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  1. Opinion

Florida doesn’t want these toll roads to ruin | Column

The task forces planning these unwanted toll roads aren’t working and the process is breaking down, writes an activist.

The process to vet and approve three proposed toll roads (known as M-CORES) through rural Florida has, thus far, been an exercise in what not to do.

Per 2019 legislation, the Legislature established three task forces, one for each study area, to make recommendations regarding 330 miles of new toll roads and, ultimately, Florida’s future. Sadly, the task force process has been flawed from the start and continues to break down as the months progress.

Related: Florida's three proposed toll roads cut through precious natural land

Usually, a task force conducts research or is provided the information needed to inform their decisions. But not for M-CORES. At several meetings, Florida Department of Transportation’s representatives have instructed task force members not to question the “need” for the roads, even though that is part of their purpose, as defined by the legislation. And with only six months remaining in the rushed 13-month process, DOT has not provided critical information, such as economic viability, demonstrated need, and potential road alignments.

Lindsay Cross [ Photo provided by Lindsay Cross ]

At the December task force meetings, the FDOT Chief Engineer Will Watts explained that through a “transparent” process, FDOT would begin developing “corridor swaths” and present them to the task force in February. The latest round of meetings came and went, and those swaths were not provided. More concerning, Watts couldn’t guarantee that road alignments would be available by October. Yet, the task forces have a strict Oct. 31 deadline to submit recommendations to Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Legislature, and FDOT.

Related: Don't build an unnecessary road that would kill Florida panthers | Editorial

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to develop educated, well-vetted, and publicly supported recommendations without draft road alignments.

Rather than provide alignments or swaths, FDOT rolled out “avoidance maps,” or areas ruled out for road development based on their agricultural, environmental, or cultural values. But the areas of avoidance aren’t comprehensive enough. Many wetlands, watersheds and public lands remain directly in the line of fire. Local communities have spoken up on this matter, but FDOT isn’t listening.

Related: These three Florida corridors will be so much more than toll roads | Bill Galvano

A perfect example of this broken process is Marion County’s Farmland Preservation Area. The county commission established this area in response to public outcry following unsuccessful attempts to carve roads and new development through farms, which would impact the county’s multibillion-dollar horse industry. Marion Commissioner Kathy Bryant, who was embroiled in that debate and speaking on behalf of her constituents, questioned DOT several times in February on whether or not they would develop the preservation area. DOT could not guarantee that these areas would be added to the avoidance maps, meaning that even publicly vetted preservation areas are vulnerable to destruction from these roads to ruin.

Task force members are understandably frustrated, especially as public opposition grows in rural counties like Levy and Jefferson. Without adequate resources and the assurance that our natural and cultural resources will be protected -- verified by draft alignments and comprehensive avoidance maps -- any rational task force member would have no choice but to reject all three proposed toll roads.

Here's what you can do: send a comment to FDOT.Listens@dot.state.fl.us and tell them you don't want these roads to ruin.

Lindsay Cross is government relations director for Florida Conservation Voters, a Steering Committee member of the No Roads To Ruin Coalition.

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