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End of the Road for the M-CORES Toll Road?

Wood Stork.
Patricia A Okeefe / Audubon Photography Awards / Courtesy Audubon Florida
A Wood Stork, whose habitat would likely be threatened by a proposed toll road.

Earlier this month, the M-CORES Task Force released their final reports, evaluating the feasibility of the three proposed toll roads throughout the state. The controversial toll roads may have hit the end of the road.

The Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force issued its final report on the controversial toll road that would connect I-4 to I-75 through prime habitat for the endangered Florida Panther. The task force found what many Floridians already know:The task force found what many Floridians already expressed concerns about: The proposed toll road is an expensive idea that threatens not just the panther, but precious natural ecosystems.

Hundreds of comments rolled in from the public on almost every topic concerning the roads: including improving and maintaining existing infrastructure before building new roads.

Julie Wraithmell is the executive director of Audubon Florida. The non-profit worked hard to ensure that the MCORES task forces would be created in the first place, and that the need and feasibility of the toll roads would be properly evaluated and that the task forces’ finding would be binding. She says it’s because of the task force that the roads have met their end.

"This is public process working the way that it's meant to," Wraithmell tells WGCU.

Wraithmell notes the task forces were populated with representatives from local governments, as well as from affected industries and the environmental community.

The report, she says, is a strong response that Floridians want growth and standards that are responsible and pragmatic.

"We're gratified that they have borne out what we and many others have been saying for quite some time, which is that the need just isn't there for these routes," she notes. "The task forces were very clear in saying that: new roads through untouched rural areas simply aren't warranted at this time."

The task forces recommendations include financial feasibility--and that should the roads be built, the Florida Department of Transportation should pay for conservation land acquisition. That, of course, will increase the overall cost of the road as well as the toll roads feasibility.

The report also directs the toll roads to avoid conservation lands in their routing.

"All these things will be extraordinary, extraordinary hurdles that will have to be cleared in order for the roads to proceed," notes Wraithmell. "While yes, the original legislation suggests that that construction should begin in just a few years time, the task force has also asked the legislature to revisit that."

The next legislative session will begin in March, and Wraithmell says she's optimistic that legislators will take into account the strong input they've gotten from the task forces, and adjust plans accordingly. COVID-19-related budget shortfalls and changes in driver behavior will also likely come into play.

The report suggests the best course of action may simply be widening existing roads.

The seventy-one page report on the task forces findings included frequently expressed public concerns for protecting endangered species, wetlands, water resources, native plants, and, or course the iconic Florida panther.

"Roads have fragmenting impacts on habitat, as well as on the ranges of wide ranging species, most notably things like Florida Panthers, that we know have such extraordinary problems with roadkill mortality," Wraithmell notes. "But the bigger impact in my opinion of roads is often the Sprawl and the growth that they then incentivize."

Wraithmell says the opportunistic residential and commercial development the toll roads might have prompted would lead to a cumulative impact on wetlands and existing infrastructure that would be devastating to natural resources and a local economy heavily dependent on a clean environment. Toxic blue-green algae is already a problem, she notes. The toll roads and further development, she says, would exacerbate that.

"Nobody knows better than Southwest Florida after the harmful algal blooms of 2018, that the environment is an economy and everything flows from that," says Wraithmell. "So it's kind of like the goose that laid the golden egg. We have to take care of it."

While it looks like the end of the road for the M-CORES Southwest Florida Connector Toll Road, Wraithmell says communities still need to stay engaged.

"Unfortunately, ideas like this have a tendency to continue to bubble up. Will they be proposed again? It’s possible. Will those same issues remain? Most likely. And they may even be greater at that point. What's the saying? Land, they're not making any more of it?"

But with engaged advocates with institutional and historical memory, the chances of a toll road devastating the environment, the wildlife, and the economy is diminished, Wraithmell observes. While we’ll likely see more unnecessary toll roads proposed in the future, this particular round of toll roads have likely met the end of the road.

To learn more about Audubon Florida visit https://fl.audubon.org/. And to learn more about M-CORES Task Force reports, visit https://floridamcores.com/.