FILE - Florida state flag

The Florida state flag flies.

(The Centers Square) – Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature wants to spend up to $10 billion to build 340 miles of toll roads by 2030, the state’s largest highway project in more than 60 years.

But that “want” is not a “need,” so say three regional task forces after a year of studying the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) plan lawmakers approved in 2019.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) posted draft reports this week from the task forces. The final versions are due on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk Nov. 15.

All three task forces – each comprised of about 40 members, including local officials, environmentalists, agricultural interests, transportation planners and business group representatives – feature the same statement in their introductory sections:

“The task force did not reach a conclusion based on the information available at this time that there is a specific need for a completely new greenfield corridor through the study area to achieve the statutory purpose.”

While the common passage acknowledges a “preference for improvement or expansion of existing major highway corridors or existing major linear utility corridors,” it also calls for FDOT “to consider a ‘no build’ alternative in future project development activities until a final recommendation about each specific project is made.”

M-CORES outlines construction of:

• A 150-mile Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Lakeland to Naples;

• The Suncoast Connector, a 40-mile span linking the Florida Turnpike and I-75 with the Suncoast Parkway;

• The Northern Turnpike Connector, which would extend the Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to Georgia.

Construction begins in 2022 and ends in 2030. M-CORES will be funded through license plate tag revenues – $1.1 billion over a decade to finance a bond; estimates top $10 billion.

Lawmakers in 2019 approved Senate Bill 7068, which called for the creation of the task forces to study the proposal and allocated $45 million for the studies.

SB 7068 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, totaling $1.1 billion.

That money is not earmarked, however. Funding must be approved annually.

M-CORES is widely opposed, including by the 80-member No Roads to Ruin coalition, which is spearheaded by Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Florida Policy Institute, Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast and the League of Women Voters.

Critics contend the corridors will traverse fragile wetlands, promote sprawl, imperil endangered species, such as the Florida panther, and open sensitive areas to development.

1000 Friends of Florida and Sierra Club jointly have released “M-CORES: A Detour Around Accountability,” which pegs the projects’ cost at $26.4 billion.

Florida TaxWatch also has questioned potential costs, estimating the Suncoast Parkway project alone would cost between $4 billion and $10.5 billion, concluding “further analysis of the costs, benefits and practicality of the Suncoast Connector, especially now that our state is facing unprecedented revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19,” is warranted.

Supporters, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association, said the roads would prepare rural areas for growth and aid in disaster evacuations.

M-CORES is a priority for Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who is term-limited and will be succeeded by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Spring Hill, on Nov. 17.

Galvano said Wednesday moving forward with M-CORES will boost the state’s pandemic recovery by delivering “wide-ranging infrastructure improvements” in water, sewer and broadband to rural areas.

“For example,” Galvano said, “school choice is not a realistic proposition for K-12 students in counties underserved by fixed broadband, or for higher education students choosing to study remotely this semester.”