Repeal of Florida toll roads project clears first stop in Legislature

toll-roads-Florida-Large
The M-CORES plan, which included extension of the Suncoast Parkway, passed in 2019.

It looks like plans for the Heartland Parkway may go back on the shelf.

The Senate Transportation Committee on Wednesday voted in favor of legislation to repeal Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) legislation (SB 100) passed just two years ago. That’s the first step in effectively killing three toll roads previously approved, which were a seminal achievement of former Senate President Bill Galvano.

Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican and chair of the Transportation Committee, said the budget challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Senate to reevaluate the plans.

“We really had to readdress the fiscal impact and fiscal feasibility of these three major turnpikes throughout the state,” Harrell said.

The M-CORES plan passed in 2019 and was the top priority for Galvano after he claimed the Senate President gavel. Legislation authorized extending the Suncoast Parkway north to the Georgia state line; building out Florida’s Turnpike to the west to connect it with the Suncoast Parkway; and constructing a new transportation corridor extending from Polk County to Collier County.

That new road connecting Central and Southwest Florida was seen as a return of the previously abandoned Heartland Parkway plan.

The bill would do a number of things beyond repealing M-CORES, including reallocating much of the funding within the State Transportation Trust Fund.

Much of that would be used to instead upgrade rural roads and existing traffic corridors. That includes making improvements to U.S. 19 that Harrell believes will divert significant traffic off Interstate 75. While the specific financial impact of the legislation remains under review, Harrell believes it will result in $132 million being returned to the trust.

Harrell said the changes address issues caused by the state’s growing population in a fiscally responsible manner.

“While the goal of M-CORES was bold, we need to reexamine the short-term as well as the long-term goals, and prioritize where we are with our transportation dollars,” Harrell said. “By revisioning our existing roadways, we can accomplish the goals for better traffic flow, improved safety and necessary evacuation routes while saving taxpayer dollars.”

The Transportation Committee voted 5-3 in favor of the bill. But even that’s not much of a good sign for the toll roads on the chopping block.

Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat, praised the move to leave the toll road plans behind, but voted no while objecting to Harrell’s bill leaving out some of the environmental protections and assurances road construction won’t carve up communities of color that had been included in task force recommendations about M-CORES. Harrell promised to address those concerns as the bill progresses through the Senate.

Sen. George Gainer, a Panhandle Republican, also raised concerns, but about whether enough money was being used to improve transportation in Northwest Florida. After initially objecting to the legislation, Gainer voted in favor after Harrell said she would work with his office to demonstrate how improvements to U.S. 19 will help improve traffic along Interstate 10.

But no members of the public spoke in favor of the legislation, and several business lobbies that had looked on the toll road plans favorably two years ago, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, praised Harrell’s legislation in committee.

In supporting the new proposal, Sally Patrenos, President of the group Floridians for Better Transportation, said the state faces “a stagnant environment, a stagnant economy, and a stagnant job market” without such projects.

Meanwhile, 1000 Friends of Florida President Paul Owens said the proposed changes are moving too quickly. Owens served on one of three task forces created under the 2019 law to study and make recommendations about the M-CORES projects.

“The bill does not require the roadway improvements within the Suncoast Connector and Northern Turnpike corridors to pass the Florida Turnpike Enterprises’ standard economic feasibility test,” Owens told the Senate committee. “This would set a bad precedent for other road projects and could lead to unneeded roads, draining funding for more urgently needed projects.”

The task force studying potential paths for the M-CORES toll roads called into question the economic feasibility of the plan last year as tax revenue streams began to crumble during the pandemic.

From here, the bill heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee, and then the Senate floor.

Similar legislation (HB 763) filed in the House by Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, is awaiting consideration in the House Tourism, Infrastructure and Commerce Subcommittee. But that bill is identical to different Senate legislation (SB 1030) filed by Sen. Tina Polsky, a Broward Democrat. Identical legislation to Harrell’s bill has not yet been introduced.

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The News Service of Florida contributed to this post.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected]



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