FILE - Sen. Gayle Harrell, Florida

Florida Sen. Gayle Harrell looks on during a break in a legislative session, Friday, April 30, 2021, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.

(The Center Square) – Florida lawmakers during their 2021 legislative session adopted a fast-tracked measure in combined 154-1 floor votes that does away with a multi-billion dollar, decade-long plan to build 330 miles of toll roads.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 100 a day after receiving it, endorsing the measure on June 24 without comment.

SB 100, filed by Senate Transportation Chair Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, repeals a state statute established when lawmakers adopted SB 7068 in 2019, which created the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) plan, Florida’s most ambitious road-building proposal in 60 years.

M-CORES outlines extension of three toll roads by 2030 with $1.1 billion in license-plate tag revenues earmarked to finance a bond that lowest estimates peg at $10 billion and others as high as $26 billion. They are:

  • A 150-mile Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Lakeland to Naples.
  • A Suncoast Connector, a 40-mile span linking Florida Turnpike and I-75 with Suncoast Parkway.
  • A Northern Turnpike Connector extending Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to Georgia.

SB 7068 allocated $45 million in FY20 to create three task forces to study M-CORES’ plan, $90 million for M-CORES in FY 21, $130 million in FY22 and $140 million annually through FY30. By 2024, the state would have spent $760 million.

M-CORES was championed by former Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. Supporters included the Florida Chamber of Commerce, builders and business interests who say M-CORES would boost rural economies, alleviate urban congestion, improve evacuation routes and install internet services in underserved areas.

M-CORES, however, fostered massive opposition during 18 months of hearings. An 80-member No Roads To Ruin coalition issued a “declaration of war” against it as financially unfeasible and environmentally devastating.

Three task forces created to study each of the proposed toll roads could not justify the need for them. Florida TaxWatch in a 2020 analysis called M-CORES a “boondoggle.”

Lawmakers listened. Even flush with federal money, Senate budget writers, in particular, questioned the prudence of a multi-billion dollar commitment in an uncertain post-pandemic economy.

But SB 100 does not terminate two of the three projects. It diverts M-CORES funding – $130 million in FY22 and $140 million annually through FY30 – to the Florida Department of Transportation’s (DOT) road fund and eliminates the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, but the 40-mile Suncoast Parkway span is still moving forward, as is a modified Northern Turnpike Connector plan that lawmakers deemed in the “strategic interest of the state.”

SB 100 is a good plan, the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association (FTBA) said in a Thursday statement.

“By signing Senate Bill 100 into law, Gov. Ron DeSantis has helped in taking action to responsibly address both short-term and long-term infrastructure needs in our state, and I thank him for recognizing the need for this important legislation,” FTBA President Ananth Prasad said.

But opponents are not celebrating. No Roads To Ruin is calling on its coalition, which includes the Sierra Club, Florida Conservation Voters and Florida Springs Council, to continue opposing the two remaining toll roads.

“The good news is one proposed road has been eliminated; the bad news is the other two proposed roads remain,” the group said in a statement. “In total, the governor’s action falls woefully short of eliminating the original M-CORES threat and realizing the transportation needs of Florida.”

The group will contest the projects until they are scrubbed.

“Our fight continues to put an end to all of the #RoadsToRuin,” the group pledged. “One down and two to go!”