FILE - Miami Florida interstate

Interstate 95 in Miami

A decade-long, multi-billion dollar plan to build a toll turnpike and extend two others got a subcommittee’s unanimous approval during the first week of the legislative session, but faces scrutiny from two other Senate panels before it reaches chamber floors.

Among Senate Bill 7068’s advantages, however, is it is a legislative priority of Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and is spearheaded by former Senate President Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

SB 7068, crafted by the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee, which Lee chairs, would create the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) Program to “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 is an ambitious plan to 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.

M-CORES would be funded through annual license plate tag revenues 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.

According to a 24-page analysis of the 21-page bill, state law requires no more than $10 billion in bonds be outstanding to fund turnpike projects. As of June 30, 2018, the Florida Turnpike Enterprise (FTE), which manages the state’s eight turnpike systems, had $2.6 billion in outstanding bonds and its five-year capital plan includes $1.5 billion in additional bonds.

Construction would begin in 2022 and end by Dec. 31, 2030.

SB 7068 – technically SPB 7068 as a “committee bill” – was approved 7-0 by the Senate Infrastructure and Security Committee on March 7.

The bill’s next stop is the Senate Appropriations Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Subcommittee, which meets Wednesday. As of Monday evening, SPB 7068 was not on the agenda.

M-CORES will also need to pass muster with the 21-member Senate Appropriations Committee and then be approved by the full Senate before being dispatched to the House for endorsement.

Among challenges that surfaced in its debut hearing before the panel that created it is resistance to moving $1.3 billion over a decade from the general fund and distaste for asking the public to build toll roads it must pay to use.

In 2009, during the recession, the Legislature raised vehicle license tag fees and diverted much of those revenues from the STTF into the general fund to balance the budget.

Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said 65 percent of license plate revenues continue to go to the general fund. “How do we replace that revenue?” she asked.

“We are redirecting license plate fees back to transportation where it belongs and earmarking them” for this proposal, Lee said. “We have the luxury of taking this money and they have the challenge of balancing the budget.”

Cruz said selling toll roads to legislators and constituents won’t be easy.

“Nobody hates to pay tolls more than I do,” she said. “But I know that Florida is facing real transportation and infrastructure issues and we need to move into the 21st century.”

No one likes toll roads, Lee said. “I know there are people, myself included, in the Legislature who wish we had alternatives beyond expanding toll roads. That is not our first choice for it to be funded through a mechanism like this.”

SPB 7068 also drew fire from Sierra Club Florida and the Florida RV Trade Association.

“Congestion has never been solved by building more roads,” Sierra Club Florida lobbyist David Cullen said, citing fears the roads would “fragment the landscape” and presents “a tremendous potential for sprawl.”

Florida RV Trade Association General Counsel Marc Dunbar said the proposal essentially makes permanent license tag fee increases that were supposed to be temporary in 2009.

Now that the recession is over, he said, the Legislature should do what it pledged to do.

“This bill really is a betrayal of the commitment that was made by leadership that this would be a temporary tax increase,” Dunbar said. “We support infrastructure funding. The only thing I would ask is that the pain be spread a little more broadly” among more constituent groups that would benefit.

Lee said “it somewhat unusual to put aspirational goals in a statute” and acknowledged M-CORES will require extensive discussion at state and local levels. “There is a lot more to do. A lot more,” he said.

The bottom line, Lee said, is the roads are needed to relieve congestion and deliver the infrastructure rural areas that have not benefited from the state’s recovery need for economic development.

“This is a Senate product. Not a Galvano product or a Tom Lee product,” he said.