Florida Toll Roads Opposition Minimized, Group Says
A coalition opposing the three planned toll roads says the state is trying to minimize public comments in opposition to the plan. It says 93% of those who have voiced their opinions are against the plans.
Wednesday is the final day for the public to comment on the state's plans to build three new toll roads through rural parts of Florida. A coalition of groups says the state is hiding how much the public is opposed to the project.
The coalition called No Roads to Ruin looked at each of the nearly 10,000 comments left by the public - and 93 percent were opposed to the roads that would traverse Southwest Florida up to Florida's panhandle.
They say task force members looking at the need for the toll roads have never received any reports summarizing the public comments from the Florida Department of Transportation. Department officials do provide a list of all comments on request.
Coalition member and Sierra Club director Cris Costello likened that to a lie.
"And so that's why we call it a lie of omission," Costello said. "Handing them the raw materials and expected them to go through it themselves - the task force members themselves - is ludicrous. It's just wrong."
Jon Bleyer, of the group Progress Florida, said “FDOT is set to release final task force reports by November 15, 2020 and we expect the fact that 93 percent of all public comments were in opposition to M-CORES to be included in those reports. Task force members have a duty to take the public’s overwhelming opposition into consideration as they finalize their report and recommendations to the Legislature and the governor.”
“They might tell us they got X number of comments concerned about water quality or X number of comments concerned about wildlife,” said Bleyer. “But what they didn't share was the sentiment of those comments. They never shared how many anti-M-CORE or pro-M-CORE comments were received.”
Bleyer said volunteers from groups that are in the coalition, which include the Center for Biological Diversity, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Florida Conservation Voters, the Florida Native Plant Society, the Florida Springs Council and the Sierra Club, looked at 9,886 comments submitted between August 2019 and Oct. 7, 2020, and determined 9,232 were opposed to the projects. Meanwhile, 379 were in favor, and the sentiments of 275 writers could not be judged.
State lawmakers last year approved moving forward with the roads, with legislation eventually dedicating up to $101.7 million a year for the projects. But lawmakers also created the task forces to study and make recommendations.
The task forces each comprise about 40 people, including local officials, environmentalists, representatives of agricultural interests, transportation planners, members of business groups and educators.
Drafts of the final reports indicate the task forces have been unable to reach conclusions on specific need for the projects because of the information available and show a preference for first improving or expanding existing highways and utility corridors.
The draft reports also expressed a need for the department to consider a “no build” alternative --- as desired by environmental and conservation groups -- in future project-development activities until final recommendations are made.
The issues of biggest interest were the impacts to wildlife and the rural quality of life in areas where the roads may go.
No breakdown was provided on 10,522 form letters about the corridors.
“Because no-build is always an option, the department has only tracked topics mentioned at a very high level, not the sentiment of the comment,” department spokeswoman Beth Frady said in an email Wednesday. “Tracking it this way has allowed the department to ensure the topics mentioned by the public were discussed at task force meetings. This means that, in the event the proposed corridors meet environmental and financial feasibility, the task forces have had the opportunity to consider all actionable feedback and input via multiple productive discussions.”
Frady noted environmental and financial feasibility studies will be conducted in the next phases of the program. A transportation corridor must be environmentally and financially feasible to be built.
Support for the roads has come from groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Ports Council and the Florida Trucking Association.
Proponents say the roads would prepare the state for future growth and aid in disaster evacuations. Opponents have expressed concerns about urban sprawl and threats to wildlife.
The task forces will hold daylong virtual and in-person meetings and evening open houses next week.
The Southwest-Central Florida Corridor Task Force, which is working on the project linking Collier and Polk counties, will meet Monday. An open house on the road is planned Tuesday at the Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center in Punta Gorda.
The Suncoast Corridor Task Force, which is working on the extension of the Suncoast Parkway, will meet Tuesday. An open house is set for Thursday at the Madison County Church of God in Madison.
The Northern Turnpike Corridor Task Force, which is working on the turnpike extension, will meet Wednesday. An open house is Thursday at the Plantation on Crystal River.
Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.