New Florida Toll Roads Will Impact Nature
TNC voices concerns over proposed toll roads
In 2019, Florida’s Legislature enacted Senate Bill 7068, which directed the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to implement a program to advance the construction of three new toll roads in separate corridors across the state. As part of this program, FDOT was required to convene task forces to evaluate the need for and impacts of each proposed toll road corridor. Each task force must submit a report to the Governor, House Speaker and Senate President by November 15, 2020.
The corridors, known as “The Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance” (M-CORES), are the Suncoast Connector, which extends from Citrus County to Jefferson County; the Northern Turnpike Connector, which extends from the northern terminus of Florida’s Turnpike northwest to the Suncoast Parkway; and the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, which extends from Collier County to Polk County. These regions include some of Florida’s last remaining rural areas, contain significant public and private conservation lands that provide habitat for endangered species including the Florida panther, and protect important water resources.
As a steward of Florida’s environment, members of TNC's policy and conservation teams have been appointed to provide expertise through active participation on each of the three M-CORES Task Forces: Janet Bowman, Senior Policy Advisor, on the Suncoast Connector task force; Zachary Prusak, Central Florida Conservation Program Manager, on the Northern Turnpike Connector task force; and Wendy Mathews, Conservation Projects Manager, on the Southwest-Central Florida Connector task force. TNC is working to ensure that impacts to nature are thoroughly considered throughout the evaluation process.
Since the task forces first convened in August 2019, TNC has carefully reviewed, evaluated and voiced concerns over the proposed plans presented at the meetings.
On March 18, 2020, TNC submitted a letter to FDOT outlining both concerns and questions about the three proposed toll rolls, and provided a list of important conservation lands and hydrologic features to include in the “avoidance maps” being prepared for each corridor “study area.”
Critical Q & A Highlights Repesenting TNC's Position
Are the corridors needed, and has the need been demonstrated for each of the individual corridors?
TNC is not convinced of the need for the Suncoast Connector, Northern Turnpike Extension Connector or the Southwest-Central Florida Connector. Traffic studies for each of the areas relate primarily to existing and future congestion on I-75 and I-4, which will still fail level-of-service standards in 2050, even if the proposed toll roads are constructed.
Will the proposed new toll road corridors be economically self-sufficient?
It is unlikely that tolls collected on the three major new toll roads will be sufficient to cover the cost of construction and maintenance. It is more likely that Transportation Trust Fund dollars would be needed to make up the difference. This in turn would reduce funding available for improving existing transportation infrastructure and providing transit and light rail capacity in urban areas. Florida taxpayers and not road users will be shouldering the cost.
Will the corridors undermine objectives to preserve existing conservation lands and key areas identified for future protection as vital habitat and wildlife corridors?
TNC is extremely concerned about the impacts of the proposed toll roads on critical land, water and habitat resources that we have been working for over 50 years to protect. In the Suncoast Connector study area TNC has purchased conservation easements over important longleaf pine plantations. In the Southwest-Central Florida study area we have purchased conservation easements over important Florida panther habitat.
The Southwest-Central Florida Connector threatens the future of the Florida panther as the toll road, and the induced growth it will likely generate, will impact some of the last remaining panther habitat. The avoidance map for the Southwest-Central Florida Connector should depict the areas identified as Primary and Secondary habitat zones and the Dispersal Zone, which depicts land that is critical for Florida panther movement from South to Central Florida across the Caloosahatchee River.
Will the corridors be designed to factor in the future effects of sea level rise?
The Suncoast Connector study area includes areas vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding due to rainfall. Given the identification of hurricane evacuation as a purpose for constructing the toll roads, addressing sea level rise in the evaluation of the feasibility of any alignment and subsequent design is a mandatory rather than an optional design consideration.
Will the corridors induce development in areas that are identified as critical habitat, important wildlife corridors, and important to maintaining the water quality and quantity of important surface and groundwater resources?
The potential adverse impact of the toll roads to Florida’s environment is greatest from the possibility that the roads will induce sprawl that eliminates and fragments remaining Florida panther habitat and wildlife corridor connections, and negatively affects water quality and quantity.
The Northern Turnpike Connector and Southwest-Central Connector toll roads will likely exacerbate urban sprawl growth patterns that are already evident along the Florida Turnpike between Ocala and Orlando, for example, in the vicinity of The Villages.
Will the new corridors significantly increase Florida’s greenhouse gas emissions?
TNC recognizes the negative impact of greenhouse gas emissions from the proposed toll roads. This must be evaluated in assessing the feasibility of construction and the cost to taxpayers of new road construction versus investment in transportation options that encourage compact development and transit. We request that the greenhouse gas emissions impact of the proposed toll roads be included in the environmental feasibility analysis conducted for each toll road segment.
TNC continues to have serious concerns about the lack of evidence for need and the environmental impacts of the proposed toll roads on land and water resource protection. We are particularly concerned about the potential impact of the proposed Suncoast-Central Florida Connector on panther habitat, both from direct impacts of a toll road and the impact of induced growth caused by the toll road on remaining panther habitat in central and southwest Florida.
TNC continues to provide recommendations and insight to the task forces and FDOT. Check back for updates on this issue.
Meetings/Workshop Hearings on Toll Road Proposals to be held May 12-14, 2020
FDOT will conduct a series of webinars of the Florida Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) Task Force. The purpose of these online webinars is to share briefings on emerging technology trends and opportunities, discuss implications of emerging technologies for corridor development, and receive public comments. Note: those wishing to provide live public comments must register no later than 5:00 p.m. the day before the event.
Click on the dates below to access the webinar information page and how to register:
- Tuesday, May 12, 2020, 9:30 a.m. - Suncoast Connector extending from Citrus County to Jefferson County
- Wednesday, May 13, 2020, 9:30 a.m. - Southwest Central Florida Connector extending from Collier County to Polk County.
- Thursday, May 14, 2020, 9:30 a.m. Northern Turnpike Connector extending from the northern terminus of the Florida Turnpike northwest to the Suncoast Parkway.
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 79 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.