In 2021, the Florida Legislature passed Senate Bill 100 to repeal the 2019 M-CORES toll road mandate that ordered the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to begin construction on three new turnpikes in 2023 that would have been a disaster for Florida Scrub-Jay populations.
During the consideration of the initial M-CORES legislation, Audubon advocated for 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.
Audubon’s Paul Gray, PhD, Everglades Science Coordinator, served on the Central-Southwest Corridor Task Force, and Charles Lee, Director of Advocacy, served on task forces for the Northern Turnpike and Suncoast extensions.
In its repeal of the M-CORES turnpikes the Florida Legislature did not stop FDOT’s normal process of evaluating possible future road proposals. The last section of SB 100 asked FDOT to commence a study (but with no turnpike building construction mandate) of a possible extension of the Florida Turnpike from its current terminus in Wildwood. This extension could have negative impacts on Florida Scrub-Jay populations in its path.
FDOT must present a report to the Legislature and the Governor by December 31, 2022. The study is completely open-ended, and unlike M-CORES, the study requested does not even designate a specific destination for a turnpike extension; it merely asks FDOT to explore the possibility of extending the turnpike to “a logical and appropriate terminus.”
Audubon anticipated that such a study may lead to an ill-advised future road project, and advocated for additional protections in the bill. As a result, SB 100 requires the agency to apply the recommendations of the M-CORES Task Forces to the new study.
The Task Forces’ recommendations strongly support expanding existing roads rather than building new turnpikes, as well as insist that conservation lands and other important environmental assets be avoided. The Task Force recommendations also say that FDOT should respect local governments’ land use plans when studying any future toll road. The Legislature then amplified the Task Force recommendations by writing one of them — avoidance of conservation lands — directly into the paragraph authorizing the new study.
Still, concerning road projects remain. Additional public meetings and hearings will take place in the summer of 2022 and into the fall or winter months.
Article first appeared in the Jay Watch Report. Click here to read full report.