Small Florida town worries toll road may wipe it out

A bill signed by the governor in May would patch three corridors into the state highway system

Road Generic

ALVA, Fla. – Some residents of the Lee County enclave of Alva, population 2,500, are organizing to oppose a massive road-building project that may ultimately eclipse any in Florida's history.

Sometimes referred to locally as the toll road, the project would create connector roads through corridors in three parts of the state. The roads would link rural Florida with an existing highway grid that offers highway connections from Pensacola and Jacksonville to the north to Naples and Miami in the south.

For Alva residents, a new highway through their part of the world threatens a lifestyle that changes little as time and generations pass.

"We have heard rumors and talk about putting a major highway through the central part of Florida for number of years, and we've just kind of ignored them because nothing seemed to happen," said Ruby Daniels, president of Alva Inc. and, for decades, a leading guardian of the Alva way of life.

The 2019 legislative session changed that with the stroke of a gubernatorial pen.

“Something has happened that we cannot ignore,” Daniels told a meeting of her group recently. “After the last legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis authorized the design and construction of bringing a toll road through rural Florida, and rural is the keyword here.”

A bill signed by the governor in May would patch three corridors into the state highway system.

Easier access to highways could enhance the value of pastures, farms and vacant land in the rural route expected to be followed by the highway.

Studies are underway to develop routes for a new Southwest-Central Florida connector from Collier County to Polk County. The other segments of the project would expand the Suncoast Expressway from Tampa to Tallahassee and a third would hook Florida's turnpike to that new road.

Construction is planned to begin in two years and continue through the decade.

In Alva, residents fear a route will be recommended that will come close enough to forever change historically rural areas in Southwest Florida.

"We have several reasons to suspect that the toll roads and the service road is going to come right along the Lee/Hendry county line," Daniels told an audience this week. No longer a mere concept, the project has legislative and executive backing and its own acronym.

The state Department of Transportation calls it M-CORES, referring to the project's objective in creating Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance. The new system would provide more than just an asphalt thoroughfare. Potential features include a grid for autonomous cars, improved water and sewer connectivity and better access to a skilled workforce. There has been talk of using the corridors to enhance broadband service, no small benefit in rural areas.

In Alva, there is more worry than optimism.

Supporters say the multi-uses include creating a road to make evacuation easier when hurricanes strike while reducing traffic jams in the day-to-day world by absorbing long distance travel into a limited access highway.

“Do you think they’re going to build roads all the way down to Naples and not put exits on those roads?” Daniels asked the Alva Inc. membership. “You drive on toll roads and you stop to get what — gasoline, what else — food and if you’re really tired, hotels, so this springs up.”

Even in the rural areas of Southwest Florida, there are some who disagree with their neighbors, believing the proposed connectors can be a benefit.

LaBelle businessman Al Curry said a limited access toll road can provide a needed benefit by shifting long-distance traffic off Interstate 75 and the two-lane country roads, freeing them for regional traffic.

"I think it would take the pressure off the other roads," Curry said in a phone interview noting the rural character of lands surrounding sections of Florida's Turnpike. “People don't want to get on and off and pay the toll — they refuel and get something to eat on the turnpike.”

East county resident Peter Blackwell noted that "it's not like they're stealing the land from the farmers."

"They can certainly make more money selling the land than they can growing something on it," Blackwell said.

"What do we do when we've built on every piece of land that we have?" Daniels responded. "Maybe we should stop advertising up north for people coming down here."

Some longtime residents are not inclined to take the risk that their community may be changed.

"There is no reason to redevelop Alva. We are one of the few agricultural, rural. small towns left in this part of Florida — us and Buckingham," resident Denise Eberle told the Alva Inc. meeting. "It needs to stay that way.

“There is no reason for sprawl out here. There is no reason for big development out here. Leave us alone.”