Backroom Briefing: On a Road to Nowhere?

Weekly political notes from our colleagues at The News Service of Florida


File photo: Traffic on I-75. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.

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Posted June 30, 2022 | By Jim Turner
Florida News Service

Local-government opposition continues to build against an extension of Florida’s Turnpike that state lawmakers promoted as helping with future growth and hurricane evacuations.

The Citrus County Commission on Monday backed a “no-build” stance as it considered four proposed options for extending the turnpike northwest from Wildwood, where the toll road ends at Interstate 75.

“I absolutely will heartily vote for ‘no-build’ on all four,” Citrus County Commissioner Holly Davis said. “That leaves the door open if we ever come up with an actual rationale that this is actually needed and it won’t hurt the environment.”

Backed by the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association and other business groups, a turnpike extension was one of three “multi-use corridors of regional economic significance” approved by the Legislature in 2019. The plans also included building a toll road from Collier County to Polk County and extending the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County.

In 2021, lawmakers made changes, including dropping the Collier to Polk toll road, while continuing to back a turnpike extension.

A “status report” is expected by the end of the year on plans for a turnpike extension, with public meetings held during the first half of 2023, the Florida Department of Transportation said.

Transportation officials are following a corridor evaluation process that includes project-development and environment study. That includes looking at a no-build option. The study is expected to be finished by the second quarter of 2024.

“Currently, there is no funding for this project beyond the PD&E Study,” the department said in a news release. “It is not funded for the design, right of way or construction phases.”

Citrus County Commission Chairman Ron Kitchen said a turnpike extension does not have community support, unlike support during the past couple of decades for a project extending the Suncoast Parkway north of the Tampa area.

“It was more the Legislature said, ‘This is where we want this road to go,’” Kitchen said of the Turnpike extension. “And so, to me, I appreciate our legislators, they do excellent, hard work. But that’s what we’re here for.”

Kitchen, Davis and others pointed to a proposal by Audubon Florida to instead widen Interstate 75 to help move traffic.

Citrus County commissioners hope their stance draws support from Marion County, where one of the four proposed routes for the turnpike would run. The other routes mostly would go across Citrus County.

The no-build position has been backed by the Levy County Commission, the Dunnellon City Council, the Inglis Town Commission, the Yankeetown Council and the Inverness City Council. The Southwest Florida Water Management District in February advised the FDOT that district-owned conservation lands could be affected by the proposed routes.

NEWSOM HITS FLORIDA AIRWAVES

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is raising speculation about White House ambitions in Florida. The news site SFGate reported that Newsom’s re-election campaign put down at least $105,000 to run ads on Fox News in Florida starting Monday.

“As we’ve previously reported, Newsom has dramatically escalated his national posturing over the past month,” SFGate reported. “It wouldn’t be surprising if the content in the Florida cable ads was related to his recent antagonism towards Republican-led states.”

With a phrase many Floridians have often heard from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Newsom spokesman Nathan Click gave SFGate a “stay tuned” when asked about the content of the ads.

AIF HANDS OUT GRADES

As expected in annual post-legislative session grading, the business group Associated Industries of Florida offered higher marks for Republican lawmakers than most Democrats.

That is the opposite of what usually happens when grades are issued by groups pushing such things as environmental issues.

Still, the AIF report wasn’t all down arrows for Democrats.

With results based on voting on specific issues, AIF gave its lowest Republican grade in the Senate to St. Petersburg’s Jeff Brandes, who scored an 81. Meanwhile, among senators who served through all committee weeks and the regular session, only Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, got a score below 60. Farmer received a 33.

Top of the class among Democrats were Sen. Bobby Powell of West Palm Beach with an 83 and Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book of Plantation with an 82.

In the House, Majority Leader Michael Grant, R-Port Charlotte, set the pace with a 92, while Rep. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee, received a 90.

Twelve Democrats and three Republicans who served the full session scored below 60. Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Howey-in-the-Hills Republican who often clashed with House leaders and is running for Congress, was the low for the GOP with a 47. Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, was at the bottom of the grades among Democrats with a 39.

UNTOUCHABLE OR DELUSIONAL

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s campaign this week released a poll that showed him leading by a margin of 55 percent to 34 percent in his primary race against Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.

A news release from Crist’s campaign called the poll numbers an “untouchable primary lead.”

But Fried’s campaign, coming off a straw-poll victory at the North Brevard Democratic Club over the weekend, dismissed the results as “delusional,” arguing that the findings were based strictly on name recognition rather than political stances of the candidates. Crist, a St. Petersburg congressman, was elected governor in 2006 while a Republican and was the unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 2014.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: “@FLSurgeonGen’s letter doubles down on the dangerous anti-vax rhetoric that has been driving @GovRonDeSantis’ #COVID-19 policies. By impeding access to these lifesaving vaccines, Florida is endangering the health of kids.” — U.S. House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis (@COVIDOversight), referring to a letter from Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo related to COVID-19 vaccinations for young children.