Crist be sold on huge toll road plan?

Future Corridors would be the state's biggest road project ever. But new Gov. Crist has yet to sign on.

Published February 11, 2007

TAMPA - If built in its entirety, it could be the biggest, most expensive transportation project in Florida history.

Called "Future Corridors," it includes nine separate proposed routes that would zig-zag across more than 1,000 miles of the state's rural landscape.

Supporters say the project, still in the planning stages, is a necessary and practical measure to brace Florida for the next 50 years of growth.

Critics call it a throwback to the 20th century highway mentality, one that would pave over much of the state's remaining countryside.

In the coming months, Gov. Charlie Crist will decide its fate.

The new governor so far is publicly mum on Future Corridors, a project promoted by his predecessor, Jeb Bush.

Before Bush left office last month, his chief transportation official called Future Corridors a "significant milestone" the state should pursue.

But the planning manager for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, Randy Fox, said he's not sure what Crist will do, or if he even knows about Future Corridors.

Fox said it's "absolutely a possibility" that Crist might scrub the project altogether.

For now, the idea is in an embryonic phase.

Working with state, regional, and local officials, including landowners and developers, the Department of Transportation has identified nine routes for potential toll highways.

The corridors include space for utilities and mass transit, such as freight and passenger rail. Construction would not begin for at least another five years, DOT officials say, as the viability of each route will be tested in the next few months and years.

Two routes spill into Alabama. A third juts into Georgia.

West-central Florida would be the most criss-crossed region in the state. Six corridors skirt or cut across the region, including a proposed 150-mile corridor linking Hernando to Charlotte County and a 170-mile route from Hillsborough to Duval County.

Another route, a 152-mile corridor from Collier to Polk County, is already drawing considerable attention.

Florida Trend magazine, an affiliate of the St. Petersburg Times, reported last year how a nonprofit group called the Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Taskforce, or HEART, is lobbying the DOT to build the road.

HEART represents some of the major landowners in that region and helped map the proposed corridor, even naming it the "Heartland Parkway," the magazine reported.

One of HEART's attorneys, Rick Dantzler, said the Heartland Parkway is a pragmatic way to prepare a rural region for a population surge.

"What we see is an opportunity to use the corridor to organize the growth that's going to come, whether we want it or not," said Dantzler, a former Democratic state senator from Winter Haven.

In exchange for the road, landowners would agree to preserve large swaths for natural habitat and develop smaller areas, he said.

"You'll get haphazard growth without the corridor," he said. "What we're trying to do is prevent the Heartland from going the way of other parts of Florida."

But critics say Future Corridors is not only a project pushed by those who stand to benefit, but a poor substitute for sustainable growth management.

"There's no question that the motivation behind this is to open up the state's interior lands for development," said Charles Lee of Audubon of Florida. "We're not asking the governor to kill the corridors initiative, but we are asking him to put the dog back in the lead and let the tail follow. Right now, roads and transportation are leading planning in this state."

Future Corridors is slated to be financed by public-private partnerships, otherwise known as P3s. With state and federal lawmakers loathe to raise gas taxes - which paid for the interstate highway system - such partnerships are becoming an increasingly popular financing alternative. Several states are considering or have just completed P3 arrangements in which private companies build, operate and maintain old or new roads. In exchange, these companies, many of them foreign-owned, collect tolls at higher rates, operate concessions and in some cases develop along the roads.

The concept of Future Corridors has been endorsed by the Florida Transportation Commission, whose nine members oversee the DOT and are appointed by the governor. In September, after endorsing Future Corridors, the commission strongly urged the DOT to consider paying for it with private financing.

Days before he left office on Jan. 2, Bush's DOT secretary, Denver Stutler, filed a Future Corridors "action plan" that outlined how the project should move forward.

He recommended creating a statewide advisory group; developing financial strategies for the project; including the project in DOT's work program; and paying for the further detailed study of three corridors, including the Heartland Parkway and the Hillsborough-to-Duval route.

"We believe that planning future corridors is not just a transportation issue," Stutler wrote in a Dec. 29 letter to Bush. "It's really about our future quality of life, the competitiveness of our economy, and the sustainability of our environment."

Until they hear otherwise, state officials are using Stutler's action plan as a guide for planning Future Corridors, said John Taylor, a DOT administrator in Tallahassee.

Still, Taylor said he doesn't know what Crist thinks.

"I have no knowledge of his position," Taylor said. "I haven't read anything that states what Charlie Crist thinks about this project."

Vivian Myrtetus, a Crist spokeswoman, said Future Corridors hasn't come up yet in policy meetings with the governor.

But one of Crist's key appointments is beginning to voice doubts.

At a Jan. 20 Everglades conference, Crist's secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, Thomas Pelham, said the plan deserves another look.

"I know there's a great deal of concern about the corridors program," Pelham said. "I hope to have an opportunity to revisit it. One of my first instructions to the staff was to immediately begin looking into the corridors program and its implications."

As the new head of an agency that oversees the state's growth management, Pelham said Future Corridors is the wrong approach.

"It's a further indication that the tables have been completely turned," Pelham said during the meeting. "Land-use planning should be driving growth management; transportation should not be driving land-use planning."

Pelham couldn't be reached for additional comment.

Frank Jackalone, director of the Sierra Club's Florida office, called Pelham's comments the highlight of the conference.

But he said a better indication of where Crist stands on Future Corridors will be who he chooses to replace Stutler.

"Is Crist going to hire someone who thinks like Tom Pelham or is he going to have an opposite approach at the DOT, and then decide between the two?" Jackalone said.

"This is the big question."

Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3402.