Gov. DeSantis to decide fate of controversial toll road projects through sensitive lands in Florida

By: - April 28, 2021 7:00 am

Two MCORES toll road projects are repealed, but a third is largely replaced with a similar expansion through wild and scenic areas along U.S. 19, including part of the Suwannee River. Credit: National Recreation Trails,

The state’s plan to build three massive toll roads through rural swaths of Florida were scrapped Tuesday, when the House of Representatives cast the last vote needed to repeal the controversial projects and send the legislation to the governor for final review.

But the repeal isn’t exactly a total repeal: The legislation still authorizes new toll roads and highways, including expansion and “road upgrades” along 130 miles of scenic U.S. 19 between Citrus County and I-10 in north Florida, which could impact sensitive parts of Florida.

It’s now in Gov. Ron DeSantis’ hands, following the Legislature’s action on 330 miles of planned new construction in three Multi-Use Corridors of Economic Significance, or MCORES, which former Senate President Bill Galvano pushed through the 2019 Legislature.

If DeSantis approves the legislation, it will still authorize new toll roads but not of the magnitude of MCORES.

Instead, Senate Bill 100, sponsored by Senate Transportation Chair Gayle Harrell, a Republican representing parts of Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties, instructs the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) to plan significant expansion and “road upgrades” along U.S. 19 from Citrus County to I-10, as well as a northwesterly extension of the Florida Turnpike beyond its terminus at Wildwood

Study-areas map for MCORES highway projects, now targeted for repeal. Source: Florida Department of Transportation

Galvano’s successor, Senate President Wilton Simpson, signaled early in the 2021 session that MCORES was on the chopping block, as a cost-saving measure. But the vestiges of the MCORES project will still affect his Senate district, which includes Citrus County.

The idea of the MCORES repeal, Harrell said, is to utilize existing roadways to the fullest extent possible to accommodate growth, rather than build large new ones. She said MCORES Task Force members appointed to study the projects were clear that they found them to be too intrusive and too damaging to the affected counties.

It was not evident why the projects were scaled back rather than repealed, as many wanted, nor why the U.S. 19 expansion is mandated rather than letting the Department of Transportation decide which road projects to prioritize. But in hearings during the session, Sen. Harrell argued that I-75 — which she travels frequently — is too congested and that expanding U.S. 19 would relieve that problem.

Lindsay Cross, legislative director of Florida Conservation Voters, or FCV, said her organization wanted MCORES to be fully repealed, but bills sponsored in the House and in the Senate to do that were not granted hearings.

“That’s what we would have preferred,” Cross told the Phoenix. But in this legislative session, marked by a plethora of anti-environmental preemption bills, Cross said FCV is grateful to see the worst of the MCORES projects brought down.

The MCORES repealer bill still calls for, among other things, a 130-mile expansion of U.S. 19, running from I-10 south to Crystal River, where it would link with the Suncoast Parkway to Tampa. Credit: Google maps

The expansion of U.S. 19 and the Turnpike extension likely will include “controlled access” features that require motorists to stop and pay tolls somewhere along the way, excepting local traffic.

Other environmentalists, local business people, local elected officials, Florida TaxWatch and many others who opposed construction of the MCORES tolled highways — including one through the rare habitat of endangered Florida panthers — expressed relief about the MCORES repeal, although they wanted a total repeal.

“Florida TaxWatch has raised substantive concerns about the MCORES project, which revealed a serious lack of planning, analysis, or proper vetting used in the development and 2019 approval of this massive expansion of Florida’s Turnpike System. Our 2020 report found this project was a highly expensive gamble that could have cost Florida and its taxpayers billions of dollars,” said Dominic Calabro, TaxWatch president and CEO, in a statement to the press.

If the governor signs SB 100 into law, it will abolish the Southwest-Central Florida MCORES highway project that would have run through Florida Panther habitat, a project condemned early by TaxWatch as a boondoggle that would be unable to pay for itself with toll revenues.

It would abolish the Northern Turnpike Connector that would have run through rural areas pocked with delicate natural springs and waterways, but SB 100 still replaces it with instructions to extend the Turnpike to a point yet to be determined.

The repeal also would abolish the Suncoast Connector highway project, but SB 100 replaces it with instructions to the DOT to expand, widen, and otherwise complicate U.S. 19 – possibly including toll features and overpasses — to accommodate more north-south traffic and relieve congestion on I-75.

Otherwise, funding for MCORES will revert to the Department of Transportation for statewide road projects already prioritized by that agency as top needs in the state.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.