A proposal to repeal three controversial toll roads is heading to the House floor for a vote. It’s already been approved by the Senate. The bill still contains projects to extend U.S. 19, and the Florida Turnpike and environmentalists have concerns.
In 2019 Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a program that would build three new toll roads. They would connect Citrus to Jefferson County, Collier to Polk County, and extend the Florida Turnpike northwest of the Suncoast Parkway. Due to budget restraints caused by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers have been rethinking that plan. Sen. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) is one of them.
“One of the things that I really believe that is both a policy and a budget issue is M-CORES. And while the goals of the M-CORES legislation was bold and really forethinking, we need to really look at the long-term and short-term goals and priorities of the state of Florida,” Harrell says.
Harrell’s repeal bill would still pave the way for other roadway projects such as connecting I-10 in Madison County to U.S. 19 and the Suncoast Parkway. It would also extend the Florida turnpike as determined by the Florida Department of Transportation. Audubon Florida’s Beth Alvi supports Harrell’s bill after an amendment made it so that the Florida Department of Transportation would have to take into consideration guidance and recommendations from task forces that evaluated the M-CORES project.
“So, when the task forces were meeting much of last year, looking at the areas where these toll roads may need to go in, they came up with really protective language that DOT and the turnpike authority would need to follow if these roads were ever built,” Alvi says.
Alvi says that includes avoiding certain sensitive areas like spring sheds, wetlands, and coastal lands that may be impacted by sea level rise.
“It also allow[s] for provisions of robust wildlife crossings where roads would intersect with important wildlife corridors, and all of these things DOT would need to follow to the greatest or maximum extent practicable,” Alvi says.
The amendment was also supported by the advocacy group 1000 Friends of Florida. Its president Paul Owens served on one of the M-CORES task forces.
“The M-CORES highways as originally authorized a couple of years ago would have gone through some of the most environmentally sensitive areas in Florida, for the southwest to central road that was going straight through panther habitat,” Owens says.
But now Owens says Harrell’s bill is a step in the right direction.
“There seems to be an emphasis in this bill on upgrading existing highways rather than moving into undeveloped land, open land, so-called green fields, so the potential negative impact is less probably from this approach, but it’s still something to be very aware of and try to guard against,” Owens says.
Both Owens and Alvi hope that the Florida Department of Transportation will follow the task force recommendations closely if the bill passes.