Why spend billions of dollars on a giant toll road in Florida’s rural interior when what you really need are better schools, high speed internet and training for small businesses?
The Sierra Club Florida chapter teamed up with a consulting company of Cornell University students to attack the state’s high cost plan for 330 miles of high speed roads from Collier County to near the Georgia border.
The Sierra Club held an online press conference Wednesday to introduce the report by Cornell Consulting. Links to the report can be found at http://noroadstoruin.org/white-papers,
Gov. Ron DeSantis drew harsh criticism from environmentalists and fiscal watchdogs for failing to cut anything from the toll road’s $25.5 million planning budget this year while vetoing $1 billion in other spending due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Called MCORES or Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, the project made news in the British newspaper The Guardian recently as “Florida’s Road to Nowhere.”
The Cornell report concludes that the three-system project cannot meet Florida Department of Transportation’s own rules, which require construction cost payback in 15 years. The section most likely to meet that goal, however, is the one that includes Charlotte and DeSoto counties — the largest of which is called the Southwest-Central corridor.
“Our analysis indicates that the potential benefits are negligible when weighed against the associated costs and other priorities,” the report concludes.
Commissioners from Charlotte and DeSoto counties serve on the task force for the southwest section. Charlotte County Commissioner Christopher Constance has expressed optimism that the project could direct development away from Florida’s vulnerable and expensive coastline. DeSoto Commissioner Elton Langford has expressed concern that the road would disrupt rural life without economic benefit.
Cornell Consulting concludes the southwest section alone would cost $3.3 billion to construct its 140 miles and would take 10 years to build. All three roads would cost at least $10.3 billion.
Using a number of simulation models and urban planning theories, the report says new roads lead to increased traffic rather than decreased, because they encourage more drivers.
Other studies have shown that highway investments no longer make sense, as they did in the 1950s, the report states. Highways can increase economic growth in underdeveloped areas, the report concurs, but at a much higher cost and longer time frame than other types of public investment.
The report calculates how high speed internet capacity in rural areas would arrive in Florida’s rural areas much sooner and more cheaply if the state strings aerial cable where needed.
And alleviating poverty and unemployment in the state’s interior is better addressed by spending more on public schools and universities, particularly given that Florida generally ranks in the bottom half of the nation in educational achievement, according to the report.
FDOT’s Communication Director Beth Grady issued a lengthy response to the report indirectly addressing the qualifications of the authors, who are mostly students of economics and urban planning. She wrote that traffic and revenue studies have not yet been conducted, and that when they are, they will be done by “independent entities that have subject matter expertise in this area.”
Grady also noted that a final result of the current planning could be recommendations for rail, both passenger and freight. Florida’s perilous vulnerability to hurricanes makes improved evacuation routes a top priority, she said.
Both FDOT and its opponents point out that there is no identified route yet for this project after more than a year of study. Three appointed tasks forces of 45 members each have been meeting and listening to citizen statements, some in favor and some opposed. Many task force members, both pro and con, have expressed frustration that they don’t know the actual route of any toll road. FDOT has responded that the toll road may well run as limited access highways on either side of existing roads, such as U.S. 17. It will not be one monolithic road, FDOT says.
And the option of “No Build” remains, FDOT has said.