Major boondoggle? National public-interest group rips FL’s toll-road plans; state says, too soon to judge

Construction under way on a Florida Turnpike exchange. Joe Raedle/Getty 2019

The Florida Legislature’s controversial plan to build three major toll highways through rural landscapes is a “boondoggle” of the first order, says the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which named it among the nation’s top seven transportation boondoggles for the year.

Not so, says the Florida Department of Transportation, saying the PIRG report fails to acknowledge “important nuances” and the fact that the projects are early in the planning phases – maybe too early to be labeled as anything but legislatively authorized proposals.

“Much of the information featured [in the report] is based off of assumptions when understanding that the department is still in the very early planning phases of the M-CORES program,” wrote DOT Communications Director Beth Frady, replying to questions from the Phoenix.

M-CORES stands for Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, a plan approved by the 2019 Legislature. It is moving ahead with the support of $90 million in the state’s 2020-21 budget – which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in June after vetoing $1 billion of other projects to reflect revenue losses in the COVID-19 economy. The funding is virtually veto-proof and built into statutes to provide $100 million per year for several years to come.

The nonprofit public-interest research organization says in its sixth annual boondoggles report that M-CORES appears headed toward failure to meet its stated goals. Working with a team from Cornell Consulting, its analysis concludes the plans fail to demonstrate that new transportation would enhance hurricane evacuations or relieve traffic congestion.

“It’s a huge allocation of funds that could be used elsewhere,” said John Stout, transportation advocate with U.S. PIRG and a co-author of the boondoggles report, in an interview with the Phoenix.

The report says the estimated traffic usage would not generate enough toll revenue to make them economically feasible, a finding echoed by Florida TaxWatch, which estimated toll rates on the corridor it studied would have to be set dramatically higher than the average rate on state turnpikes.

At DOT, Frady argues that the boondoggles study and others critical of M-CORES “tend to ignore” the ability of the plan to integrate existing corridors, which would be dramatically cheaper than all-new construction. She said costs cannot be reliably estimated at this point because “the proposed corridors are yet to be determined” and because “traffic and revenue studies … have yet to be conducted.”

As to cost estimates, PIRG says an analyses by Cornell Consulting, Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida place the price tag between $10 billion and $26 billion.

“Although exact costs are not available, the highways would, by any account, be enormously expensive,” the report says.

Even newly inaugurated Senate President Wilson Simpson questions the project costs at this time, saying at the Senate’s Nov. 17 organizational session: “You have to ask yourself, can you afford that in this moment? And those are questions that will be asked.” Simpson succeeds Senate President Bill Galvano, who is considered the prime mover of the M-CORES legislation and its funding.

Florida panther. Credit: State Archives of Florida.

PIRG’s report also stresses that the highways would cut through vast tracts of rural Florida landscapes defined by sensitive land including springs, wetlands and wildlife habitat, including forests that are home to the last of Florida’s native panthers.

The DOT is well aware of those concerns, Frady wrote, and “has been very clear that protection of the Florida panther and the environment is paramount.”

Frady said future phases of the planning process will lead to identification of potential routes that will then be evaluated for environmental and financial feasibility. She said a no-build option is available.

On Nov. 15, Florida’s three M-CORES task forces (which include members of affected communities) submitted their reports, which questioned the potential benefits of the projects and cited significant public opposition to the plans.

All three reports concluded, in the same language: “ Given the potential transformational impact of the M-CORES Program on the future of Florida, the Task Force respectfully requests the Governor and Legislature to consider adjusting or removing the deadlines for
corridor construction and other milestones in statute to permit thorough analysis and additional thoughtful collaboration
on all key decisions.”

Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried said then, “While I recognize the importance of long-range planning for future population growth and the need for economic development, I am troubled by M-CORES’ overwhelming lack of support, lack of demonstrated need, and the millions in general revenue diverted from a state budget facing economic shortfalls reminiscent of the Great Recession. … “We cannot afford to divert money into more toll roads while millions of Floridians continue to suffer.”

The M-CORES projects are identified as:

/ Suncoast Connector, extending from Citrus County to Jefferson County;

/ Northern Turnpike Connector, extending from the northern end of the Florida Turnpike northwest to the Suncoast Parkway;

/ Southwest-Central Florida Connector, extending from Collier County to Polk County.