aerial photo depicting new housing development sprawling outward from Orlando, Florida, near where the State Road 429 (a toll road) branches north from Interstate 4
New Development - Orlando An aerial photo depicting new housing development sprawling outward from Orlando, Florida, near where the State Road 429 (a toll road) branches north from Interstate 4. The development, named Reunion, is adjacent to Reedy Creek, which is one of the most narrow and fragile threads of wildlife habitat in the statewide Florida Wildlife Corridor. May 2019. © Carlton Ward Jr.

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New Florida Toll Roads Will Impact Nature

TNC voices concerns over proposed toll roads.

This page was updated on November 16, 2020.  

Statement of TNC on Transmission of M-CORES Reports to Governor and Florida Legislature

On November 12, 2020, the Florida Department of Transportation transmitted the final reports of the Suncoast Connector, Northern Turnpike Extension and Southwest-Central Florida M-CORES Task Forces to Governor DeSantis, Speaker of the House Jose Oliva and Senate President Bill Galvano.  All three Task Forces “did not reach a conclusion that there is a specific need for a completely new greenfield corridor or modification of existing facilities through the study area to achieve the statutory purpose.” In other words, the Task Forces did not have enough information to evaluate whether the proposed toll roads are needed, financially feasible or environmentally suitable. Instead, these analyses will take place at a later phase of planning and project development by the Florida Department Transportation. 

TNC actively participated as a member of each task force and suggested amendments to the reports to include the addition of information provided by TNC. TNC commissioned a panther expert to evaluate the potential impacts to panther habitat by the Southwest Central Florida Corridor, that concludes construction of the Southwest Central Florida corridor will significantly reduce panther habitat in Southwest Florida. Read the report. 

At the final meeting of the Task Forces, TNC declined to “sign off” on the Suncoast Connector and  Southwest-Central Florida Task Force reports because given the deadlines in the MCORES statute that construction should commence no later than 2022 with the corridors completed by 2030, TNC is not confident that the guidelines set forth in the Suncoast and Southwest-Central Florida Connectors to protect panther habitat, conserve land and water resources, or to prevent development associated with new interchanges, will adequately protect critical land and water resources. TNC and other task force members sought language in the reports requesting the Florida Legislature modify or remove the construction deadlines in the statute to ensure that the “no build alternative” can be considered and that a thorough evaluation of need, economic feasibility and environmental impact can be conducted. Accordingly, in the upcoming 2021 legislative session, TNC will be seeking modification or removal of the construction deadlines from the M-CORES statute until need, financial feasibility and environmental suitability are demonstrated, TNC opposes construction of the three 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.”

On August 11, 2020, TNC sent a letter to Governor DeSantis, commenting that: “To date, the land use impacts of constructing the new transportation corridor on critical panther habitat, and what residential and commercial development trends will result, have not been presented to the Task Force. The cumulative impacts of a toll road on inducing development in eastern Collier County and elsewhere in critical panther habitat lead us to question the wisdom and feasibility of constructing the Southwest-Central Florida Corridor through the heart of panther country.”

To provide data to inform the task force, TNC commissioned a new report that concludes that construction of the proposed M-CORES Southwest Central Connector toll road expressway would have consequences to the endangered Florida panther and its essential habitat. The report indicates that the road could negate the great strides in species recovery that have been accomplished during the last 25 years of intensive management efforts.

The report, “Potential Impacts of the Southwest Central Connector on the Florida Panther and Its Habitat,” is authored by panther habitat expert and former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission wildlife ecologist, Randy Kautz. The study provides Task Force members and the public with data on critical panther habitat, expected impacts and land fragmentation due to the potential expansion of existing road corridors, from Polk County to Collier County.

Florida Panther walking toward camera
Florida Panther head-on Camera trap image of a male Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) from Babcock Ranch State Preserve, part of the Florida Wildlife Corridor interior to Fort Myers. The Nature Conservancy works to protect land in Florida by partnering with private landowners and state government entities to help preserve wildlife habitat and to help support wildlife corridors. October 2018. © Carlton Ward Jr.

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.

Conclusion

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.

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