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  1. Opinion

Column: New toll expressways would be a boondoggle, not a boon

This week, a Florida Senate committee considered a plan it calls M-CORES to build new toll expressways through some of the precious few remaining rural parts of our state. While the stated goals behind the plan — providing new hurricane evacuation routes and creating economic opportunity in struggling communities — are reasonable, the approach is a fiscal boondoggle.

The plan is to redirect more than $100 million each year from the state general revenue fund toward expressway building and then to borrow billions more. This profligate spending would construct toll roads in the Heartland (between Collier and Polk counties) and in the Big Bend region (the undeveloped coastline from Citrus County to Jefferson County).

The Legislature hasn't considered the economics of Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance and doesn't plan to. Instead, if lawmakers adopt SB 7068, they would give FDOT free rein to borrow for these expressways even if that agency determines toll revenue won't cover required debt payments for 30 years.

To tout the M-CORES proposal, legislators have said Florida needs to reduce hurricane evacuation times. But when dangerous storms approach, getting on the road is itself dangerous. Florida residents need safe spaces in their communities to shelter during storms. And Florida has insufficient hurricane evacuation shelter space. Building new shelters is a more practical and affordable response to extreme weather events than is the M-CORES program.

Boosters of this expressway-building plan have also called it economic development for rural communities. But road building is not a sustainable job creation strategy. Expressways might create bedroom communities. And road construction can supply a short-term bump in employment. But expressways do not create permanent jobs.

Instead, agriculture on small and medium-sized farms, eco-tourism, and the growing field of agritourism can create long-term, sustainable job growth in rural areas. Even better, these industries rely on the unique character of our rural and agricultural lands. They do not destroy it.

In contrast, the M-CORES program would convert rural and agricultural lands to urban sprawl. Among public investments, nothing spurs low-density residential development more than expressways. And providing necessary services like water, fire protection and transit to urban sprawl costs more than providing those same services to compact development.

Today, about 18 percent of Florida's land area is developed. 1000 Friends of Florida — Florida's leading advocate for smart-growth — estimates that we are on track to increase that amount to a full third of the state's land area by 2070. Business-as-usual activities like this expressway plan will cost Florida 5.4 million acres of farms and rural lands. Sprawl erodes a community's quality of life and doesn't create a firm foundation for economic prosperity.

Finally, the M-CORES program also wouldn't serve an identified transportation purpose. If you commute to work, you know Florida does have real transportation needs. Average commute times in our state are 27.4 minutes. That's higher than the national average. It's bad for Florida's workers and employers. And it discourages top employers in other states seeking places to relocate or expand from investing and creating jobs in Florida.

Our existing roads also have serious safety problems. In 2017, 3,184 people died in traffic crashes on Florida roads. We are also consistently the most dangerous state in which to walk.

To address documented transportation problems like these, local transportation planning organizations have identified unfunded transportation needs with a price tag of $126 billion. Funding these needs should be a higher priority than M-CORES. Certainly, getting workers to jobs more efficiently is a better economic development plan than building new toll expressways in rural areas.

The M-CORES program would shift infrastructure investment away from metropolitan areas — where we need that investment most to serve people and to sustain jobs — to build expressways through rural and agricultural areas, where the costs will outweigh any benefits. Florida can develop a wiser plan for taxpayer dollars.

Thomas Hawkins is policy and planning director for 1000 Friends of Florida, Florida's leading advocate for smart growth.

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