Crist signals break with past on roads

Gov. Charlie Crist doesn't embrace Jeb Bush's Future Corridors plan for new toll roads.

Published March 6, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - A plan to build a series of massive expressways across rural Florida is getting a cool reception from Gov. Charlie Crist, who said Monday the state instead needs to expand existing roads.

Embraced by Crist's predecessor, Jeb Bush, the Future Corridors project seeks to remake rural parts of the state with new toll roads that would help accommodate future growth. But Crist said Monday the state needs to "prioritize and have roads where the people are and where we need them. Right now, that's South Florida, southeast Florida.

"I want us to expand I-75 south, I-95 south down to Miami and then I-4."

Since becoming governor in January, Crist had been publicly mum about Future Corridors. Even top transportation officials said they didn't know if he supported the plan.

On Sunday, the St. Petersburg Times published a story about one of the project's nine roads, a proposed 152-mile toll road between Polk and Collier counties called the Heartland Parkway. It reported that state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, controlled companies that owned land along the proposed route and had helped form a group that is now pushing for the road.

Asked whether he is concerned that a lawmaker with a financial stake in the area had helped lobby for the road, Crist said: "Yes, that's why I haven't jumped on it. They've been talking to me about it for months."

"They," he clarified, are representatives of HEART, which stands for Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Taskforce. It represents large landowners from Central Florida. During a Friday interview, Alexander said he hasn't been involved with the group since 2005, but did help get it started.

One of his political consultants sits on the HEART board, as does a longtime business associate. Alexander said he asked Rick Dantzler, an attorney for a company that Alexander partly controls, to represent HEART.

Alexander couldn't be reached Monday, but Dantzler said J. Charles Gray, an Orlando attorney, had met once with Crist after the November election to discuss the Heartland Parkway. Dantzler said Crist spoke another time with Gray on the phone.

Dantzler said this was the first he had heard of Crist's opinion about Future Corridors and the Heartland Parkway.

"This is a complicated project," Dantzler said of the Heartland Parkway. "All we're doing is asking people to keep an open mind."

Crist has yet to name a successor to Bush's secretary of transportation, Denver Stutler, who had endorsed the Heartland Parkway. The state is moving ahead with further studies of the road.

But the man Crist tapped to head the state's growth management plans said Future Corridors in general is the wrong approach.

"Our concern is that we approach these from a comprehensive land planning perspective and then determine the appropriate transportation, not the reverse," said Thomas Pelham, secretary of the Department of Community Affairs. "Once transportation is locked in, that will be a magnet for development, and it will be too late."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.