(The Center Square) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis trimmed $1 billion from Florida's fiscal year 2021 budget before signing it, but surviving the governor’s cuts was a $90 million allocation for Florida’s most ambitious – and controversial – highway project since the 1950s.
Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) is a $10 billion plan to build 340 miles of new toll roads by 2030. It was initiated with the adoption of Senate Bill 7068 in 2019.
Supporters, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, say M-CORES will boost rural economies, alleviate urban congestion, improve evacuation routes and install internet services in underserved areas.
M-CORES is widely opposed, however, including by the 80-member No Roads to Ruin coalition spearheaded by Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Florida Policy Institute, Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and League of Women Voters.
Critics contend the toll road corridors will traverse fragile wetlands, promote sprawl and imperil endangered species, such as the Florida panther, and is a scheme to open environmentally sensitive areas to development.
A priority for Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, M-CORES outlines construction of the 150-mile Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Lakeland to Naples; the Suncoast Connector, a 40-mile span linking Florida Turnpike and I-75 with Suncoast Parkway; and the Northern Turnpike Connector, which would extend Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to Georgia.
Construction begins in 2022 and is scheduled to end in 2030. M-CORES will be funded through license plate tag revenues – $1.1 billion over a decade to finance a bond to pay for the projects; estimates top $10 billion.
SB 7068, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, passed the House, 76-36, and was adopted by the Senate in a 37-1 vote.
Under SB 7068, M-CORES received $45 million in fiscal year 2020 to form three task forces to study the proposal in workshops and public hearings. It is statutorily guaranteed to receive $135 million in fiscal 2022 and $140 million annually through fiscal 2030, totaling $1.1 billion, unless lawmakers amend the bill.
M-CORES could be nixed by the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) or lawmakers for financial and environmental concerns, but critics said lawmakers are moving forward as if it is a done deal despite SB 7068 stipulating funding be evaluated annually based on input from three regional task forces.
The 38-member Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force, 41-member Suncoast Connector Task Force and 39-member Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force have been meeting since September.
The task forces include representatives of state agencies, water management districts, regional planning councils, local governments, nonprofits, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Farm Bureau Federation, businesses and environmental groups.
Only lawmakers can change M-CORES funding by amending SB 7068, which they did this session, pushing the Oct. 1 deadline for task force reports back six weeks and, apparently, committing at least $200 million more than approved last year.
SB 7068 outlined $393 million in M-CORES planning through 2024. This year’s budget approves $595 million in M-CORES-related spending through 2024 and an additional $142 million in 2025.
With DeSantis vetoing $83 million in water improvement projects, opponents said spending $90 million for toll roads is not a priority for most Floridians.
“Despite the significant need to invest in existing infrastructure, funding for the disastrous M-CORES projects was saved,” Florida Conservation Voters said in a statement, noting the plan “is expected to grow each year, with annual investments topping $100 million beginning in next year’s budget. The estimated price tag to build 330 new miles of toll roads in Florida could top $20 billion.”