Reaction was mixed Friday to the news that $35 million had been slipped into a transportation budget for the planning of a portion of the Heartland Parkway in Polk County. The project had been previously supported by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who also has been pushing fo the creation of a 12th state university in Polk County, and who owns land along the possible route of the Heartland Parkway.
Alexander said he had nothing to do with the money appearing in the state spending plan.
"I haven't gotten any flak from my colleagues about it," said Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, chair of the House’s transportation appropriations committee. "There’s been a lot of media scrutiny of it, which would be the only reason I’d take a look at it.
"I believe ... (Alexander) is a man of high ethics and I have no reason to believe that this would be an area of concern."
The story, however, stirred strong reaction from conservative tea party groups and liberal environmental activists.
"We hope the Legislature stops this in the budget process before it gets to the floor," said Henry Kelley of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party. "This highway will be another example of taxpayer funded crony capitalism."
Mariella Smith, a Hillsborough County resident and member of the Sierra Club, called the road an example of legislative "chicanery" that Alexander was "shoving down our throats."
But his colleagues stood by in support of him.
"It shouldn’t be characterized as JD’s road," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "This has nothing to do with the Heartland Parkway. It’s a different road."
Alexander called Friday’s report "exceedingly inappropriate."
"I don’t think it’s accurate and correct," he said.
Alexander noted that he owns land far away from the proposed northern section of the road. Because it was more than 40 miles away, it would hardly benefit from the Central Polk Parkway or the new university that he’s been pushing that’s to the north of it. "It may be in the mind of the St. Pete Times that a future proposal might do something but there is no proposal today at all other than the Central Polk Parkway extension and I don’t own property anywhere near it," Alexander said.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, has battled Alexander over the years on many issues. She said the northern section was crucial to the rest of the road. "Once that first part gets built, it’ll be easier for the rest of the road to get built," she said.
Others say it's clear the projects are all intertwined. "Just look at a map," said former state Sen. Rick Dantzler said. "It looks like each piece would compliment one another."
Michael Van Sickler and Mary Ellen Klas