The Department of Transportation (DOT) M-CORES Task Forces have concluded their recommendations on three new possible transportation corridors through Florida’s rural areas, and the final reports have been published here.
Charles Lee, Director of Advocacy of Audubon Florida, explains, “The Task Forces have protected Florida’s natural areas and rural lands from what could have been a disaster. In effect, the Task Force recommendations have directed DOT to use rigorous criteria in considering any road expansions, declared that there is not any immediate need for these corridors, and rejected the rush to build projects that seemed to fuel the original 2019 Legislation.”
During the consideration of M-CORES legislation, Audubon worked with Sen. Tom Lee to propose an amendment requiring the formation and input of Task Forces for each of the three prospective turnpikes. The paths of these new roads would have opened large parts of remaining rural Florida to development, and potentially destroyed important conservation lands and wildlife habitats. The huge cost of these new roads could have drained Florida’s transportation funds away from locations where road improvements are truly needed in urban areas.
Audubon’s Paul Gray, Ph.D., Everglades Science Coordinator, served on the Polk-Collier Task Force, and Charles Lee, Director of Advocacy, served on task forces for the Florida Turnpike and Suncoast extensions.
The M-CORES statute requires DOT to adhere to the Task Force recommendations, which have statutory weight, and are not just advisory.
Highlights of the Task Forces’ findings:
· There is NO consensus based on current data to support new “greenfield” turnpikes through the study areas (a “greenfield” project is a new road through areas where roads do not now exist).
· The Task Forces recommend that DOT consider upgrading or expanding existing roads if new capacity is needed, and potentially co-locating toll lanes within or adjacent to existing roads, or in certain circumstances, very large existing power line rights of way.
· The Task Forces demanded real economic and traffic projection data to support the need for any new road construction, and specified considerations for the things DOT must include in the “need” determination process.
· The Task Forces required that DOT stay completely out of any conservation lands with any new alignments, and included recommendations for incorporating wildlife crossings.
· In all three reports, the Task Forces urged the Legislature to reconsider the deadline to begin construction by January 2023, which was written into the original legislation.
· The Task Forces included language in their reports requiring DOT to plan for, and fund, extensive conservation land acquisitions within 10 miles of any M-CORES project. Under this provision, DOT would have to fund conservation land acquisitions in conjunction with roadbuilding costs, and collaborate with the Florida Forever Program and other land acquisition programs to fund purchases on the Florida Forever Priority List, as well as other lands prioritized for acquisition by state conservation agencies. DOT will have to spend roadbuilding money to buy environmental lands, and develop a plan to do so integrated with the highway plan itself.
“This is public process working as it should, with stakeholder involvement and evaluation of need and cost to taxpayers driving decisions,” said Julie Wraithmell, Executive Director of Audubon Florida. “Thank you to Charles, Paul, and all the other appointed task force members for their service in this work.”