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A Thought-Leader on M-CORES

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 our recent pieces focused on M-CORES.

Paul Owens Opinion:  Three new toll roads across the state? No thanks

See Sun-Sentinel, January 21, 2021

In October, Florida Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault addressed the last meeting of the task force he had appointed to evaluate a northern extension of Florida’s Turnpike — one of the three M-CORES toll roads through rural western Florida authorized by state lawmakers in 2019. In his remarks, Thibault invoked Charles Costar, who successfully lobbied lawmakers in 1953 to pave the way for the Turnpike.

Susan Trevarthen

I was a member of that M-CORES task force, representing 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit that advocates smart growth. The task force was on the verge of issuing our final report on the Northern Turnpike Connector as Thibault told us that “generations of Floridians will look back at this moment as a pivotal time in the state’s history, just like the one that was undertaken by Mr. Costar in 1953.”

I had two thoughts in response: One, should Florida really be recycling a transportation approach from the mid-20th century for the vastly different world of the 21st century? And two, what if M-CORES turns out more like another obsolete transportation idea — the Cross Florida Barge Canal?

Like M-CORES, the Cross Florida Barge Canal was hailed by its promoters as a visionary project that would create jobs and boost Florida’s economy when it was greenlit by the federal government in 1963. But legendary conservation leader Nathaniel Reed, who co-founded 1000 Friends of Florida, recognized the canal as “an environmental disaster and economic boondoggle.

As an adviser to Republican Gov. Claude Kirk and his Democratic successor, Gov. Reubin Askew, Reed helped persuade President Nixon to pull the plug on the project in 1971. Tragically, serious environmental harm had already been done through construction of a dam for the canal on the Ocklawaha River in north central Florida. Completion of the Rodman Dam in 1968 flooded 7,500 acres of pristine forest, submerged 20 natural springs, destroyed critical habitat, impeded migration for fish and wildlife and created chronic water quality problems upstream and downstream.

This disastrous project is taking a heavy toll on Florida’s environment to this day, more than half a century later. Last year, American Rivers, a national nonprofit, designated the Ocklawaha as one of the 10 most endangered rivers of North America due to the Rodman Dam. A coalition of groups, including 1000 Friends of Florida, is now calling on Gov. DeSantis and legislators to restore the river’s natural flow by breaching the dam.

Like the Cross Florida Barge Canal, M-CORES threatens to leave a legacy of destruction. The Everglades, natural springs, rivers, wetlands, forests, habitat for panther and other endangered wildlife, prime farmland and small towns would all be at risk.

M-CORES task force members recommended steps in our final reports to limit harmful impacts from the roads. But the final reports fell short of protecting the environment and vulnerable communities from development the roads would spur. Indeed, 1000 Friends of Florida remains unconvinced that it’s possible to build a highway network through such sensitive areas without irreversible damage.

Mindful of these risks, 1000 Friends of Florida will be working with allies to urge legislators during their upcoming session to enact more protections from M-CORES for the environment and taxpayers. We’ll be advocating further environmental and financial review of the project, which short-circuited the normal planning process when it was authorized. We’ll be seeking statutory guarantees that more-urgent transportation needs are not preempted by the toll roads. We’ll be promoting more direct and effective assistance for struggling rural communities to create jobs and prosperity without sacrificing the environment, economy and lifestyle that define their appeal for residents and visitors alike.

But first, the multibillion-dollar cost of M-CORES amid a budget crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic demands that legislators reevaluate whether the project is even worth continuing. This is an especially pointed question for members who represent parts of the state, like southeast Florida, that are far from where the toll roads would run. These members’ constituents could be stuck subsidizing the project through their taxes and tolls for decades without enjoying any benefits in return.

Unless legislators rethink M-CORES, tomorrow’s Floridians might look back on the project the same way today’s Floridians look back on the Cross Florida Barge Canal — an environmental disaster and an economic boondoggle.

Paul Owens is president of 1000 Friends of Florida.

M-CORES Opinion by Paul Owens — Toll-road plans fall short on wildlife protection, urban sprawl

See Orlando Sentinel, November 13, 2020

With so much attention on this year’s election, another consequential date for Florida’s future has been overshadowed. Sunday, Nov. 15, is the deadline for the final task force reports created under the 2019 state law that authorized the Multi-use Corridor of Regional Economic Significance toll roads in three corridors stretching more than 300 miles through mostly rural western Florida.

Susan Trevarthen

With representatives on each of the three task forces, my organization — 1000 Friends of Florida — played a role in writing those final reports, which provide recommendations to the Florida Department of Transportation for carrying out the M-CORES program. The reports reflect thoughtful input from diligent task force members. They declare that the task forces didn’t find a need for new roads. They recommend that FDOT consider improving or upgrading existing roads first.

Nevertheless, the final recommendations fall short of the mandate in the 2019 law to protect the environment and revitalize rural communities. They don’t do enough to stop the toll roads, if they are built, from fueling low-density residential development — urban sprawl — that would ruin this unspoiled part of Florida. For that reason, 1000 Friends did not support the reports.

Our organization was founded in 1986 to promote sustainable development, prevent sprawl, and protect Florida’s environment. Recognizing that a network of new toll roads through some of the last, best natural lands in Florida is a dagger aimed at each of those goals, we fought against the 2019 law that authorized M-CORES.

But after the law passed, we accepted appointments to the task forces. We did it with hopes of using these positions to minimize potential harm to unique rural communities. We did it to try to protect critical environmental resources throughout the corridors, including rivers, springs, habitat for panthers and other wildlife and the Floridan Aquifer, the drinking water supply for millions of Floridians.

The 2019 law empowered the task forces to “evaluate the need for, and the economic and environmental impacts” of each of the corridors. When it became clear that the task forces would not be delivering a verdict on either the transportation need or the financial feasibility of the M-CORES toll roads, we successfully pushed for at least a preliminary determination of both from FDOT before it would advance to the next planning stage in the project. This provision provides a measure of protection for taxpayers on a project with an overall price tag that could top $24 billion.

We also pushed for a provision in the task force reports that would require acquisition or other protection of conservation land within 10 miles of each planned toll road interchange before construction begins. We believe this provision was necessary to meet the law’s obligation to “protect the environment and natural resources” by preventing the loss of sensitive land and impairment of vulnerable waters where they would be most at risk near interchanges, which would otherwise be magnets for development.

For the same reason, we sought a provision that would meet the mandate in the law to “revitalize rural communities” by protecting their character, agricultural lands and existing businesses from the negative impacts of nearby interchanges. The provision would have barred construction of any interchanges until all land within 5 miles not designated for development is protected from it.

Neither of these provisions was adopted in the task force reports. We were told they would violate home rule for the local governments involved. But the resources at risk — including waterways, wildlife habitat and wetlands — are of regional and statewide significance, and the project threatening them is state-funded. The state bears the responsibility to protect those resources.

In lieu of our provisions, the task force reports outline an “interchange management process” where FDOT is urged to work with local governments to prioritize protecting environmental resources. Good intentions, but no guarantees. More than just road builders understand where good intentions can lead.

The absence of stronger provisions in the task force reports to guard against sprawl leaves the unmistakable impression that one of the purposes of M-CORES is to spur new residential development in rural areas. That purpose is nowhere to be found in the 2019 law.

Now that the task reports are complete, we urge Florida legislators to revisit the law. They can start by filling the gap left in protecting natural resources and revitalizing rural communities.

Paul Owens is president of 1000 Friends of Florida. He was a member of the M-CORES Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force and is the Orlando Sentinel’s former Opinion editor.

M-CORES OPINION by Vivian Young:  Plan for the future — Let’s stop legislature’s new toll roads

See Orlando Sentinel, July 16, 2020

Last year, the Texas A&M Traffic Institute reported that Orlando commuters spent an average of 57 hours a year stuck in traffic, with an average “congestion cost” of more than $1,000 a year per commuter. And Florida is facing an ever-worsening water crisis, withdrawing unsustainable amounts of water from the Floridan Aquifer to accommodate existing and new development, and experiencing regular outbreaks of algal blooms reflecting seriously declining water quality.

Tim Jackson

In Central Florida alone, the three water management districts that share responsibility for the region have together approved groundwater withdrawal permits for about 300 million gallons a day more than what is sustainable from the Floridan Aquifer. In light of this, it would seem wise for the state to do all in its power to protect its vulnerable water supply.

But in 2019, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law, M-CORES (Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance) authorizing a trio of toll roads extending from north Florida to the western Everglades. This massive project, estimated to cost taxpayers as much as $27 billion over the next decade, siphons money away from existing transportation needs in urban areas and further threatens the state’s imperiled water supply.

In a time when Florida is in desperate need of visionary planning for the future, resources are being diverted to a series of roads that would direct more growth and development to vast tracts of rural Florida.

The central M-CORES segment, the Northern Turnpike Connector, would extend some 40 miles through a corridor encompassing Citrus, Levy, Marion and Sumter counties. Largely rural, these lands include about 7% of Florida’s total acreage but only about 3% of its population. About 85% remains either open water, natural or semi-natural lands or in pasture, with another 9% in intensive agriculture and only 5% developed.

Much of the region is known for its karst topography, a porous limestone foundation characterized by pristine springs and sinkholes. Almost 70% of Turnpike Corridor lands are rated among the state’s top three priority levels for aquifer recharge. They play a critical role in protecting and nourishing the Floridan Aquifer, the source of drinking water for millions of Floridians, and are more vulnerable to contaminated runoff from roads and sprawling development.

Some local governments are doing their part to protect these resources. Both Levy and Marion counties have adopted springs protection areas in their local comprehensive plans, with Marion also designating a farmland preservation area for its iconic horse farm country, essential to the region’s economy. Levy has gone a step further, with its commission voting in April to oppose the proposed toll road crossing through the county.

But instead of supporting and enhancing these efforts, the state is moving forward on planning roads that promise to bring sprawling subdivisions and strip shopping centers to these vulnerable lands and waters.

Economic development is one ostensible justification for M-CORES. But the region’s crystalline springs, outstanding fishing opportunities, bike paths, horse trails, campsites, farmlands and Main Street communities both enhance the quality of life for locals and form the backbone of the region’s economy, and all would be at risk from new superhighways. Instead of working with citizens to determine the best approach to strengthen the economy, the state decided roads and development are the panacea.

Disturbingly, Florida is moving forward quickly on planning for these multibillion-dollar toll roads without first determining if there is even a true need. In this time of economic uncertainty, will these toll roads generate enough revenue from users, or will motorists across Florida end up footing the bill? With excessive commute times in the Orlando area costing motorists in excess of $1 billion a year, wouldn’t it make more sense to invest in resolving existing problems within congested metropolitan areas?

It’s time to put the brakes on M-CORES. Instead of building new roads in rural areas, Florida’s leaders instead should focus on the best ways to protect the state’s critical and threatened water supply, fix existing transportation problems, and support meaningful and sustainable economic development in rural communities.

Vivian Young is the communications director for 1000 Friends of Florida.

M-CORES Opinion by Vivian Young – Put the brakes on M-CORES toll roads

See Chiefland Citizen, July 16, 2020

M-CORES, a trio of toll roads proposed to extend from northernmost Florida to the western Everglades, would cut through some of Florida’s finest remaining agricultural and natural lands.  Authorized by the Florida Legislature and Gov. DeSantis in 2019, the roads promise sprawling housing developments and strip shopping centers to vast swaths of rural lands that, among other things, protect a major source of Florida’s drinking water.  

Tim Jackson

The northern proposed toll road, the Suncoast Connector, traverses a corridor of eight rural counties stretching from the Georgia border to north of metropolitan Tampa. Reflecting the region’s true rural nature, these counties — Jefferson, Madison, Taylor, Lafayette, Dixie, Gilchrist, Levy, and Citrus — encompass close to 11% of Florida’s lands but are home to less than 1.5% of the state’s population.

According to a recent study commissioned by 1000 Friends of Florida from the University of Florida’s Center for Landscape Conservation Planning (data available at www.1000fof.org/mcores/suncoast), about 90% of the Suncoast lands remain natural, semi-natural, or in pasture, a little more than 3% are in intensive agriculture, and only about 5% are developed.

This region is perhaps best known for its crystalline blue springs that provide abundant recreational opportunities essential to the region’s economy and serve as winter homes for the iconic manatee.  But these springs also reveal that the porous limestone Floridan Aquifer — the source of drinking water for millions of Floridians — lurks near the surface.

Close to two-thirds of the corridor is in one of the state’s top three priority aquifer recharge categories, reflecting its essential role in cleansing and storing our waters.  And the Floridan Aquifer is extremely vulnerable to contamination from road runoff and the development that roads stimulate.

Tellingly, another University of Florida analysis reveals that about 30% of this corridor is in a Hurricane Category 5 surge zone, rendering much of this corridor inappropriate for expensive infrastructure or major development.

Yet fundamental questions still have not been addressed.  Is there even a need for these roads in such rural areas?  If the toll roads are built, will revenue generated from users pay for the multi-billion-dollar planning and construction costs, or will taxpayers across Florida end up footing the bill? And, given the importance of this region to agriculture and Florida’s water supply, and its vulnerability to sea level rise, are these appropriate locations for sprawl- and runoff-inducing new roads?

M-CORES planning is steaming ahead, with task forces scheduled to present recommendations to the Governor and Legislature in late fall.  This is despite serious shortcomings in the public participation process due to COVID-19 and the massive multi-billion-dollar budget — including $90 million for the fiscal year starting July 1 — which is even more unrealistic in this time of financial hardship.

Compatible economic development that builds on the proposed corridors’ agricultural tradition, iconic Main Street communities, and bountiful natural resources is essential.  Building sprawl-inducing roads is not the answer.  In this time of economic uncertainty, it is time to put the brakes on the toll roads and find meaningful ways to address the region’s economic needs.

1000 Friends of Florida Communications Director Vivian Young, AICP, has been 1000 Friends of Florida’s Communications Director since 1996 and also served as Florida’s first State Main Street Coordinator focusing on economic development in smaller communities across the state.

M-CORES OPINION by Tim Jackson:  Planned M-CORES highways solve problem that isn’t there

See Orlando Sentinel, April 30, 2020

Florida’s governor and Legislature have started the process of funding three major new highways which will cut across a vast swath of the state’s rural areas — all with the purpose, as outlined by the secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, of meeting the needs of our growing population.

The challenge of serving a growing population has been with Florida since its population started exploding more than 70 years ago. And the “solution” has always been to widen roads and build more and more roads further and further into the middle of the state in hopes of staying ahead of growing traffic volumes.

Tim Jackson

The “result” of this “solution” has primarily been sprawling low-density development marching into our countryside, replacing farms and open space.  It also has resulted in a population that is unhappy with their lifestyle — fighting traffic congestion every time they need to go anywhere, putting up with overcrowded schools, and experiencing the loss of open space, wildlife, and clean lakes, rivers, lagoons, streams, and springs. Another result of this “solution” has been the loss of farmland and rural communities which, ironically, is the opposite result from another supposed purpose of the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) — to bring economic development to Florida’s rural communities.

So the massive new highways we have funded over the past 70 years have not been a good solution to the challenge of population growth; and the proposed M-CORES will not be either.

As Einstein said, “we can’t solve the problems we created by doing the same thing.”

In addition, the solution of building major new highways ignores the advancing technology that will make the new highways obsolete before they are complete, and before our grandchildren ever pay off the huge debt being issued to fund these highways.

The advance of connected vehicles and autonomous vehicles will allow each lane of our existing highways to carry two to three times the number of vehicles it can carry today (primarily because vehicles will be much closer to one another since there will be no need to leave room for human reaction time).

This same technology will turn “drivers” into passengers who can conduct business, browse the internet, and visit with family and friends, all while being transported to their destination. The drudgery of today’s car travel will no longer exist, and the time spent traveling will be productive personal and/or work time.

Because of this advancing technology, investing in big new highways crossing the state now would be like the livery industry in 1920 investing in a five-fold increase in the number of horses and carriages to meet the needs of a growing population. Or like Blockbuster Video announcing in 2007 it would double its 9,000 stores in order to meet the needs of a growing population. Or like a telephone company today building miles and miles of new land lines to meet growing communications needs.

Three new major highways through Florida’s rural lands are not needed to meet the needs of a growing population. They will be a waste of money for which our grandchildren will pay dearly for at least the next 30 years through bond payments. Our grandchildren will pay even more in the loss of open space, natural lands, agriculture, and water quality.

One element of the M-CORES project does have great merit — the expansion of high-speed internet service to all of our rural residents and businesses. But we don’t need to build new highways to achieve this.

The modern 21st century approach is to make our rural areas attractive to a broader segment of people by providing high-speed internet service. With this 5G service, many people who can work remotely will choose a rural place, or a small town/city, to live — this will bring new revenues to local businesses and bring local consumers of local foods, and maybe attract some employment centers compatible with existing rural lifestyles.

Florida’s rural youth will then have a choice to stay home with a good-paying job in their community. With quality internet service, citizens who prefer the rural lifestyle and are untethered to a physical work location because they can work remotely will be attracted to our wonderful rural areas and bring their buying power with them. The most significant action we can take as a state to bring economic prosperity to the people and businesses of rural Florida is quality internet service — without three new highways.

Building major new highways across rural lands is the old way of thinking that has proven to be the wrong way of thinking for the past 70+ years. I urge our governor and legislative leaders to repeal funding for the M-CORES.

Tim Jackson, a transportation planner, has served on the board of directors of 1000 Friends of Florida for more than 20 years.

M-CORES Opinion–Susan Trevarthen:  With COVID-19-related budget cuts looming, Florida should kill budget-busting road projects

See Sun-Sentinel, April 3, 2020

Though the ink is barely dry on the budget that the Florida Legislature approved last month, it’s increasingly apparent that an extreme makeover will be needed to respond to the shutdown of major sectors of the Sunshine State’s economy from the COVID-19 pandemic. Even with billions of dollars in federal aid on the way, and billions in state reserves, cuts in state spending may be unavoidable to make up for billions more in lost tax revenue.

Susan Trevarthen

There’s an obvious place to start cutting: M-CORES, the budget-busting proposal to build three roads to nowhere through rural western Florida.

Our state is careening toward a budget crisis. Sales tax accounts for almost 80 percent of Florida’s general revenue, the primary funding source for core services like education and health care. About a fifth of sales tax comes from hospitality and tourism, the areas hit hardest by closures and social distancing. And they are just the leading edge of the economic shockwave that could vaporize billions from tax collections.

The COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress in late March could direct more than $8 billion to Florida, according to an analysis from the budget watchdogs at Florida TaxWatch. But even a check that big from Uncle Sam, combined with the state’s $3.8 billion in reserves, won’t be enough to avoid a looming budget deficit, according to TaxWatch.

Gov. DeSantis, a fiscal conservative, is unlikely to push for revenue increases to close any budget gap. But using his line-item veto, he could cut spending to rebalance it with reduced revenues. He could start with the mother of all spending projects: M-CORES, authorized by legislators in 2019 despite a lack of data establishing need. These three toll roads would cut across some of Florida’s most environmentally valuable and vulnerable lands and waters, from Collier to Jefferson Counties, and harm rural communities that have opposed them.

While legislators green-lighted M-CORES last year, its fiscal impact has only just begun. It started with $45 million from general revenue for the current budget year, and is scheduled to double to $90 million in the budget year that begins July 1. Then annual funding would exceed $130 million in years 3 through 10. Do the math, and the total tops $1.1 billion.

If state leaders want to create jobs and stimulate the economy through public works, they’d be better off directing dollars straight to local governments for long-needed shovel-ready projects, rather than stockpiling more than $1 billion over a decade to cover mostly design expenses, not construction. And that $1.1 billion is just a fraction of M-CORES’ total price tag.

Expressway supporters have regularly cited Central Florida’s Wekiva Parkway, another toll road through an environmentally sensitive area, as their model for M-CORES. However, the Wekiva Parkway’s price tag of $1.6 billion for its 25 miles works out to $64 million a mile. Applying the same per-mile price tag to at least 330 miles of M-CORES expressways results in the sticker shock of more than $21 billion, a staggering sum for roads lacking demonstrated need, particularly when no data indicates they would ever support themselves financially.

When a toll road is created in Florida, it usually is required to demonstrate both need and financial viability. Even then, it normally takes Florida toll roads 30 years before their revenues fully cover their annual debt service. Until then, revenue from tolls on other roads in the Turnpike System, largely generated right here in South Florida, would likely be tapped to make up the M-CORES shortfall. That means long-suffering motorists in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and West Palm Beach would wind up subsidizing three toll roads they might never use, rather than seeing their toll dollars go into improvements in the transportation systems that serve their needs.

Revenue from gas taxes — most also collected outside of the areas where the M-CORES roads are proposed — could be another funding source tapped to subsidize these roads because of their lack of financial viability. That would also divert dollars from badly needed transportation projects in congested urban areas of South Florida to lay new asphalt in rural Florida for roads not even proven to be necessary.

Even in good times, M-CORES would be a raw deal, especially for South Florida. But now that our region is the epicenter of Florida’s COVID-19 outbreak, our economy is getting hammered and the human toll in sickness and tragedy is escalating by the day, it’s simply indefensible. The Governor must reserve our dwindling tax revenues for real priorities.

Susan L. Trevarthen chairs 1000 Friends of Florida, a nonprofit smart growth advocates’ organization, and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners and board-certified attorney in Fort Lauderdale.

M-CORES Opinion–Lee Constantine:  M-CORES expressway planners must think green

See Orlando Sentinel, January 23, 2020

The Wekiva Parkway — a 25-mile, soon-to-be completed expressway in Central Florida — has become the gold standard in our state for how to build an environmentally responsible highway. In the past year, proponents of the three M-CORES expressways authorized for more than 300 miles of environmentally sensitive land in rural western Florida have repeatedly cited the Wekiva process as their model.

Lee Constantine

I take some pride in the Wekiva process as one of its principal architects. I led the task force that planned the Parkway, then have chaired the commission overseeing the project, an appointment I have held for 16 years under four governors. But there are some crucial and consequential differences between the successful approach we took with the Parkway and the approach, so far, with Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES).

If advocates for the new expressways want to achieve the same success we had with the Parkway, they would be wise to take note of those significant contrasts and make some changes.

The M-CORES legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last year created task forces for each of the three expressways to consider their economic and environmental impact, as well as their need, before issuing recommendations. With members appointed by Florida Secretary of Transportation Kevin Thibault, these task forces include representatives of government, business, academia and environmental groups.

In 2003, another task force made up of diverse stakeholders was appointed for the Wekiva Parkway. But here’s where the crucial and consequential differences emerge.

First, the Wekiva task force was named by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Agencies were represented by their leaders, not by deputies. These high-level, executive appointments gave the task force real clout.

Second, the task force convened before legislative authorization for the Parkway, not after. Gov. Bush challenged me as chairman and other members to reach a consensus on building the road and protecting the Wekiva River, one of just two Florida waterways designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.

Third, our meetings were guided by a simple but critical question: If, not when, we build this road, how will we protect the resource? Environmental protection was not our secondary goal; it had equal billing with building the road. This explains why the task force identified sensitive land that would have to be publicly acquired and permanently protected before the Parkway could be built. It also explains why we limited interchanges to avoid sprawl and other undesired development along the Parkway.

Fourth, the Wekiva task force’s 17 recommendations — approved 27-1 by members after months of weekly meetings — were codified in the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act, a bill unanimously passed by the 2004 Legislature. I knew that without the force of law behind them, those recommendations could be undone in the future, jeopardizing the hard work of the task force. By contrast, any recommendations that come from the M-CORES task forces are strictly advisory under last year’s law. They can be downgraded or even dismissed by the Department of Transportation.

Finally, the law created the Wekiva River Basin Commission as a watchdog to oversee the Parkway’s construction. If not for the Commission, bad ideas that would have unraveled protections for the Wekiva, such as adding interchanges or non-conforming land uses, might not have been stopped.

It may be too late to reboot the M-CORES task force process with executive appointments, and the law authorizing the expressways has already passed. But if the Wekiva process is truly the model to which the M-CORES process aspires, the task forces can change their mindset to making environmental protection an equal priority. Also, when the task force recommendations are ready, legislators can ensure they won’t be ignored by enshrining them in law. And legislators can create a body to oversee the additional planning and construction of the expressways, and enforce the recommendations.

These improvements could potentially slow down the M-CORES process. But the wealth of resources at risk from the highways — fragile waterways, wetlands, wildlife corridors, working farms and rural communities — are more than worth any extra time and trouble.

Lee Constantine, a Seminole County Commissioner, sponsored the Wekiva River Parkway and Protection Act as a Republican state senator. He is vice chairman of the Florida Conservation Coalition and a board member of 1000 Friends of Florida.

M-CORES Opinion–Vicki Tschinkel:  Florida’s three proposed toll roads cut through precious natural land

See Tampa Bay Times, January 12, 2020

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.

Vicki Tschinkel

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

See Miami Herald, December 11, 2019

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.

Tim Jackson

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.

M-CORES Opinion–Paul Owens: Veto this $10 billion ‘boondoggle’ highway bill, Gov. DeSantis

See South Florida Sun-Sentinel, May 2, 2019

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.

Paul Owens

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

M-CORES Opinion—Paul Owens: 1000 Friends: Galvano’s highway plans will bring environmental ruin

See Orlando Sentinel, April 24, 2019

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.

Paul Owens

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.