Bryant wary of proposed new toll-road legislation

File photo: Kathy Bryant, the chair, speaks as the Marion County Commission meets in the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

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Posted March 4, 2021 | By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida

Marion County Commissioner Kathy Bryant is shown in an October file photo. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 

TALLAHASSEE – Legislation to repeal controversial toll-road projects passed a divided Senate committee this week.

The current M-CORES projects, approved by lawmakers in 2019, would build a new toll road between Collier and Polk counties, extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to connect with the Suncoast Parkway and extend the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County.

While the current plans bypass Marion County, local officials remain vigilant after a previous plan for one of the roads had it cutting across wetlands and the area’s signature horse farm district. The state backed off that plan after a groundswell of outrage from residents and environmentalists.

On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee voted 5-3 along party lines to support a proposal (SB 100), sponsored by Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, that would repeal the 2019 law establishing the projects.

However, the bill would direct state transportation officials to plan roads similar to two of the projects, which are known as Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES. The bill calls for extending the turnpike west from Wildwood toward the Suncoast Parkway and running the Suncoast Parkway north by linking it with U.S. 19.

Marion County Commissioner Kathy Bryant brought up the bill at Tuesday’s commission meeting.

“I think we need to have some serious conversations as to exactly what the intent of this new bill is,” said Bryant who participated in months of task force meetings to keep the project out of the county.

“We had it in there where the extension would not cross the Greenway in Marion County. So, this takes all of that out and leaves Marion County wide open,” Bryant said.

The bill also would shift $132 million earmarked for the M-CORES projects to the State Transportation Trust Fund and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise.

Harrell said the changes address issues caused by the state’s growing population in a fiscally responsible manner.

“While the goal of M-CORES was bold, we need to reexamine the short-term as well as the long-term goals, and prioritize where we are with our transportation dollars,” Harrell said. “By revisioning our existing roadways, we can accomplish the goals for better traffic flow, improved safety and necessary evacuation routes while saving taxpayer dollars.”

Critics of the 2019 law support halting the planned new toll road between Collier and Polk counties. But they said the changes need more protections for the environment and historically Black communities.

Under the bill, rather than building what would essentially be a new road to extend the Suncoast Parkway north, U.S. 19 would undergo widening and include bypasses of signalized intersections to speed the flow of traffic.

Harrell’s proposal would also shift the route’s connection with Interstate 10 from Jefferson County to Madison County, where officials have been more receptive to the road plans. Transportation officials would have until the end of 2035 to develop the U.S. 19 project.

The bill also would direct transportation officials to start project-development and environmental work on an extension of the turnpike from where it ends now in Wildwood. They would have to submit a report to legislative leaders and the governor on the project by the end of 2022.

The three projects approved in 2019 are in the Florida Department of Transportation’s five-year work program, drawing up to $101.7 million a year. The work is slated to be completed by 2030.

Harrell’s proposal received support Wednesday from groups such as Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which also backed the M-CORES plan, a top priority of former Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

In supporting the new proposal, Sally Patrenos, president of the group Floridians for Better Transportation, said the state faces “a stagnant environment, a stagnant economy, and a stagnant job market” without such projects.

Meanwhile, 1000 Friends of Florida President Paul Owens said the proposed changes are moving too quickly. Owens served on one of three task forces created under the 2019 law to study and make recommendations about the M-CORES projects.

“The bill does not require the roadway improvements within the Suncoast Connector and Northern Turnpike corridors to pass the Florida Turnpike Enterprises’ standard economic feasibility test,” Owens told the Senate committee.  “This would set a bad precedent for other road projects and could lead to unneeded roads, draining funding for more urgently needed projects.”

The task forces, which spent about 15 months reviewing the M-CORES projects, sent a report to state lawmakers in November calling for a deeper dive into the future traffic needs of the state.

They also suggested lawmakers direct the Department of Transportation to further determine if the projects would reduce congestion on Interstate 75; establish how the roads would be used for disaster evacuations and response; consider the economic pluses and minuses in shifting traffic into rural regions; work with local governments so utility and broadband expansions meet existing policies about urban sprawl; and protect environmentally sensitive resources such as springs, wetlands, and floodplains.

Owens and Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, asked Harrell to incorporate more of the task force recommendations into the bill.

“I would support this today if we would put an amendment to put those things back in there, to protect the environment and to ensure that communities of color do not find themselves on the other side of these roads,” Jones said.

Since the M-CORES projects were first approved, critics have expressed concerns they would result in urban sprawl, while supporters promoted the roads as bringing economic opportunity, along with utilities including broadband, to rural communities.

The Ocala Gazette contributed to this report.

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