It wasn’t a ringing endorsement.
More than 100 task force members, including three from Charlotte County, will meet one more time in October to debate a draft final report on the 330-mile toll road proposed from Collier County to the Georgia border.
The task force for the largest of the three segments, from Collier to Polk counties, will host its final meeting from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Tampa Convention Center. It could be the task force’s first in-person meeting after months of virtual meetings its 47 members have called frustrating.
The 30-page reports for the southwest section begins with some uncertainty.
“(The) Task Force was not able to fully address its charge of evaluating the need for and impacts of the Southwest Central Florida Corridor,” the report states on page 2, blaming limited data. “The Task Force did not reach a conclusion ... that there is a specific need for a completely new greenfield corridor on land through the study area to achieve the statutory purpose.”
The Sun reached out to the state Department of Transportation and the local participants, but those responding said they could not interpret whether the sentence showed lack of consensus.
“The Task Force expressed a preference for improvement or expansion of major existing highway corridors,” the report states in its opening.
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has provided more ammunition to the road opponents. That’s because the state legislature is anticipating having to make more than $1 billion dollars in cuts to the current budget when they reconvene. Meanwhile, the toll road project funding, legislated in 2019, is funded now for the next five years to the tune of $484.3 million.
Charlotte County Commissioner Chris Constance gave a more enthusiastic endorsement at a meeting on the Metropolitan Planning Organization last week.
“This is a tremendous opportunity to make a better pipeline through the center of the state,” he said, referring to a wildlife corridor protecting endangered species such as the Florida panther.
Environmentalists across the state have heaped criticism on the project, saying it will destroy habitat for the Florida panther, bankrupt the state and divert funds from critical environmental projects such as sewage treatment improvements.
“I really feel like they’re getting it wrong,” Constance said of environmental opposition.
A central road, he said, will allow development to move away from the fragile coastline, he said, and there is no stopping the thousands of people who pour into the state regularly.
State officials are quick to point out that the project is not just a road project but a rural redevelopment initiative aimed at improving broadband internet access, sewer lines and jobs in the state’s poorest regions.
So just spend money on broadband and education directly, a report requested by the Sierra Club asserted. Don’t bother with the road part of a project that can’t pay for itself, they said.
FDOT told the Sun that no road can be constructed that does not meet the state’s financial and environmental requirements. To improve feasibility, the state will consider public-private partnerships, said FDOT Communications Director Beth Frady.
Financial feasibility studies appear to be a ways off, however. After the task forces submit their reports in November, FDOT starts its Alternative Corridor Evaluation, Frady said, which presents different location options including the no-build option. This ACE study is guided by principles set down by the task forces, she said.
Economic and environmental feasibility is not determined until after the ACE study. That will come with the Project Development and Environmental study, Frady said.
Charlotte County Commissioner Ken Doherty said he is concerned now about the future cost of the project.
“That’s one of the things I’m personally focusing on, and others are too,” Doherty said.
Calling it the elephant in the room, Commissioner Joe Tiseo asked FDOT directly if the project would ultimately take funds away from other road projects in the state.
“I don’t think so,” said FDOT District One Secretary L.K. Nandam, pointing out that the toll road would have its own revenue source.
Constance said he always brings it up at task force meetings, and state officials always tell him not to worry about that.
Doherty has expressed frustration that the state has not decided where the highways would actually go.
In response, FDOT has said the roads would not be entirely new corridors, but would be constructed as toll roads along the outside of existing rural highways such as U.S. 27 or S.R. 29.
The public is encouraged to submit their comments on the project and the draft report. FDOT will provide public viewing in Winter Haven and Bonita Springs for the October meeting. There will be an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center, in Punta Gorda. The public can read the final report and submit comments online at www.floridamcores.com. They can also mail comments to FDOT, 605 Suwanee St., MS 54, Tallahassee, FL 32399.