A coalition fighting fast-tracked plans to build three major, tolled highways through rural parts of Florida calls the plans a “sham” to accommodate new development under the pretense of helping rural Floridians.
Meanwhile, a few of those rural Floridians say the roads are the only good economic offer they’ve had in a while.
The “No Roads to Ruin” coalition, claiming 55 member organizations and businesses, held a rally in the Capitol Thursday to announce its statewide campaign to stop proposed construction of an estimated 350 miles of highways not called for in the state Department of Transportation’s long-term plans.
“This is one of the most important environmental campaigns in our state’s history,” said Herman Younger, representing Sierra Club and the youngest featured speaker at the rally.
Lindsay Cross, with Florida Conservation Voters, said the toll roads would cause historic damage.
“It’s monumental,” Cross said when asked to quantify its magniture. “We are already paying for mistakes in the past like the draining of the Everglades … that will last beyond our lifetimes. Let’s not tie the hands of future generations by making another mistake that we will regret and they will have to live with.”
The toll roads, technically “multi-use corridors of regional economic significance” or M-CORES, were a pet project of Senate President Bill Galvano, a Republican representing parts of Manatee and Hillsborough counties. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed 2019 legislation to get the toll roads under way.
The M-CORES project claims it will bring welcome economic growth to some of Florida’s last rural areas, though voices from those areas are not united.
Critics at the rally Thursday called such claims a bait-and-switch tactic that preys on rural hopes for more business and more jobs, while serving up new expanses of land for developers.
Monticello businesswoman Michele Arceneaux said a new highway purported to be capable of handling hurricane-evacuation traffic would be of no help to her small hometown in Jefferson County. She said the construction of I-10 in the 1970s did the opposite.
“It didn’t bring economic development to us,” she said. “It closed several businesses in our town.”
Arceneaux operates Traditions Embroidery in Monticello. She wasn’t a Jefferson resident in the 1970s but said she has seen her city strive to rebound from business closures after I-10 diverted traffic from U.S. 27 and U.S. 90.
The proposed Suncoast Connector would be built in a region running from the Georgia state line to Citrus County, and through Jefferson. The other two projects are the Northern Turnpike Connector and the Southwest-Central Florida Connector.
In nearby Madison Councy, Phyllis Williams told the Florida Phoenix by phone that Madison is all for a toll road through her area. Williams heads the Chamber of Commerce, the Tourist Development Council and the Madison Development Council.
“We want it,” Williams said. “It will bring people right into Madison County.”
Williams conceded that a highway would not likely help local mom-and-pops but she said it might attract industry, bringing jobs that might slow the exodus of Madison County’s job-seeking youth.
“When they get their education, they have to leave because they can’t find work,” Williams said.
Madison County Manager Brian Kaufmann, who serves on the Suncoast Connector task force, said concerns about environmental sensitivity and development sprawl are not as important to his region as its economic scarcity. He said the county runs on a shoestring budget, imposes the maximum 10-mill property tax and has no easy way to grow.
“We could use some sprawl,” Kaufmann said. “We’ve got more stores closing and more houses falling down than we can handle.”
Kaufmann said a toll road was not at the top of his economic wish list but that it poses a rare opportunity to create jobs in an area where local college graduates leave to find work and half the county’s residents cannot get high-speed internet.
Members of the “No Roads to Ruin” coalition acknowledged that rural counties need and deserve support in developing good jobs, but they said the M-CORES toll roads will not help with that.
“Do not fall for this sham,” warned Sarah Gledhill, senior field campaigner with the Center for Biodiversity.
Craig Fugate, former administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and former Florida Emergency Management director, called on the coalition to aim for balance among competing issues. He said the infrastructure needs of this state where “nearly 1,000 people are moving here each day” must be addressed.
Fugate is a member of Connecting Florida, a coalition in support of M-CORES toll roads. Its members include the Florida Transportation Builders Association, Florida Truckers Association, Associated Industries of Florida, Florida Associated General Contractors, the Florida Engineering Society, and the Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida.
“As this effort moves forward, we encourage this new coalition to join us in evaluating how we can balance Florida’s precious natural beauty and resources with its infrastructure needs through smart, responsible planning,” Fugate said in a statement provided after the coalition rally. “The reality is we can and must be able to balance both.”
Other members of the No Roads to Ruin coalition include Apalachee Audubon Society, Calusa Waterkeeper, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Democratic Environmental Cuaucus, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Florida League of Women Voters, Friends of the Everglades, Silver Springs Alliance, and Suncoast Waterkeepers.