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Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy is a research and learning facility located in northern Leon County, Florida. Tall Timbers researches the areas of fire ecology, resource management, forestry, game bird management, and vertebrate ecology. The Research Station was formerly a quail hunting plantation called Tall Timbers Plantation built in 1895 by Edward Beadel.
Today they have taken a stance against the Suncoast Connector and the following is from their website. Conservation Planning Coordinator Neil Fleckenstein spoke at the last M-CORES meeting August 27.
Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
– A river is like a life: once taken,
it cannot be brought back © Jim Tatum
Suncoast Connector Toll Road: What we are Learning
Update — As many eNews readers know, Tall Timbers is deeply concerned about the potential impacts of the Suncoast Connector toll road, a proposed 150-mile toll road corridor extending from Citrus County through Jefferson County in the Red Hills (https://talltimbers.org/suncoast-connector-toll-road-update-2/). In this update, we will share key results from recent studies by subject matter experts who are helping shed light on this risky project.
Before getting to that however, if you have not already done so, please sign up to receive periodic updates and occasional requests to help us respond to this threat to the Red Hills (for example: sending an email to the Florida DOT or to a local county commissioner). Your help is vital as Tall Timbers and our partners cannot do this alone!
Economic Feasibility and Transportation Need — Florida TaxWatch, an independent, non-profit taxpayer research institute focused on improving productivity and accountability of Florida government, recently completed a detailed analysis of the proposed Suncoast Connector toll road (https://floridataxwatch.org/). In the interest of full transparency, Tall Timbers is a member of Florida TaxWatch. Analysts at Florida TaxWatch found that:
- The Suncoast Connector toll road could cost between $4.0 billion and $10.5 billion. If toll revenues are not sufficient to meet debt service requirements, tolls paid by drivers on other Turnpike segments would help subsidize the Connector, taking revenue away from needed improvements in heavily traveled Central and South Florida. As important, the new toll road may also require funding from the State Transportation Trust Fund, diverting money from locally needed transportation projects.
- There is a lack of demonstrated need for the project. The large portion of U.S. 19 that is located in FDOT District 2 is operating at only 3 percent capacity at peak hour times. Based on FDOT District 2 projections, peak hour operating capacity is only expected to increase from 16.3 percent to 18.8 percent between 2018 to 2045.
- Florida has a well-established and fiscally sound transportation planning process. Local and regional projects start with an identified need. These projects go through extensive review and vetting including cost projections and project rankings at several levels in the process. If they are needed and cost feasible, they can be included in the district work programs. The Suncoast Connector project did not go through any of these steps and was approved by the Legislature in only 74 days. The traditional DOT planning process exists for good reason.
- FTW also highlighted some of the many examples of toll revenues falling well short of optimistic projections. They conclude their report stating “This TaxWatch analysis finds that the Suncoast Connector is a risky project with what is sure to be a large price tag and little demonstrated transportation need. Complicating the process is that this project is moving forward while COVID-19 has the state facing major reductions in government revenue—including gas taxes and tolls.”
Resiliency of the Suncoast Connector study area — There are other major concerns with the proposed Suncoast Connector as well. University of Florida researchers evaluating the resiliency of the Suncoast Connector planning area for Tall Timbers found that:
- Over 50 percent of the study area where the existing U.S. 19/U.S. 27/U.S. 98 corridor is located and where a new toll road might be built is located in the 100-or 500-year floodplain. At least 30 percent is vulnerable to storm surge from a Category 5 hurricane at current sea levels. This risk will only increase over time due to projected sea level rise and stronger storms.
- Expansion of roadway infrastructure within the Suncoast Connector study area will significantly increase the amount and cost of development and assets at risk from intensifying coastal hazards. This induced development will result in higher costs for mitigation and recovery from storm events and sea level rise.
- UF researchers conclude that “The probability of significant and irreversible change in the study area, coupled with a high degree of vulnerability to existing and future coastal hazards suggests that this region has low suitability for supporting the kind of new toll road and infrastructure corridor proposed in the M-CORES project.” https://talltimbers.org/suncoast-connector/
Conservation and Natural Resource Protection —Tall Timbers is also worried about the impact that construction of the Suncoast Connector toll road would have on public and private conservation lands and the natural resources they protect. The Suncoast Connector study area cuts through the heart of one of the most ecologically sensitive, largely undeveloped areas remaining in Florida. Importantly, Florida taxpayers have already invested over $418 million conserving land and water resources in the toll road planning area through Florida Forever and other land conservation programs. Why would we jeopardize this investment on such a risky, unnecessary gamble?
Recommendations — For these reasons, Tall Timbers strongly opposes the construction of a new toll road corridor or the co-location of new travel lanes within the existing US 19 corridor from Jefferson County through Levy County. In lieu of building a new Suncoast Connector toll road through the Big Bend, Tall Timbers supports:
- Transportation improvements in rapidly growing Citrus County —which could include tolled roadways and non-tolled multi-modal projects — to address mobility challenges in that rapidly growing county;
- Investment in local mobility projects north of Citrus County that are broadly supported by the local community, businesses, and residents;
- Investment in needed infrastructure — such as broadband — in existing rural communities in the corridor; and
- Further consideration by DOT of the consensus recommendations contained in the 2016 I-75 Relief Task Force Report for enhancing traffic flow in Central and North Florida.