The Senate Appropriations Committee delivered a significant blow to a plan to extend toll roads in Florida.
The committee approved legislation (SB 100) repealing the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES, plan. The move comes just two years after the plan was approved as a top legislative priority for past Senate President Bill Galvano.
Sen. Gayle Harrell, Stuart Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said the COVID-19 pandemic delivered an extraordinary impact on portions of Florida’s budget.
“It has caused us to evaluate some of the things we considered to be very bold initiatives previously, including transportation,” she said.
Environmental groups, long opposed to the toll roads plan, showed up in support of Harrell’s legislation.
“This bill smartly recognizes that with limited resources, it is more fiscally prudent and less environmentally damaging to upgrade existing roads than to create new greenfield corridors,” said Lindsay Cross of the Florida Conservation Voters. “But at nearly 130 miles as the crow flies, from the Suncoast Parkway to I-10 in Madison County, there could still be significant impacts on our environment and rural communities.”
The M-CORES legislation in 2019 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 frequently called the Heartland Parkway extending from Polk County to Collier County.
Harrell’s bill, which still allows for an extension of a road to Madison County, shifts the focus from those roads to improvements on existing roadways to address congestion on Interstate 75. She also wants two-lane rural roads improved to allow greater commercial truck traffic. That’s much of the traffic the toll roads plans intended to serve but without cutting through pristine lands to make room for new highways.
Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, expressed some alarm in committee that Harrell had not consulted with the Governor’s Office or Department of Transportation on the plan. Harrell said since DOT had raised no objections, she presumed the department supported the change.
Of note, Harrell brought an amendment, passed in the Appropriations Committee, that addressed many concerns brought by Democrats on the Transportation Committee at a prior stop.
It would provide non-tolled alternatives for local traffic; property owners impacted by the roads would get at least one access point for each mile of land owned; and minority communities would not be divided by the new roadways.
“We want to make sure that we’re not impacting neighborhoods adversely,” Harrell said. “When we’re talking about social justice, we want to make sure that we are not, especially in our minority communities, that we’re not going to divide neighborhoods, that we’re not going to set up areas that become more difficult economically.”
The original M-CORES legislation also put in place guarantees that before new corridors for highways moved forward, transportation officials would study and accommodate concerns about environmental impact and the disruption of established minority communities. Some questioned if a full repeal of that bill would remove those safeguards as well.
Harrell agreed it was important those impacts be considered. Her amended bill requires transportation officials when they acquire land for roadways to facilitate environmental mitigation and protection and to consider social justice implications with any plans.
Notably, there isn’t a House companion to Harrell’s bill. It’s similar to a different M-CORES repeal bill (HB 763) by Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, but that bill corresponds to a Senate bill (SB 1030) sponsored by Broward Democratic Sen. Tina Polsky. Neither Democratic bill has been heard in committee.
“This is far better than the three roadways in M-CORES,” said Sen. Linda Stewart, an Orlando Democrat, but she still voted against the bill because of concerns the legislation allows for future toll roads through sensitive areas. She said she was optimistic changes could be made before a floor vote that could address the concerns.
Sen. Ben Albritton, a Bartow Republican, supported the measure based on economic considerations. But the Heartland Senator said it remains important that the state do what it can to help rural areas with economic growth. The Heartland Parkway was intended to address that.
“I don’t remember the last time a valedictorian stayed in Hardee County, because there is nothing there for them,” Albritton said. “I encourage everyone that’s hearing my voice to be very cautious about speaking for rural Florida. Rural Florida wants opportunities too.”
The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. Republished with permission.