Recent Op Eds
Photo by Mark Andrew Thomas
Saving Special Places • Building Better Communities
Bringing Issues to the Forefront
Over the years, 1000 Friends of Florida has become a respected thought leader, bringing attention to key issues facing our state. On a regular basis, board and staff members prepare and submit Opinion pieces, or “Op Eds,” to key papers across the state to generate informed discussion and promote change. Below are but a few of our recent pieces.
M-CORES Opinion–Vicki Tschinkel: Florida’s three proposed toll roads cut through precious natural land
A trip along the west coast of Florida from the Panhandle to the Everglades is a voyage through some of the state’s finest remaining natural lands. Still predominantly rural and agricultural, springs, swamps and rivers abound, clues to the region’s most precious resource: Water.
But these lands—and the waters they shelter—are now threatened.
In 2019 the Florida Legislature passed SB 7068, which calls for the construction of three toll roads in three corridors linking North Florida with Collier County. Along with expressways, it promises to bring sprawl – convenience stores, strip malls and suburban developments — to this unspoiled stretch of old Florida. There has been scant regard for harm to the current agriculture and eco-tourism-based economy, costs to strapped local governments to provide infrastructure and services to support new development, or damage to Florida’s vulnerable water supply.
Open expanses of natural lands protect Florida’s waters so vital for human consumption, agriculture and the environment. As rains fall, waters percolate through uplands and wetlands before being further purified and stored in the limestone karst that underlies much of Florida. But when lands are developed with miles of roads and sprawling development, their ability to absorb rainwater is greatly diminished. Waters instead run across expanses of pavement, picking up pollutants along the way. The urban stormwater runoff that doesn’t wash into nearby waterways goes to vast treatment facilities, bypassing nature’s more cost effective and efficient cleansing and storing abilities.
With water quality in crisis in some parts of Florida and water shortages in others, protecting rural land from development should be a top state priority. Yet the three toll road corridors cut through some of Florida’s best remaining lands and most valuable water resources.
Their path starts in the Panhandle, where the expansive pinelands of the Red Hills replenish the Floridan aquifer, source of drinking water for millions of Floridians. To the south, where two corridors converge, lies the heart of Florida’s springs country – hundreds of pristine, crystal blue watering holes that serve as eyes into the aquifer.
Continuing the southward trek, the Green Swamp feeds the Hillsborough, Withlacoochee, Ocklawaha and Peace rivers – the source of much of Central Florida’s water supply. The state’s land planning agency notes the swamp’s designation as an Area of Critical State Concern “recognizes its valuable hydrologic function and the need to specifically regulate encroaching development that imperils these functions.” Yet a toll road corridor runs smack dab through Green Swamp.
Following the Peace River further south, the southernmost M-CORES corridor features ranch lands, citrus groves, and crop farms. Its seasonally wet grasslands and longleaf pine savannas help nourish the greater Everglades ecosystem. The Peace River provides drinking water and recreation, and its flow into Charlotte Harbor helps support commercial and recreational uses there. Fragmentation of these lands with more roads and development would further threaten Collier County, ground zero for the endangered panther.
Economic development is essential for this swath of rural Florida. But it must build on the region’s rich agricultural heritage and natural resources without destroying the waters so critical to Florida’s future.
Victoria Tschinkel, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, has served on the board of directors of 1000 Friends of Florida for more than 20 years.
M-CORES Opinion–Tim Jackson: Miami-Dade commuters’ tolls will pay for North Florida roads they won’t use
If you drive on Florida’s Turnpike, here’s something to think about: In a few years, a large chunk of the money you pay in tolls and gas tax is likely to be diverted to build 340 miles of new toll roads through some of Florida’s best remaining rural and agricultural — meaning undeveloped — lands along the state’s west coast.
Earlier this year the Florida House and Senate overwhelmingly supported — and Gov. DeSantis signed into law SB 7068 — or M-CORES as it is more commonly known.
This new road system is planned to extend from the Georgia border in the Panhandle south to Collier County on the fringes of the Everglades. Given reasons include hurricane evacuation, although dumping millions of anxious Floridians onto two-lane roads in rural Georgia does not seem to be the most efficient solution.
Senate President Galvano — representing Manatee and part of Hillsborough counties — made this his top priority for the 2019 legislative session. The legislation passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House and includes an ironclad requirement that construction start in 2023 and be completed by 2030. This is an extremely ambitious timeline for the largest transportation project in Florida since the construction of the interstate system in the 1950s.
But are the predicted traffic volumes even reasonable, and will they generate enough toll revenue to cover the costs? Not if past projects are any guide. The 25-mile Wekiva Parkway around Orlando is estimated to take 18 years, from authorizing legislation to scheduled completion, costing $64 million a mile. At the same cost, the 340-mile M-CORES — slated to take a scant 11 years from authorization to completion — would cost taxpayers a whopping $21.76 billion.
And consider this: The typical new toll road in Florida requires significant deficit funding for the first 30 years of operation (before its annual toll revenues cover its annual debt service). So where will the rest of the funding come from? Excess tolls from the Turnpike System (primarily generated in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties) are the most likely source to help pay for these new roads through rural lands.
Another likely source is the reallocation of revenue from existing gas taxes, diverting scarce transportation dollars from much-needed urban road maintenance and improvement projects in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and beyond to promote development in rural areas. The final funding option? To pass an additional gas tax, which seems unlikely.
So, drivers in South Florida are likely to bear the brunt of paying for these new roads.
Transportation in Florida is supposed to be guided by a long-range plan, supplemented by five-year work plans, with new road systems guided by the corridor planning process. M-CORES circumvents all of this. The first step of corridor planning, adopted under Gov. Jeb Bush and reaffirmed by Gov. Rick Scott, is to determine need, ensure that the project is consistent with statewide, regional and local policies related to growth, identify environmental resources and develop a plan for moving forward.
But with M-CORES there is no transportation planning process to determine whether they meet these initial requirements and provide the best transportation solution for 21st-century Florida.
Not only has there been no meaningful analysis of the need for hundreds of miles of new roads, but also no documentation that this massive project will create permanent jobs in the rural areas as is being claimed. And there has been no analysis of how local governments will be able to pay the increased costs of providing schools, water and sewer lines, and other needed services and infrastructure for the sprawling new subdivisions sure to follow these roads and replace productive agricultural lands and open space.
Also, impacts on and costs of protecting sensitive springsheds that nourish Florida’s drinking water, habitat for panther and other vulnerable wildlife, or our dwindling farmlands have not been taken into account.
In this era of limited fiscal resources, it is time to follow the state’s well-vetted planning process to determine the best long-term solutions to address Florida’s massive transportation needs — and not hastily charge ahead on costly and unnecessary new toll roads. We, the taxpayers, deserve nothing less.
Tim Jackson, a transportation planner, has served on the board of directors of 1000 Friends of Florida for more than 20 years.
With cavalier disregard for the economic and environmental costs, Florida legislators have greenlighted the biggest expansion to the state’s highway network in more than half a century. Senate Bill 7068 directs the state Department of Transportation to blaze three new toll expressways through rural Florida – a project whose price tag could top $10 billion.
Now, there might be only one person left to stop it – Gov. Ron DeSantis.
One of the three expressways would run from the Naples area to Lakeland. Another would begin in Citrus County, extending the Suncoast Parkway north to Georgia. A third would connect the Florida Turnpike to the extended Suncoast Parkway.
This bill, now headed to the governor’s desk, takes dead aim at some of the best remaining natural and agricultural land in our state. Floridians who truly care about fiscal responsibility, public safety, the environment and the rural communities in the cross-hairs of these expressways should call the governor and implore him to veto this irredeemable legislation.
SB 7068 would divert hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade from general revenue — reducing money available for education and health care — just to plan for the three expressways.
For actual construction, billions would have to be borrowed. This debt financing would be allowed even if the expressways’ anticipated toll revenue could not cover the payments due for 30 years. Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise could make up any shortfalls by redirecting revenue from other toll roads in its statewide network.
In other words, people who drive on already crowded toll roads — like those in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties — would spend the next generation paying for this unneeded new expressway capacity in rural counties.
A day before giving its final approval to the bill, the Florida House rejected efforts to apply more scrutiny and accountability to the process of planning and bankrolling the expressways. This included an amendment from state Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota, that would have would have required the Legislature to review task force reports on the expressways before giving the go-ahead on funding to build them. Opponents shouted down her amendment.
Advocates for these expressways haven’t demonstrated a current, compelling transportation need for them. Some have relied on predictions of future population growth. But previous governors, transportation officials and task forces that have taken an objective look at roads in these corridors have ranked them low against today’s more pressing transportation priorities.
Some legislators also argued for these expressways using the spurious public safety rationale that they are needed for hurricane evacuation. But getting on clogged roads and hunting for gas as an extreme storm approaches is unsafe. Florida residents really need adequate emergency shelters in their communities to be safe from hurricanes.
A 2006 study from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston noted that 90 out of the 111 people who died because of Hurricane Rita, a 2005 storm that hit Texas particularly hard, died from complications of evacuation such as traffic crashes.
According to a 2018 assessment by Florida’s Division of Emergency Management, our state has insufficient hurricane shelter space. This deficiency is particularly acute in Southwest Florida and in Tampa Bay, the areas these new toll expressways would ostensibly serve.
Shelters are a safe and practical precaution for extreme weather events. Building new expressways in the name of public safety is a $10 billion boondoggle.
These toll expressways and the sprawling, low-density development they would spawn would be a disaster for Florida’s environment. They would degrade water quality in the Everglades, in multiple rivers, and in First Magnitude springs. They would pave over critical wetlands and aquifer recharge areas. They would destroy limited habitat for the Florida panther and other imperiled species, and fragment wildlife corridors.
Though boosters portray the expressways as a way to bring opportunity to rural communities, they would divert traffic from towns and businesses that have developed around existing roads. And because of the land they would consume and the environmental wreckage they would leave, they would undermine the economic foundation of these areas: agriculture and tourism.
The rural counties that would lay in the bulldozers’ path for the expressways have economic needs for sure. But any boost road building provides would not outlast construction. Florida’s rural and agricultural areas need sustainable job growth that builds on the strengths of these communities’ productive land and natural beauty.
If you think spending billions of dollars to send toll expressways through Florida’s rural and agricultural lands is a terrible idea, call Gov. DeSantis. Ask him to save taxpayer dollars, preserve natural Florida, and give drivers on South Florida toll roads a break.
Tell him to veto this boondoggle.
Paul Owens is President of 1000 Friends of Florida
When USA Today published a story in January spotlighting the poorest county in each state, Madison County earned this dubious distinction for Florida. The county’s median household income of $31,816 a year is $19,000 less than the typical Florida household, according to USA Today.
Here’s something else notable about Madison County: It is bisected, east to west, by Interstate 10.
This is worth keeping in mind as the Florida Legislature considers a budget-busting, environmentally ruinous plan to build three new expressways up the western half of the Florida Peninsula: a Heartland Parkway between Collier and Polk counties; an extension of the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County north to the Georgia line; and a connector from the northern end of Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway extension.
Senate President Bill Galvano, who is leading the charge for the expressways, says they are needed in part to bring economic opportunity to struggling rural counties. That’s a laudable goal. But if highways were the key to a thriving economy, Madison County would be booming. It has four I-10 exits.
Laying the foundation for economic growth in the 21st century is more complex than laying new pavement. Most leaders would acknowledge the importance, for example, of developing a talented workforce by investing in education. Yet the Senate president’s plan calls for getting started on the new expressways by diverting hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade from general tax revenue, the primary funding source in Florida for public schools. Does the state have this much general revenue to spare? Ask an underpaid teacher.
Ultimately, the construction costs for some 340 miles of new expressways envisioned in the president’s plan could top $10 billion. Those costs are supposed to be recouped from users, but revenue from tolls on the three expressways wouldn’t be required to cover the full freight for 30 years. Until then, drivers in other parts of Florida’ Turnpike system would get stuck with making up the difference through the tolls they pay. In Central Florida, that would include not only commuters on the Turnpike, but also on portions of the GreeneWay, the Beachline, and the Western Beltway.
These are some of the practical and financial arguments for legislators to vote against the president’s plan. But there’s an even more compelling environmental rationale for them to reject it: The corridors for these expressways put a bull’s-eye on some of the last, best natural and agricultural land in Florida.
Some of this land has been protected from development, but much of it hasn’t. The three expressways, and the sprawling development they would spawn, would degrade or destroy farmland, forests, wetlands and aquifer recharge areas up and down the Florida Peninsula. They would add to nutrient and sediment pollution in already impaired waterways, from the Everglades in the south to natural springs in the north. They would fragment wildlife corridors and decimate habitat for the Florida Panther and other endangered and threatened species.
Some earlier incarnations of the expressways in the Senate president’s plan were considered and rejected. Previous governors or state transportation officials turned down the Heartland Parkway four times between 2007 and 2016. Also in 2016, a state task force convened to study ways to alleviate traffic on Interstate 75 recommended against extending the Suncoast Parkway, largely because of the damage it would do to the environment and quality of life in the region.
Sen. Tom Lee, who is sponsoring the expressways bill for Galvano, has amended it to require that task forces for each corridor recommend ways of mitigating their environmental impact. But before they consider the least damaging way to build these expressways, lawmakers need to answer a threshold question: Should the expressways even be built in the first place? The answer is no.
If lawmakers want to strengthen the economies in the three expressways corridors in rural Florida, here’s a much better plan: purchase development rights from farmers so they can keep cultivating their land; upgrade the existing roads where communities have developed; and buy more conservation property to permanently protect critical natural assets. These goals could be met for a fraction of the cost of building new expressways, without trashing the environment.
Unfortunately, all but one senator yielded to the will of their president and voted in favor of his plan Wednesday. That leaves its fate up to members of the House, or ultimately, to Gov. Ron DeSantis. Don’t miss your chance to call your representative, and the governor, to let them know you expect them to be more responsible stewards of Florida’s finances and environment.
Ironically, the debate over the Senate president’s plan has taken place at the same time as lawmakers, following DeSantis’ lead, are committing hundreds of millions of dollars next year to restoring the Everglades and other waterways damaged by a legacy of terrible land-use decisions and environmental malpractice. This painful and expensive lesson should be more than enough to persuade lawmakers not to go down the wrong road again.
Paul Owens is president of 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit advocate of managing growth to protect Florida’s environment, economy and quality of life. He formerly was the Orlando Sentinel’s opinion editor.