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  1. Opinion

Kill these 3 toll roads to nowhere before they do real harm | Column

Given the seismic shift in Florida’s finances and priorities created by the pandemic, it is irresponsible to pursue these unneeded, exorbitantly expensive and disruptive toll roads, writes a law professor who is a conservationist.

The Florida Legislature should put a stop to the unnecessary, unaffordable and destructive proposal to add three major new toll roads to the Florida Turnpike System. These projects, dubbed “Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance,” or M-CORES, threaten the fiscal viability of our existing transportation system. No study shows new toll roads are needed or are economically beneficial. New roads will almost certainly pave over some of the last remaining natural and rural regions of Florida, priming those areas for development and environmental destruction.

The 2019 law (SB 7068) that established the behemoth M-CORES program circumvented Florida’s normal transportation planning process, which requires at least a preliminary determination of need and economic feasibility before expensive new roadway projects can move forward.

Richard Grosso [ Provided ]

Each of the proposed tollways alone could be one of the biggest transportation projects in Florida’s history; each is an immense, multibillion-dollar project. Together, they could add 330 miles to Florida’s current 498-mile Turnpike system. There is no formal cost analysis, and not even a conceptual route for any of the corridors. Florida’s transportation planners had not previously proposed new toll roads in these areas when the 2019 Legislature directed FDOT to build them. This irresponsible and wasteful top-down mandate does not meet the true needs of our state.

A recent report from Florida TaxWatch warns the new toll roads are unlikely to pay for themselves even when fully operational years from now, and the massive up-front cost of planning, permitting and construction will siphon off significant funding from transportation projects already needed and planned throughout Florida. This would be unfair to Turnpike users in other parts of the state who may never use these new toll roads but will likely foot a considerable part of the bill.

Even the initial planning for these projects is diverting existing revenues, like those from your auto tag fees, away from road improvements in your community. With a multibillion-dollar backlog of investments to maintain and upgrade existing transportation infrastructure, Florida can ill afford new highways we do not need in areas where they will spur even more un-planned sprawling development.

New toll roads could pave over thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land, rural homesteads and farms. They could open up hundreds of thousands of acres to massive development. In a state already struggling to maintain essential wildlife habitat connections and preserve its fast-disappearing farmland, new tollways could be a death-knell for efforts to plan future growth wisely and preserve the ecosystems that define Florida.

Proponents tout the potential for co-locating broadband internet cables and transit vehicles, improving evacuation capabilities, restoring the environment and revitalizing rural communities. But building new multibillion-dollar highways is not required to improve broadband access, and mass transit makes no sense in the sparsely developed areas through which the toll roads would run. No analysis supports the claim that new highways revitalize rural communities. On the contrary, the state has failed to take into account the history of how new highways have actually harmed small local businesses and communities, while, at the same time inducing new traffic that quickly negates their touted congestion benefits.

There is no data showing new roads in these regions will meaningfully reduce evacuation times, and state emergency managers are currently discouraging long evacuation drives in favor of short trips to local shelters when required. Further, the state does not have the money to build new toll roads, let alone pay for the massive amount of conservation and farmland acquisition and restoration that would be needed to offset the large-scale impacts such roads would have on rural and wilderness areas.

The M-CORES law created three task forces to study the need for and impact of the MCORES roads and gave them until Nov. 15, 2020, to do it. That law also, paradoxically, set forth unrealistic deadlines for construction, even though it is unclear what, if anything, needs to be built. Despite their legal mandate, task force deliberations and actions to date indicate they are not going to determine whether new major toll roads are needed, nor are they going to determine the full range of land use, environmental and fiscal impacts of the highways.

Given the seismic shift in Florida’s finances and priorities created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which could cut billions from government revenue years into the future, it is irresponsible to continue to pursue these unneeded, exorbitantly expensive and disruptive toll roads. Other regional and local road agencies have postponed or abandoned major roadways in response to current realities. When the Legislature reconvenes after the fall election, it must call a halt to the M-CORES program.

Richard Grosso, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, is a member of the board of directors of Florida Conservation Voters, former executive director of the Everglades Law Center, a former legal director for 1000 Friends of Florida, and former attorney for the Florida departments of Community Affairs and Environmental Regulation. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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