Traffic backs up on Interstate 95 north of Miami. Daniel J. Macy/Shutterstock.com

Members of three regional task forces commissioned to orchestrate a $45 million study of a decade-long, multi-billion-dollar plan to build three toll roads spanning mostly rural areas along Florida’s western spine met Tuesday at the Tampa Convention Center for introductions and a preliminary review of procedures and process.

But if their first gathering is an indication of what is to come, implementing the proposed Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program – the state’s most ambitious highway-building project since the 1950s – is going to be a rocky journey.

More than 60 people, mostly opponents, offered public comments on the controversial plan while, outside the convention center, protesters who say the “corridors” will destroy wetlands blocked a street with a coffin, forcing police to disperse them.

M-CORES would build the 150-mile Southwest-Central Florida Connector from Lakeland to Naples; the Suncoast Connector, which would push the Florida Turnpike 40 miles west to link I-75 with the Suncoast Parkway; the Northern Turnpike Connector, which would extend the Suncoast Parkway 150 miles north to Georgia.

Construction would begin in 2022 and end in 2030.

M-CORES will be funded through license plate tag revenues – $1.1 billion over a decade – shifted from the state’s general fund into the State Transportation Trust Fund [STTF].

M-CORES outlines $90 million in the Fiscal Year 2021 funding, $135 million in Fiscal Year 2022 and $140 million annually through 2030, totaling $1.1 billion by 2030, for financing a state turnpike bond to pay for the projects, which some estimate could cost $10 billion.

But beyond the study, M-CORES is only aspirational – a priority pushed by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton – depending on the findings of the three regional task forces established with the adoption of Senate Bill 7068 during this year’s legislative session.

SB 7068 earmarks $45 million to study the proposal, which means proponents must return during the 2020 session to seek approval for M-CORES appropriations beyond fiscal 2020.

The three task forces, one to oversee each corridor, will meet seven times beginning next Tuesday – Hurricane Dorian permitting – to chart the proposed road’s routes, construction design, environmental impacts and issue a report to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature by Oct. 1, 2020.

Galvano said the roads will boost rural economies that were left behind in the recovery from the 2007 recession, alleviate congestion in urban areas and improve emergency evacuation routes.

“Several years ago, when I began planning to make infrastructure the heart of my term as Senate president, I had a broader vision, one that went beyond what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Galvano told task force members.

Department of Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said with 900 people moving to Florida each day – the state is projected to add 330,000 people a year and top 30 million in population by 2030 – the state must invest in its transportation infrastructure.

“The governor and the Legislature have truly challenged us to make sure we truly revitalize the rural communities,” he said. “We’re open to all modes (in improving) how we’re moving people and goods.”

The task forces include representatives of state agencies, water management districts, metropolitan planning organizations, regional planning councils, local governments, nonprofits, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Farm Bureau Federation, business groups and environmental groups.

Galvano and Thibault both emphasized the task forces include representatives of environmental groups who testified against the proposal in committee hearings.

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