What began as a hairbrained plan to fill the pockets of a few cronies and which so far has cost the tax payers well over a million dollars may be on the way out. Passage of two new bills would allow the Department of Transportation an exit while saving face for its bullying, ham-fisted tactics pushing the plan.
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Dems want to kill toll ‘roads to nowhere’
Sen. Polsky: ‘We just think that this is not a wise use of our money’
Capital Bureau USA TODAY NETWORK
Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021
Citing environmental and fiscal challenges, two Democratic Florida lawmakers are introducing legislation to kill an ambitious yet controversial toll-road building plan dubbed by opponents as “roads to nowhere.”
Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, held a news conference Wednesday to discuss their proposals to strike the M-CORES project from state law and redirect the millions tapped for planning to other more critical infrastructure.
“We just think that this is not a wise use of our money,” Polsky said. “We need those dollars elsewhere. We need to focus on much needed services.”
Polsky’s bill (SB 1030) calls for the repeal of the M-CORES project, which stands for Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic
Significance, and putting the funds back into the state’s general revenue fund. Diamond’s bill, which hadn’t been numbered yet as of Wednesday afternoon, does the same.
“The problem with M-CORES is this is recurring funding,” Polsky said. “It doesn’t make sense to have this. We’ve already wasted tens of millions of dollars and need to cut it off at the knees.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis has made preserving $700 million of the planning funding for the three-prong project part of his budget wish-list.
But current Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and other legislative leaders have expressed concerns about continuing to fund the program because of a budget shortfall created by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is a strong possibility we can get something done,” Polsky said. “We have no choice. There is a clear and present need.” Diamond added that fellow House members are “clear-eyed about what the budget challenges this year.” And ultimately, the Legislature has the constitutional authority to set the budget, he said….
Florida Conservation Voters, an advocacy group, has said it planned to work with other groups to try to convince the Legislature to amend the law creating the roads in the upcoming 2021 legislative session, which begins March 2.
The state has already spent $130 million on the pre-planning, 15-month task force phase, said Lindsay Cross, the group’s government relations director. Spending any more would be “reckless,” Cross added.
“This road is not wanted,” she said, pointing out that 93% of comments to the Suncoast task force were against building the toll roads.
The enacting bill, signed into law by DeSantis in 2019, also commits hundreds of millions of dollars to the project and sets a construction start date of Dec. 31, 2022, with a completion date of 2030.
“A lot has changed in our state” since then, Diamond said, most notably the severe economic impact the pandemic has had on its economy.
The Legislature is struggling to address a broken unemployment system, affordable housing, infrastructure needs and small businesses.
Critical transportation projects have already been pushed back, Diamond said, including the I-175 interchange at Westshore.
And Polsky said her constituents are clamoring for solutions to the chronic traffic congestion in her region.
“We’d like to see that money used where it is needed and asked for,” Polsky said.
“To use it where it is not needed or asked for is not a good use.”
Three task forces were appointed to study each of the three legs of the new road system:
h A 140-mile Southwest connector from Polk to Collier County.
h A 40-mile Northern Turnpike connector from Wildwood to the Nature Coast.
h A 150-mile Suncoast connector that would extend the
existing Suncoast Parkway where it ends in Citrus County all the way to Jefferson County.
The task forces were made up of business people, civic leaders, environmentalists, regional planners, water management district officials, city and county commissioners and state agency officials.
After 15 months of public hearings and neighborhood open houses, the three task forces independently arrived at the same conclusion: There is no proven need for the highways.
All three reports also said they couldn’t fully address their charge of evaluating the demand for and impact of these projects because of the early planning stage and limited data analysis.
“The reports have been less than exuberant,” Polsky said. Also, residents of the counties the toll roads would go through have expressed concern about a new highway or a buildup of the existing highways would harm local businesses and the rural character of their communities.
“What you’re taking from us is generations of a lifestyle and way of making a living,” said Scott Osteen, a farmer from Bronson whose family has been in agriculture for generations. “What you are giving back is nothing.”
Levy County Commissioner Lilly Rooks said she could find only one person in her community who is in favor of the toll roads.
“People of my community are so upset about this and what it’s going to do to the agricultural industry, the farmers, the ranchers, the timber industry, and the peanut farmers,” she said. “When you come to Levy County, it’s a different world.”
All three task forces also urged state Department of Transportation planners to keep a “no build” option on the table as they go forward with the next stage of planning, expected to begin in January.
The next step will be to conduct alternate corridor evaluations to find the best possible route within each corridor and determine if there is a demonstrated need for them and if they are economically viable, DOT Secretary Kevin Thibault has said.
Thibault said the “no build” option would in fact remain on the table.
Jeffrey Schweers is a reporter for the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida Capital Bureau. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.