TALLAHASSEE — Critics of three controversial toll-road projects planned to run through rural areas of Florida contend transportation officials aren’t providing a full picture of the opposition.
But as members of task forces working on the projects are set to hold final meetings next week, the state Department of Transportation maintains the process remains transparent.
With reports on the projects due to the governor in mid-November, members of the opposition “No Roads to Ruin” coalition said Wednesday that Department of Transportation staff failed to provide members of the three different task forces with direct “for” and “against” breakdowns of public sentiment.
The projects, dubbed Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES, would extend the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County near the Georgia border, extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway, and create a new road linking Polk and Collier counties.
“They might tell us they got X number of comments concerned about water quality or X number of comments concerned about wildlife,” said Jon Bleyer, of the group Progress Florida, said in an online news conference Wednesday. “But what they didn’t share was the sentiment of those comments. They never shared how many anti-M-CORE or pro-M-CORE comments were received.”
Bleyer said volunteers from groups that are in the coalition, which includes the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Florida Conservation Voters, the Florida Native Plant Society, the Florida Springs Council and the Sierra Club, looked at 9,886 comments submitted between August 2019 and Oct. 7, 2020, and determined 9,232 — or 93.4 percent — were opposed to the projects. Meanwhile, 379 were in favor, and the sentiments of 275 writers could not be judged.
State lawmakers last year approved moving forward with the roads, with legislation eventually dedicating up to $101.7 million a year for the projects. But lawmakers also created the task forces to study and make recommendations.
The task forces are each comprised of about 40 people, including local officials, environmentalists, representatives of agricultural interests, transportation planners, members of business groups and educators.
Drafts of the final reports indicate the task forces have been unable to reach conclusions on specific needs for the projects because of the information available and show a preference for first improving or expanding existing highways and utility corridors.
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The draft reports also expressed a need for the department to consider a “no build” alternative — as desired by environmental and conservation groups — in future project-development activities until final recommendations are made.
The department staff provided task-force members with links to every public comment and broke down about 3,000 of 13,000 comments made between Aug. 1, 2019 and Oct. 7, 2020 at open houses, task force meetings, in form letters and emails. The breakdown sorted comments into areas of interest, including tolls, route alignment, hurricane evacuation, wetlands, wildlife impacts, costs, tourism, infrastructure and jobs.
The areas of biggest interest were the impacts to wildlife and the rural quality of life in areas where the roads may go.
No breakdown was provided on 10,522 form letters about the corridors.
“Because no-build is always an option, the department has only tracked topics mentioned at a very high level, not the sentiment of the comment,” department spokeswoman Beth Frady said in an email Wednesday. “Tracking it this way has allowed the department to ensure the topics mentioned by the public were discussed at task force meetings. This means that, in the event the proposed corridors meet environmental and financial feasibility, the task forces have had the opportunity to consider all actionable feedback and input via multiple productive discussions.”
Frady noted environmental and financial feasibility studies will be conducted in the next phases of the program. A transportation corridor must be environmentally and financially feasible to be built.
Support for the roads has come from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.
Proponents say the roads would prepare the state for future growth and aid in disaster evacuations. Opponents have expressed concerns about urban sprawl and threats to wildlife.
The task forces will hold daylong virtual and in-person meetings and evening open houses next week.
The Southwest-Central Florida Corridor Task Force, which is working on the project linking Collier and Polk counties, will meet Monday. An open house on the road is planned Tuesday at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center in Punta Gorda.
The Suncoast Corridor Task Force, which is working on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway, will meet Tuesday. An open house is set for Thursday at the Madison County Church of God in Madison.
The Northern Turnpike Corridor Task Force, which is working on the turnpike extension, will meet Wednesday. An open house is Thursday at the Plantation on Crystal River.