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POLK COUNTY – The Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force met for the sixth time July 23.

The task force was appointed to draft a report on a proposed toll road from Polk County south to Collier County, near Alligator Alley. The task force is scheduled to meet twice more before their final report is sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Nov. 15.

The task force consists of 47 regional leaders. Six of the 47 represent environmental groups who identify themselves as the “Road to Ruin Coalition” and, generally speaking, oppose the toll road on grounds of negative impact to wildlife habitat and project cost.

Public comment at the meetings have been dominated by people who oppose the project on similar grounds. For example, at the onset of the July 23 meeting, several of the six said the project was not economically or environmentally feasible and ought to be delayed or killed outright.

Many of the task force members appear to support the plan.

Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti said she believed the task force was making good progress in terms of drafting a final report.

After one of the environmental group representatives claimed the toll road may not lead to any long term jobs, Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce Katie Worthington Decker objected saying rural agribusiness would likely benefit greatly from a better road to market.

Fellow local task force members Winter Haven Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Birdsong and County Commissioner Rick Wilson did not speak July 23, but have expressed support for the proposed road in the recent past.

Florida Department of Transportation staff say the Southwest-Central Florida Connector would be much more than just a toll road through a rural part of the state. Staff said there are other benefits, such as bringing high-speed internet to Heartland communities and that the road would likely be built in such a way that would allow for another rail connection between Miami and Polk County when needed in the future.

The exact route will not be set anytime soon. Once the final report is sent to the governor, the lengthy feasibility study process would begin in theory, providing additional time for public comment.

Gov. DeSantis signed SB7068 into law in 2019. According to a bill summary, “To the maximum extent feasible, the bill requires project construction to begin no later than December 31, 2022, with projects open to traffic no later than December 31, 2030.”