(The Center Square) – The Florida Legislature’s tentative multibillion dollar plan to build 330 miles of toll roads across the state by 2030 has drawn criticism within the state as a wasteful and needless degradation of habitat in environmentally sensitive areas.
Now, Florida’s proposed Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) plan is drawing censure on a national scale as “one of the most expensive, damaging and wasteful highway-building sprees in the country.”
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) ranked M-CORES a top 2020 “boondoggle” in its annual Highway Boondoggles report, which claims a 2019 bill may have committed the state to allocate $1.1 billion in “veto-proof” spending on the projects despite overwhelming opposition from the public and many officials.
M-CORES is of one seven “questionable projects poised to absorb billions of scarce transportation dollars” across the nation that exemplified in 2020 how “states continue to spend billions of dollars on new or expanded highways that fail to address real problems and will create new problems for our communities and the environment,” PIRG said.
Florida lawmakers approved Senate Bill 7068 in 2019. It allocated $45 million to create three task forces to study M-CORES and report to Gov. Ron DeSantis by Nov. 15.
All three task force reports are on DeSantis’ desk. None could justify the projects, which critics, including the 80-member Roads To Ruin coalition and Florida TaxWatch, have lambasted as costly and environmentally intrusive.
M-CORES outlines construction of:
• A 150-mile Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Lakeland to Naples. The Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force report could not identify a “specific need” for the road;
• A Suncoast Connector, a 40-mile span linking Florida Turnpike and I-75 with Suncoast Parkway. The Suncoast Connector report was “not able to fully address its charge of evaluating the needs for and impacts” of the road;
• A Northern Turnpike Connector extending Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to Georgia. The Northern Turnpike Connector report also said it “was not able to fully address its charge of evaluating the needs for and impacts” of road.
Under SB 7068, construction would begin in 2022 and end in 2030. M-CORES would be funded through license plate tag revenue; $1.1 billion over a decade to finance a bond. The bill authorized $90 million for M-CORES in this year’s budget, $135 million in fiscal year 2022 and $140 million annually through fiscal year 2030.
Despite the projects’ unpopularity and costs, Gov. Ron DeSantis retained the $90 million for M-CORES in the state’s fiscal year 2021 budget even after vetoing $1 billion from other projects.
“The funding is virtually veto-proof and built into statutes,” PIRG said, maintaining even with the state facing a $3.4 billion to $5 billion revenue shortfall this and next fiscal year, lawmakers have little choice but to rubber-stamp the $135 million earmarked for M-CORES in fiscal 2022 and annual $140 million allocations through fiscal 2030.
M-CORES “is already straining the state budget,” PIRG argued and would not meet its goals of improving hurricane evacuations and reducing congestion.
Citing Cornell Consulting Group reports from September that found Florida hurricane evacuations unhampered by road shortages, PIRG said M-CORES would induce travel and increase congestion.
PIRG and Cornell Consulting maintain traffic would not generate enough revenue for the toll roads to pay for themselves, the same conclusion Florida TaxWatch reached in a June analysis.
The roads would be “enormously expensive,” PIRG said, citing estimates by Cornell Consulting, Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida that range from $10 billion to $26 billion.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) said PIRG failed to acknowledge “important nuances,” noting the proposal is “still in the very early planning phases.”