By BETSY CALVERT

Staff Writer

TAMPA — There was no answer for the big question everyone had at the first meeting of the state’s giant Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance — or M-CORES.

The Sun reached out last week to several people, including local officials, a day after the gathering in Tampa of 125 county and state officials along with environmental activists.

Tuesday was the inaugural gathering of three task force groups assigned to the three different sections of the proposed toll road.

The road will run from Collier County to the Georgia border. Charlotte and DeSoto counties could see a section of the road run through the edges of their boundaries in the southern third of the project.

State legislators, by a tight margin, voted in legislation this spring that orders the design of the interior highway and a construction start of 2022. It is a proposal that has been rejected many times before. The new legislation sets aside $135 million for the first two years of planning. Knowing that the toll road will not pay for itself, the state says it can use construction bonds, public-private partnerships and other public financing to pay for the biggest road project in Florida since I-75.

Exactly where the road would go is what everyone wanted to know, said Gary Harrell, director of the Charlotte County Punta Gorda Metropolitan Planning Organization.

“There are no lines on the map right now,” said Harrell, “just very broad swaths.”

At the task force meeting, Charlotte County Commissioner Ken Doherty told members that he had expected to participate in saying what route the road would take.

“I thought we’d be putting lines on maps,” he told the group. “The process is stepping back now, not be a ground level...I get it.”

Both Doherty and Charlotte County Commissioner Christopher Constance asked FDOT officials to share the road location decisions with the task force and the MPO as the information becomes available.

An environmental activist at the event, Sarah Gledhill, told the Sun everyone was asking that question.

“If you’re listening to the task force members, they’re all really interested in the line on the map. That’s what they want to see,” said Gledhill, who is an organizer for the national Center for Biological Diversity.

“It was interesting to learn that these task forces will not be recommending an exact alignment, and that to us is very confusing.” she said. “Their job is to develop consensus.”

Gledhill said opposition groups believe special interest groups have already identified the location, and just want the project fast tracked.

Harrell agreed that the project looks like it is on a fast track.

“There’s quite a bit of resources directed to making this happen in a short period of time,” he said.

Harrell noted that the task force must consider where the growing population of Florida will go in the future. The question is critical as coastal developments face traffic congestion, environmental degradation, sea level rise and hurricane vulnerability.

At the meeting, Constance shared an optimistic view of how the interior corridor would address that by giving Florida residents a more affordable place to live that is still within access of the coast.

“This new corridor may give consumers choices,” Constance told the task force. “Fifty years from now, they may look back and say, ‘Forty years ago, they really got it right.’”

Another task force member, however, Paul Gray of Audubon Florida, told FDOT and task force members he is still not sure whether this roadway is designed to get people through the interior, or to the interior. The group moderator advised the task force that it can help determine the answer to that question.

Gledhill thinks the task forces are just a facade to give the impression of public involvement.

“The state is telling local governments where the road will go, and ‘you figure out how to develop around it’,” she said.

Neither Harrell nor Gledhill are on the task force, but the commissioners are.

Harrell said he believes state engineers know how to address many environmental issues based on mistakes made decades ago on I-75 and U.S. 41 such as failing to send sheets of water in the right direction, failing to allow wildlife to cross highways or failing to allow water to flow under highways.

Constance asked FDOT to make sure it doesn’t make the same mistake it made years ago in the Charlotte Harbor area where U.S. 41 cut off water flow to parts of south county.

State expertise is not reassuring to environmental groups, who want the project stopped.

“We recognize that our environment will be destroyed, said Gledhill.

Her group and other opposition groups want the state to spend its funds on enhancing current roadways and improving development practices.

As for the promise of economic prosperity for central Florida, Gledhill said she believes the residents there will speak to how much that means to them at later task force meetings held in their districts.

Email: betsy.calvert@yoursun.com

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