The egg-farming Senate President, Wilton Simpson, put on his hard hat Thursday to suggest a possible toll road route along Florida’s west coast to minimize its environmental impact.
The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) was one of the priorities of Simpson’s predecessor, Senate President Bill Galvano. He pushed for a study to explore the possibility of three new toll roads through the state’s rural counties to connect Southwest Florida to Central Florida, the Suncoast Parkway to the Turnpike and the Suncoast Parkway to Interstate 10.
Environmental activists have consistently opposed the possible toll road expansion. A study from a coalition of opposed activist groups, No Roads to Ruin, found that 93% of public comments opposed going forward with the projects.
Simpson leveled with the plans’ critics Thursday, calling environmental concerns legitimate. But the current situation, with the Suncoast Parkway terminating in Citrus Country, should be improved.
“You certainly should not build a major highway and dead-end it into a rural county,” the Trilby Republican said. “I believe there has to be some way to bring that rural road to I-10 without disturbing the environment or doing as little damage as possible.”
Simpson offered his vision for a possible Suncoast Connector route, which is supposed to run from Citrus County to Jefferson County. The Suncoast Parkway on State Road 589 could cut west to U.S. 19, follow that and cut toward Tallahassee, then jog over to I-10.
A proposal like that could cut the project budget’s size and scope, he said.
“You could do it very similarly to the way we do in South Florida with (Interstate) 95 and the Turnpike,” Simpson said. “They could run parallel to each other. You’ve already got a footprint within that environmental concern, and you could do that, and then that would be probably the best outcome for the environment.”
When Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault presented task force reports on M-CORES research to a Senate panel last month, Democrats grilled the Secretary on the fact that the task force could not find a specific need for any of the proposed toll roads. Furthermore, without specific needs already identified, “the task force expressed a preference for improvement or expansion of existing major highway corridors,” according to the reports.
When those task force reports dropped in November, it looked like Florida was facing a $5.4 billion budget deficit over the next two years. A December update from state economists sliced that anticipated shortfall in half.
Despite the economic gains during the second half of 2020, Senate budget chief Sen. Kelli Stargel told reporters last month that M-CORES and other infrastructure projects could see delays during a conservative budget year, with road focuses going mainly to “potholes.”