(The Center Square) – As three regional task forces prepare for final meetings to gauge the feasibility of the Florida Legislature’s multibillion dollar proposal to build 340 miles of toll roads by 2030, opponents say the state is hiding overwhelming public opposition to the plan.
According to an analysis of nearly 10,000 public comments by the No Roads to Ruin coalition gleaned from 15 months of review, more than 93 percent oppose the three proposed toll roads.
Lawmakers created the task forces in 2019 to study a proposed Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) plan to build a 150-mile Southwest-Central Florida Connector, a 40-mile Suncoast Connector linking the Florida Turnpike and I-75 with the Suncoast Parkway and a 150-mile Northern Turnpike Connector, which would extend the Suncoast Parkway to Georgia.
M-CORES would be funded with $1.1 billion in license plate tag revenue to finance a bond; estimates top $10 billion. Construction would begin in 2022 and end in 2030.
The 2019 bill allocated $45 million to study the proposal and authorized $90 million for M-CORES in this year’s budget, $135 million in fiscal year 2022 and $140 million annually through fiscal 2030.
That money is not assured, however. Funding must be approved annually. Task force recommendations, due Nov. 15, will be key in determining how, or if, M-CORES will be funded.
As task forces prepare for next week’s meetings, No Roads to Ruin criticized the Florida Department of Transportation for classifying comments by areas of interest – route alignment, hurricane evacuation, wetlands, wildlife impacts, costs, tourism, infrastructure and jobs – without an overall “for” and “against” tally.
“They might tell us they got X number of comments concerned about water quality or X number of comments concerned about wildlife,” Progress Florida Communications Specialist Jon Bleyer said. “But what they didn’t share was the sentiment of those comments. They never shared how many anti or pro comments were received.”
The coalition, which spans more than 110 organizations, filed multiple public-records requests with the FDOT to access all public comments and received 9,886 comments submitted between August 2019 and Oct. 7, 2020.
Bleyer said an “army of volunteers” examined the comments and determined 9,232 – 93.4% – opposed the projects, 379 were in favor and 275 were undecided.
The coalition sent FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault a letter this week citing the overwhelming opposition and the absence of a “no build” option, even though the task forces requested one.
In the same statement in draft reports issued in late-September, all three task forces called for the FDOT “to consider a ‘no build’ alternative in future project development activities until a final recommendation about each specific project is made.”
“Because no-build is always an option, the department has only tracked topics mentioned at a very high level, not the sentiment of the comment,” FDOT Communications Director Beth Frady said in an email response shared by the coalition.
“Tracking it this way has allowed the department to ensure the topics mentioned by the public were discussed at task force meetings,” she said. “This means that, in the event the proposed corridors meet environmental and financial feasibility, the task forces have had the opportunity to consider all actionable feedback and input via multiple productive discussions.”
The task forces will hold virtual and in-person meetings and open houses next week.
The Southwest-Central Florida Corridor Task Force will meet Monday. An open house is scheduled for Tuesday at Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center in Punta Gorda.
The Suncoast Corridor Task Force will meet Tuesday, with a Thursday open house at Madison County Church of God in Madison.
The Northern Turnpike Corridor Task Force will meet Wednesday, with an open house Thursday at The Plantation on Crystal River.