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DOT task forces don’t back toll roads; recommend more economic, environmental studies

Three Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) task forces wrapped up more than a year of meetings and open houses to consider how three MultiUse Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) could be built in rural areas of the state.

The final reports suggested there is no need for toll roads at this time and recommended more economic and environmental impact studies be completed before the M-CORES can be built. The reports were sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers Nov. 12.

The M-CORES program was signed into law by DeSantis in May 2019. The purpose is to revitalize rural communities; encourage job creation and provide regional connectivity while leveraging technology; enhance the quality of life and public safety; and protect the environment and natural
resources.

The areas under consideration in M-CORES are the Southwest-Central Florida Connector extending from Collier County to Polk County, the Northern Turnpike Connector from the northern end of the Florida Turnpike in Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway, and the Suncoast Connector from Citrus County to Jefferson County.

Specific maps have not been drawn, but M-CORES would go through or near counties near reservations including Collier, Hendry, Glades, Highlands and Polk.

The shaded parts are areas of M-CORES studies. (Courtesy M-CORES)

According to M-CORES, the intended benefits of the program include areas such as hurricane evacuation; congestion mitigation; trade and logistics; broadband, water and sewer connectivity; wildlife protection; energy distribution; and other transportation modes, such as shared-use non-motorized trails, freight and passenger rail, and public transit.

FDOT appointed the 40 members of each task force, which included representatives from state agencies, regional planning councils, metropolitan planning organizations, water management districts, local governments, environmental groups and the community.

The task forces began their work without a specific plan for the roads from the FDOT and the panels each determined it was unable to reach a conclusion based on the information available.

“Since the Task Force process was designed to occur prior to the corridor planning and development process, the Task Force was not able to review data on nor discuss every potential impact of the corridor in detail,” the report read.

The reports stated that FDOT must develop project-specific needs, environmental feasibility and economic feasibility for future projects.

The report for the Southwest-Central Florida connector included the need to address the habitat for endangered Florida panthers, which is in the area the connector will be built.

“The Task Force did not reach a conclusion based on the information available at this time that there is a specific need for a completely new greenfield corridor or modifications of existing facilities through the study area,” the report states.

A “greenfield” corridor is considered to be a new road through areas where roads do not currently exist. The task forces expressed a preference for improvement or expansion of existing highway corridors instead of building new roads and urged FDOT to consider a “no build” alternative until a final recommendation about each project is made.

During the 15 months of public hearings, about 10,000 people commented on the program. According to FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault, a significant amount of the feedback was related to protecting the state’s environmental resources. Environmental organizations spoke out after the final reports were submitted.

“The Task Forces have protected Florida’s natural areas and rural lands from what could have been a disaster,” Charles Lee, director of Advocacy of Audubon Florida, said in a statement. “In effect, the Task Force recommendations have directed DOT to use rigorous criteria in considering any road expansions, declared that there is not any immediate need for these corridors and rejected the rush to build projects that seemed to fuel the original 2019 Legislation.”

Vivian Young, communications director of 1000 Friends of Florida, wrote in a letter on the organization’s website, “The recommendations do not do enough to stop the toll roads, if they are built, from fueling low-density residential and commercial development — urban sprawl — that would ruin this unspoiled part of Florida.”

Florida Sen. President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has championed the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, said it could lead to positive impacts, from business growth to improved hurricane evacuations.

The next phase of the M-CORES project will be the Alternative Corridor Evaluation, during which the criteria will be established to develop and evaluate each potential corridor. Using the criteria, each potential course will be evaluated to determine which options should be considered for further study. This is the time the corridors will be evaluated for environmental feasibility, along with the no-build option.

The second phase is expected to begin in the next several months.

Whatever work is done in M-CORES, it is expected to be completed by 2030.

The final report stated, “The statute charges FDOT, to the maximum extent feasible, to adhere to the recommendations of each Task Force in the design of the multiple modes of transportation and multiple types of infrastructure associated with the corridor. The Task Force recommended, and FDOT committed to, an action plan for future activities in this study area consistent with the guiding principles and instructions.”

In other words, FDOT must follow the recommendations of the task forces final reports.

For more information go to floridamcores.com.

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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