Palms planted under FDOT's multi-million dollar landscaping plan dying from disease

State has no estimate of numbers or cost of trees

TAMPA, Fla. - You paid for them...pricey palm trees that line miles of Florida's interstates and highways as part of a Florida Department of Transportation landscaping program called "A Bold New Vision".

But as the I-Team uncovered, many of the trees are now dead.

And state officials don't have a handle on how much it's going to cost to fix the problem.

“Those are really nice palms, but they're dead,” said arborist Buck Rollings, who works for Omega Tree Service in Tampa, pointing out dead palm trees along Interstate 75.

“These right here, they're definitely dead,” he said, pointing to a couple of completely brown palms which were recently planted along the interchange.

You can tell they’re new, because they still have wooden support structures on their bases.

“They're gone. There's nothing you can do with those trees,” Rollings said.

Some of the dead palms are exotic species that cost FDOT several thousand dollars each.

The Florida Department of Transportation kicked off the landscaping program during Governor Rick Scott’s first term.

“There was a push several years ago for more palm trees especially in our gateway areas,” said FDOT Spokesperson Kristen Carson.

Some Bay area interchanges funded as part of the project had more than 1,000 palm trees and cost more than $1 Million.

The landscaping is funded with gas tax money you pay at the pump.

The intention was to impress tourists and attract new businesses and residents to Florida by replacing shrubs and hardwoods with groves of tropical palms.

But in half of Florida's counties, palms are now dying from a disease called Texas Phoenix Palm Decline.

“This is a new disease. There's a lot of questions, a lot of unknowns,” said Carson.

“When trees get Texas Phoenix Palm Decline, it kills them very quickly... within a few weeks,” said Rollings.

ABC Action News first reported that the disease was killing palm trees in Tampa in 2013.

Records show Manuel Diaz Farms of Homestead landed $17 Million in FDOT landscaping contracts as part of “ A Bold New Vision"  in 2014.

That same year, donors associated with the nursery gave $50,000 to the Florida Republican Party, a week before the gubernatorial election.

And in recent years, as more palm trees showed signs of decline statewide, FDOT was planting new palms.

Trees are considered under warranty during the first two year “establishment period”, which begins when they are planted, and have to be replaced by contractors if they die during that time period

After that, they become the responsibility of the state to remove and/or replace.  

As far as how much the outbreak of disease has cost taxpayers, it’s too early to tell.

“We don't have numbers on this unfortunately. There's not a database. We're not tracking the disease,” said Carson, who says the disease is a problem with science, and has nothing to do with FDOT’s landscape plan.

She compares the recent outbreak with the outbreak of Dutch Elm disease several years ago, which killed thousands of hardwood trees and other diseases that have decimated pine trees.

Tampa resident Sandra Moreno says the pretty palms planted near her home along the Selmon Expressway have long been dead and nobody from the state has been by to remove them.   

“You paid for that. You paid for everything in here,” she said, pointing to a row of dead trees beside a mural at the base of the expressway.

She's not the only upset neighbor.

“They're all gone, falling down, turning colors,” said Angela Murillo.

“It's Florida. You're supposed to see fresh palm trees, not dead palm trees,” points out Jaron Green.

“No one's ever called me about palms that are dead. But it's something that's on our radar,” said Carson.

“We want to make sure these are replaced or removed, and again, we even have to sanitize the equipment to make sure we're not spreading it, if it is the disease,” she said.

“The best thing to do if you can identify if it is Texas Phoenix Palm Decline is to get that tree out of there as quickly as possible,” said Rollings, who recently attended a workshop presented by a University of Florida expert on how to best prevent the disease from spreading.

Some of FDOT’s dead palms we first spotted in early May still haven't been removed.

“It just looks horrible. Nobody wants to drive past and see dead trees all the time,” said Green.

“Our crews probably already know about it. They're probably already watching them or monitoring them and probably already have a plan to remove them,” said Carson..

In the meantime, FDOT says Florida’s “A Bold New Vision” plan no longer includes new plantings of palm trees.

And nobody knows how much replacing the dead ones will end up costing taxpayers.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at adam@abcactionnews.com.

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