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Florida Toll Roads Final Report On Its Way To Gov. DeSantis

Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media

After more than a year of public hearings and testimony, the final report outlining the state's plans to build three new toll roads in rural parts of Florida is on its way to the governor and legislature.

It has taken 15 months and a lot of acrimony. The roads would extend the Suncoast Parkway north to the Georgia border, create a connection to that road from the Florida Turnpike — and the most controversial segment would connect Orlando with Southwest Florida, going through prime Florida Panther habitat.

The Nature Conservancy, an advocacy group, commissioned a report, which says the development of a proposed toll road to connect Southwest and Central Florida would fragment and create barriers for panther movement and potentially increase road kill mortality rates.

Three task forces were comprised of environmental groups, water management districts, community organizations, and state and local officials.

Lindsay Cross, of the environmental advocacy group Florida Conservation voters, says the vast majority of public comments -- they estimated 93% -- were against the need for the roads.

"The Department of Transportation was never able to provide the data and information to the task force members to validate why these new roads are needed," Cross said. "And therefore the final reports are invalid because the whole framework for them was not successful."

Opposition groups formed No Roads To Ruin, saying there are no studies saying there is a need for a road. They particularly assailed the Southwest Connector as a threat to the endangered Florida panther. They want the state to exercise its no-build option.

State transportation officials released this statement:

The three final reports will guide FDOT in its subsequent study phases through the implementation of high-level needs, guiding principles, and instructions. The final Task Force reports are now available here.

The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program is intended to revitalize rural communities, encourage job creation and provide regional connectivity while leveraging technology, enhancing the quality of life and public safety, and protecting the environment and natural resources. The program was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis on May 17, 2019. The intended benefits include, but are not limited to, addressing issues such as:

  • Hurricane evacuation
  • Congestion mitigation
  • Trade and logistics
  • Broadband, water and sewer connectivity
  • Energy distribution
  • Autonomous, connected, shared and electric vehicle technology
  • Other transportation modes, such as shared-use nonmotorized trails, freight and passenger rail, and public transit
  • Mobility as a service
  • Availability of a trained workforce skilled in traditional and emerging technologies
  • Protection or enhancement of wildlife corridors or environmentally sensitive areas
  • Protection or enhancement of primary springs protection zones and farmland preservation areas

Transportation officials said environmental and financial feasibility studies will be conducted in the next phases of the program. A transportation corridor must be environmentally and financially feasible to be built.

Support for the roads has come from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.

State lawmakers last year approved moving forward with the roads, with legislation eventually dedicating up to $101.7 million a year for the projects. But lawmakers also created the task forces to study and make recommendations.

The toll roads are the idea of State Senate President Bill Galvano. The Bradenton Republican came up with the notion after talking with business leaders about ways to spur growth in the state's hinterlands.

The bill the Legislature passed gives extraordinarily tight timelines. Construction would start in 2022 and the roads would be "substantially completed" by 2030.

The Florida Audubon Society issued this statement:

During the consideration of M-CORES legislation, Audubon worked with Sen. Tom Lee to propose an amendment requiring the formation and input of Task Forces for each of the three prospective turnpikes. The paths of these new roads would have opened large parts of remaining rural Florida to development, and potentially destroyed important conservation lands and wildlife habitats. The huge cost of these new roads could have drained Florida’s transportation funds away from locations where road improvements are truly needed in urban areas.

Highlights of the Task Forces’ findings:

  • There is NO consensus based on current data to support new “greenfield” turnpikes through the study areas (a “greenfield” project is a new road through areas where roads do not now exist).
  • The Task Forces recommend that DOT consider upgrading or expanding existing roads if new capacity is needed, and potentially co-locating toll lanes within or adjacent to existing roads, or in certain circumstances, very large existing power line rights of way.
  • The Task Forces demanded real economic and traffic projection data to support the need for any new road construction, and specified considerations for the things DOT must include in the “need” determination process.
  • The Task Forces required that DOT stay completely out of any conservation lands with any new alignments, and included recommendations for incorporating wildlife crossings.
  • In all three reports, the Task Forces urged the Legislature to reconsider the deadline to begin construction by January 2023, which was written into the original legislation.
  • The Task Forces included language in their reports requiring DOT to plan for, and fund, extensive conservation land acquisitions within 10 miles of any M-CORES project. Under this provision, DOT would have to fund conservation land acquisitions in conjunction with roadbuilding costs, and collaborate with the Florida Forever Program and other land acquisition programs to fund purchases on the Florida Forever Priority List, as well as other lands prioritized for acquisition by state conservation agencies. DOT will have to spend roadbuilding money to buy environmental lands, and develop a plan to do so integrated with the highway plan itself.

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Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.