Among budget conference agreements secured over the weekend is a tentative consensus to approve a proposed $45 million allocation needed to initiate a decade-long toll road-building plan that is among Senate President Sen. Bill Galvano’s top priorities for the legislative session, which ends Friday.
Despite agreement among chamber budget negotiators, however, there is no guarantee the House will approve Galvano’s Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) Program to extend three toll turnpikes when it comes before them this week as Senate Bill 7068.
SB 7068 was approved last week by the Senate in a 37-1 vote and transmitted to the House, where a companion bill, House Bill 7113, has basically served as a place-holder for the Senate bill.
Opposition to the plan – which would launch the state’s biggest highway road-building project since the 1950s – is widespread and vocal with pressure mounting on the House to reject SB 7068 and Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto it if lawmakers adopt it.
According to SB 7068, the M-CORES program will “advance construction of regional corridors to accommodate multiple modes of transportation and infrastructure to revitalize rural communities, encourage job creation in those communities and provide regional connectivity.”
M-CORES would build the proposed 150-mile Heartland Parkway from Polk County to the Naples area, extend Suncoast Parkway about 150 miles north from Chassahowitzka to the Georgia state line and extend the Florida Turnpike about 40 miles west from I-75 to Suncoast Parkway.
It would be funded through annual license plate tag revenues – $1.3 billion over a decade – shifted into the State Transportation Trust Fund [STTF] from the state’s general fund, and several other state Department of Transportation funds.
SB 7068 calls for $45 million in Fiscal Year 2020 and $90 million in Fiscal Year 2021 and then $135 million annually through 2030 from the STTF, totaling more than $1.3 billion, to finance a state turnpike bond to pay for the bulk of the project. Construction would begin in 2022 and end by Dec. 31, 2030.
The agreement between House and Senate budget negotiators disclosed Sunday by Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, covered the first-year $45 million allocation to create regional task forces to analyze the economic and environmental impact of each project and complete their work before construction begins in 2022.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who carried SB 7068 through the committee process, told senators on the floor last week that the task forces established by the $45 million allocation ensure “there will be a thorough vetting of these projects — both from an environmental and human impact standpoint, as well as from a financial feasibility standpoint.”
Lee admitted there are many uncertainties in how M-CORES could unfold.
“There are legitimate concerns about economic, human and community impacts that go along with [road-building] alignments,” he said. “It certainly is a bold endeavor, to try to prepare Florida for the next 25 to 50 years here.”
The proposal is supported by the Florida Transportation Builders Association, Florida Trucking Association, Florida Ports Council, Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida, Florida Chamber of Commerce, phosphate giant Mosaic and Central Florida agribusiness corporations, such as Alico Inc., A. Duda & Sons and Lykes Brothers.
Critics say the plan commits more than $300 million over the next four years just for planning purposes and eventually diverts at least $1.3 billion from the general fund – and counting, since there actually is no price tag for the program, which would be state’s largest road infrastructure undertaking in 60 years.
M-CORES is opposed by the Sierra Club of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and Progress Florida, who say the rural road-building plan would pollute waterways, damage wildlife habitat and foster urban sprawl.
Progress Florida, noting billionaire Republican donor Thomas Peterffy, a Palm Beach resident and member of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, owns a half-million acres in a North Florida area where the extended Suncoast Parkway could go through, called the M-CORES program “Billionaire Boulevard” and public “boondoggle.”
“Billionaire land developers are looking to cash in on their big campaign contributions to Florida’s legislative leaders,” Progress Florida Executive Director Mark Ferrulo wrote. “As I write this, they’re working furiously to pass one of the biggest land grabs in decades, threatening large swaths of natural Florida in the process.”
Proponents maintain traffic projections indicate over the next decade, another 5 million residents and a growing tourist population, will gridlock the state’s current road corridors. The road program will serve to relieve that pressure, expand hurricane evacuation routes, and bring development to central and north Florida, they say.
They say $1.3 billion being “diverted” from the general fund to the State Transportation Trust Fund [STTF] is actually a restoration of funding that was supposed to go to the STTF in the first place, supporters note.
Lee said last week he was surprised the proposal has drawn such criticism.
“This has been an interesting experience, and it may not be over,” he said. “We’re going to send it down to the House and see.”