Florida cannot afford, and doesn’t need, 3 new toll roads through the boondocks

Paving pristine rural areas for three politically-motivated toll roads made no sense even before the coronavirus raged across Florida.

But with COVID-19 hitting the state budget hard, forging ahead with these boondoggles represents a classic case of misguided priorities — right up there with the Cross-Florida Barge Canal.

Given the state’s precarious finances, even the new chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is skeptical about the need for these rural roads. Florida’s soaring Medicaid caseloads and the pandemic’s effects on public school budgets are urgent needs, she said, while the state’s long-range infrastructure can wait.

“It’s going to be a tough budget year,” Stargel told Capitol reporters recently. “A lot of the infrastructure things we had put into place may have to go to a little bit of a hold. We just don’t have the funds.”

The toll roads were the pet project of former Florida Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, who made them his one demand in any deal sought by the Florida House and Gov. Ron DeSantis two years ago.

The Bradenton Republican claimed the through-fares would nurture economic growth in isolated communities, even though a significant number of affected communities have since said they don’t want them.

He also said the roads would create more hurricane escape routes, though Georgia officials have since said their roads aren’t prepared for new inroads from Florida. Besides, emergency planners now say it’s better for evacuees to shelter closer to home.

Galvano also glossed over the dangers to water and wildlife, including the protected Florida panther. Worse, he jumped the three toll roads to the front of Florida’s ten-year transportation plan, ignoring far more worthy projects whose backers had played by the rules.

At a minimum cost of $25 million a mile, these rural toll roads are expected to cost $26 billion — about one-fourth of this year’s state budget — over the next decade.

Together, the project known as M-CORES — for Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance — would add about 330 miles of new toll roads in the state’s lightly-traveled, land-locked interior.

One road would connect Florida’s Turnpike to the Suncoast Parkway at Crystal River in Citrus County; another would extend the Suncoast north to the Georgia line in Jefferson County, just east of Tallahassee. The third would cut through Florida’s heartland from Collier County in Naples north to Polk County, between Orlando and Tampa.

Three regional task forces have held hearings about the roads and have heard overwhelming public opposition to all three. Nevertheless, like a bulldozer on autopilot, the Florida Department of Transportation is moving ahead with the next expensive planning phase, following the Legislature’s orders.

Yet not a single comprehensive study says these rural roads are needed. Even the three regional task forces, with broad representation from all levels of government, could not establish a need for them. As FDOT’s chief engineer, Will Watts, told the Senate Transportation Committee on Jan. 12: “The need for the full length of the corridor has not been determined.”

With Florida facing a budget deficit of an estimated $5.4 billion over two years, and with so much intense grass-roots opposition, there’s simply no justification to move forward.

In rural Levy County, where two of the toll roads would converge, commissioners favor a “no build” option. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group included M-CORES on a list of the biggest transportation boondoggles in the country. Even Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed policy group that has long supported tax-supported transportation projects, raises serious doubts as to whether the Suncoast Connector can meet financial conditions required by law.

“A risky project,” TaxWatch called the connector, “with little demonstrated transportation need.”

To satisfy bondholders, there must be sufficient traffic on the three new roads. State law says per-mile toll receipts must meet or exceed receipts on the much busier Florida’s Turnpike to pay the costs of construction. But given the lack of need, that’s a risky gamble.

As a leading environmental group, 1000 Friends of Florida, has noted, in this time of deep economic uncertainty, it is fiscally irresponsible for the state to commit billions of dollars to roads with no demonstrated need or financial feasibility. To further complicate matters, the coronavirus has decimated state transportation revenues because people are driving a lot less.

By law, construction on these toll roads must begin by Dec. 31, 2022. That’s why, with legislative committees preparing the agenda for the annual spring session, something needs to happen now.

It can be tough to challenge the pet project of a predecessor, but today’s Senate President, Wilton Simpson, has shown a willingness to do so. A couple months back, he tried to pull the plug on former Senate President Joe Neuron’s pet project — a much-needed reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

Simpson has a far stronger case for pulling the plug on these unneeded and unwanted rural toll roads. Florida has higher priorities.

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Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Dan Sweeney, Steve Bousquet and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.