Killing FL barge canal 50 years ago offers lessons for stopping toll roads

January 21, 2021 7:00 am

This portion of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was never completed, was photographed south of Palatka in 2007. Credit: Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing Richard Nixon’s name popping up in news coverage of the second Trump impeachment has made me so nostalgic for my teen years, I may break out in pimples all over again. The first news event I remember is the moon landing, but the first one I really paid attention to, back when I was 13, was Nixon’s resignation to avoid being impeached.

These days, all Tricky Dick is remembered for is the Watergate scandal and, to a lesser extent, his escalation of the Vietnam War. But Florida environmental activists of a certain age also recall that Nixon did something — dare I say it? — good.

Fifty years ago this week, he killed the Cross Florida Barge Canal, an expensive transportation boondoggle that would have wreaked havoc on the state’s environment.

When I found out about the anniversary, it occurred to me that there are parallels to another expensive transportation boondoggle now threatening to wreak havoc on the state’s environment. I’m talking about the trio of toll roads backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that are designed to spread urban sprawl through much of the state’s remaining undeveloped areas.

Florida panther. Wikimedia Commons; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

You remember the catchy name for the toll roads, right? They’re the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES for short. See how it rolls off your tongue? It could also stand for Major Cause of Real Estate Speculation. But I think it would be more accurate to call it WOR-HOP, short for Wiping Out Remaining Habitat Of Panthers.

The Cross Florida Barge Canal and the M-CORES toll roads are solutions to problems that don’t really exist. Both were pushed by powerful interests that were more concerned with private profit than public good. Both revived ideas that had been shot down before.

I called up a couple of people who know the story of the Cross Florida Barge Canal — one a historian, the other an activist and educator. I asked them if there are lessons from its demise that might offer some pointers to the folks opposing the M-CORES on how they can win. The answer was a resounding yes.

One of Florida’s biggest blunders

Don’t know much about the Cross Florida Barge Canal? Here’s the short version: Built in the wrong century for the wrong reasons with the wrong numbers to justify it, the Cross Florida Barge Canal will forever stand as one of the biggest blunders in Florida history.

Map shows plans for the canal. Source: Public realm

Imagine the reaction if you proposed it today: “Hey, let’s cut a monstrous ditch across the middle of the state to link the Atlantic with the Gulf of Mexico, effectively turning most of the Florida peninsula into a big island, destroying everything in our path and letting seawater taint the underground supply of freshwater! Oh, and building it will cost billions! Let’s get started!”

The idea seemed to make sense in the 1800s, when nature was regarded an opponent to be beaten and interstate commerce involved nothing but ships. Back then, the long voyage around the peninsula and through the Keys meant risking a wreck. A canal offered a safer shortcut. Advocates were sure the canal would spur all sorts of growth and prosperity for the young state.

But reality intruded. Surveyors dispatched to map out the route reported that the terrain was too rough and the ports too shallow to make a canal work, so the dream faded.

Then, in the 1930s, politicians revived it — not as a real transportation project but as a New Deal job-creation effort. But the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halted work when they concluded digging the ditch would harm the source of Florida’s drinking water.

Thirty years later, in the can-do, ask-not 1960s, the Corps revived it a third time, hoping to link Yankeetown to Jacksonville with a series of locks, a politically popular move. But now, in addition to the environmental damage, the agency’s leaders discovered the project no longer made economic sense. Trains and trucks had replaced barges as a way to move goods.

To keep the politicians happy, the Corps found a way to justify building it anyway. They invented a bogus benefit called “land enhancement” that made the numbers work, at least on paper. “Land enhancement” meant that gouging a big hole in the ground was supposed to make the land along the canal more valuable.

The Corps brought in a machine called “the Crusher” to knock down thousands of trees in the Ocala National Forest, eventually flooding about 9,000 acres by damming the wild Ocklawaha River.

By then a Micanopy fisheries biologist named Marjorie Harris Carr had organized a grassroots protest movement, Florida Defenders of the Environment, hoping to stop the project.

“Here, by God, was a piece of Florida, a lovely natural area right in my back yard, that was being threatened for no good reason,” she explained.

picture of Nat Reed
The late Nathaniel Reed. Credit. WUSF Public Media.

Carr and her allies faced sneers and snubs from state and federal officials, who contended the natural wonders they were trying to save were just worthless scrub. But they began to win converts to their cause, including Republican Gov. Claude Kirk, thanks to his savvy environmental adviser, Nathaniel Reed.

Nixon flew to Florida for an event, expecting to see signs protesting Vietnam. Instead, according to historian Steve Noll, the picket signs were all about the canal. Nixon joked to Kirk that the protesters were targeting his canal. Kirk retorted, “It’s your canal, Mr. President.”

Thus, three days after Carr and her group won a federal court injunction halting construction, Nixon announced he was ending the canal project “to prevent a past mistake from causing permanent damage.”

Doesn’t that sound like a good slogan for stopping M-CORES?

Who will be the Nixon of M-CORES?

The M-CORES toll roads weren’t on any DOT planning documents two years ago, when former Senate President Bill Galvano conjured them into existence by waving a wand over the Legislature.

He did this at the behest of the state’s roadbuilders group, which gave his Innovate Florida PAC $20,000 during his run for the Senate presidency, and the Chamber of Commerce, which donated $125,000.

So, just like the canal, the toll roads are a publicly financed project created to benefit private interests. And like the canal, they’re recycling failed ideas.

Two of the roads are supposed to be extensions of the Suncoast Parkway, which has never met its traffic projections. The third is a revival of the extremely unpopular Heartland Parkway, which has been killed more times than Kenny on “South Park.” Even toll road fan Rick Scott killed it once while governor.

Is it any wonder that last month the website Streetsblog USA declared M-CORES one of the great highway boondoggles of 2020, estimating its cost at $10 billion?

The supposed purpose of these toll roads is to help bring development to rural areas that missed out the rampant environmental destruction that’s occurred in the rest of the state. But residents of those areas have made it clear they want nothing to do with these roads because they don’t want to alter the character of the area they love.

The citizen task forces set up to study the roads reported being unable reach a consensus on whether they were even needed. Galvano, meanwhile, has been reduced to arguing the roads should be built as a way to boost employment amid the pandemic’s economic fallout, sounding as if he were FDR touting a New Deal make-work program.

Yet, somehow, DeSantis and the Legislature haven’t pulled the plug on these roads yet, even as they face a budget deficit of more than $2 billion-with-a-B. Instead, they’re probably thinking of cutting some libraries, courthouses, and fire stations to come up with the money.

Advocates for the toll roads have dismissed the environmental arguments for killing them off. Noll, co-author of “Ditch of Dreams: The Cross Florida Barge Canal and the Struggle for Florida’s Future,” told me one lesson that toll road opponents can take from Carr’s success was that she attacked the canal on legal and political fronts, not just by decrying the damage to the Ocklawaha.

“Appealing just to those interested in tree-hugging doesn’t necessarily change the dynamic,” the historian said. Instead, Carr portrayed it as a scam that was costing the taxpayers for no good reason.

JoAnn Valenti told me much the same thing. Now a retired Brigham Young University professor, Valenti worked with Carr at the Florida Defenders of the Environment during the battle over the canal and now sits on the organization’s board.

“The way you stop a canal is to point out that it costs too much money and no longer serves a purpose,” Valenti, now 75, told me. That should work for the toll roads, too.

Another lesson from the canal fight, Noll said, was that Carr was willing to accept anyone as an ally so long as he or she opposed the canal.

“Carr utilized some pretty conservative people who didn’t care about the Ocklawaha, but who said building this canal is pouring money down a rathole,” Noll said.

George Kirkpatrick Dam at Rodman Reservoir. Credit: Sandra Friend, USDA Forest Service.

Valenti said that Carr wasn’t thrilled to see Nixon get credit for killing the project, but saw it a way to achieve her goal — albeit after it was too late to halt construction of the Rodman Dam, now called the Kirkpatrick Dam.

“You’ve got to see the big picture and go for the big picture,” Valenti told me.

My suggestion would be to call the cancellation of M-CORES a “land enhancement” because the lack of asphalt is going to make the property that wasn’t paved a lot more valuable. It will definitely be prettier and less expensive.

Who will step up and be the Richard Nixon to shut down M-CORES?

DeSantis? Senate President Wilton Simpson?

Whoever it is, I hope that person takes action soon. Otherwise it won’t be long before everyone realizes M-CORES really stood for Mistaken Construction of Rotten Excess Stupidity.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.