Two Democrats in the Florida Legislature recently filed bills to end the pursuit of a series of toll roads planned from Collier County to Georgia.
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, focused on the immediate opportunity to save hundreds of millions of dollars at a time of pandemic when the state is facing stark financial choices.
“We just think that this is not a wise use of our money,” Polsky said at a news conference. “We need those dollars elsewhere.”
The proposed legislation includes more than the repeal of this toll road legislation. It also proposes to divert a portion of vehicle license fees to the state’s general fund.
The identical bills in the House and Senate call for the repeal of 2019 legislation enabling the project called Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance. Championed in 2019 by former Senate President Bill Galvano, the project was touted as a way to bring economic prosperity to the state’s poor rural areas, mostly interior, but some northern coastal counties as well. Others saw it as an opportunity for lucrative land deals with property owners in the state’s least developed regions.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has praised MCORES and has put $700 million in funds for planning on his proposed budget, according to USA Today.
Opponents of the project see a chance for broader support given the convergence of the pandemic’s economic fallout with the imminent need to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on toll road planning.
The 330-mile road project has drawn intense criticism from environmental groups who see it interrupting wildlife corridors and adding to water quality problems. Other national advocacy organizations have joined the chorus, and many issued statements celebrating the newly proposed repeal.
“The League of Women Voters of Florida does not believe that the M-CORES project was properly conceived or vetted by the legislature. Public opinion has shown that these roads are not currently needed nor are they necessary in the near future. Additionally, the roads have the potential to greatly damage our vital Florida ecosystem” Patti Brigham, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said in a statement.
The roads have support, however, including from rural officials looking for more economic opportunities for their poor communities. Some coastal officials, including Charlotte County Commissioner Chris Constance, support the project as the only way for Florida to divert development pressure away from the crowded coastlines.
Rep. Mike Grant, R-Port Charlotte, told The Daily Sun he supports the MCORES legislation, and said Diamond is rejecting a plan that would increase evacuation options for residents around Tampa.
MCORES can bring infrastructure and better paying jobs to rural communities, Grant said. He also agreed with Constance saying the project “offers a blueprint for future planning and land use in a state that is increasing its population.”
Environmentally, Grant said, the prior legislation the Polsky and Diamond want repealed offers protections by requiring the state Department of Transportation to study the impacts on water flow and sensitive lands.
The southern-most toll road could include a small section of western Charlotte County and DeSoto County. FDOT has said these toll roads could be built along side existing rural roads, such as U.S. 17, leaving the original road for local traffic.
FDOT has also said it will consider a No Build option for its final recommendations. Three task forces with some 125 officials with government and non-profits came to ambivalent conclusions after meeting for 15 months. Many expressed frustration that FDOT did not pick actual routing options for them to review.