Seeing nothing but red (lights)

Published May 14, 2007

Earlier this year, a proposed 152-mile toll road in Central Florida looked well on its way to becoming a reality.

The state's top transportation officials deemed the road - the Heartland Parkway - a priority worthy of an expensive engineering study. State lawmakers later passed a bill that would make it easier to build toll roads like this one.

But now, the project appears stalled. More than three months after the engineering study was recommended, the Florida Department of Transportation still hasn't set aside the money needed for the study. More importantly, the key political support of the Jeb Bush administration is gone.

"Gov. Charlie Crist doesn't seem as enthused about this as Gov. Bush was, " said Rick Dantzler, a former state senator who represents a consortium of landowners pushing for the road. "DOT will have to make a decision pretty quickly. If we drag our feet too long, it will be an impossibility to get this road secure."

The Heartland Parkway is part of the proposed "Future Corridors, " a series of nine toll roads planned for rural Florida. If built in its entirety, the more than 1, 000 miles of toll roads would be the biggest transportation project in state history. Future Corridors was touted by Bush's former DOT secretary as a practical way to accommodate growth.

In March, Crist told the St. Petersburg Times that expanding existing roads in urban areas was more of a priority than building rural highways.

Crist's secretary of the Department of Community Affairs, Tom Pelham, says Future Corridors is an ill-advised approach because roads would dictate where growth would go, not planning.

Pelham said this week that his department, which oversees growth management; the Department of Environmental Protection; and the DOT will take a closer look.

"My understanding is that (Future Corridors) is on hold pending further discussion, " Pelham said. "Much of the slowdown, I think, is related to the fact that we just finished the legislative session. I'm sure more attention will be turned to this and the Heartland Parkway."

Down an unfamiliar path

Being in limbo is something new for the Heartland Parkway, which was the most favored of corridors and the one that seemed to be on a fast track. Stretching from Polk County to Collier County and costing at least $7-billion, it's the only corridor with its own advocacy group: the Heartland Economic, Agricultural and Rural Task Force, or HEART.

In March, the St. Petersburg Times reported that a HEART founder, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, controls two companies - Alico and Atlantic Blue Group - that own thousands of acres along the proposed Heartland Parkway route. Another lawmaker, state Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, is Alexander's cousin and sits on the Alico board.

Alico and Atlantic are among 11 companies financing HEART.

The others are: A. Duda & Sons, a fifth-generation ranching and farming dynasty that's also a developer; Barron Collier Co. and Collier Enterprises, two family owned development companies near Naples; Bonita Bay Group, a land developer near Fort Myers; Lykes Brothers, a Tampa landholding company; Mosaic Co., a phosphate giant; Bryan Paul, a LaBelle citrus grower; the Latt Maxcy Development Corp., a real estate firm in Osceola; and Highland Cassidy, a Winter Haven homebuilder.

Dantzler said these HEART members own half of the 2-million acres where the toll road is proposed. According to state records, four of the companies plan to build small towns in counties where the Heartland Parkway would go.

Until recently, the road hadn't drawn opposition from local governments. Four counties - Hendry, Highlands, Glades, DeSoto - passed resolutions supporting it.

But last month, Collier County commissioners voted against a measure, prepared by a HEART adviser, supporting the road.

HEART's first political setback hurt its efforts to curry favor with local environmental groups, said Brad Cornell of the Collier County Audubon Society.

"They made a mistake in letting it go forward, " Cornell said. "It looks bad for them."

The only HEART member at the meeting, Tom Conrecode, a senior vice president with Collier Enterprises, said the vote was a minor bump. He said it will take decades to plan for the Heartland Parkway.

"I don't think there's any rush, " Conrecode said. "We have a new governor, we have a new secretary of the DCA, neither who are familiar with Future Corridors. Both of them need to know more."

Dantzler said things were more urgent. He said development is happening quickly in Polk County, and he fears it won't be possible to snake the Heartland Parkway to Interstate 4 if the corridor isn't determined in the next 18 months.

"I'm not sure we're off track; we've had a lot of good that's happened, " Dantzler said. "But we're probably in a little bit of a dip right now."

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