Florida accused of push for ‘roads to nowhere’ under cover of pandemic

Critics say the ‘m-cores’ project of 330 miles of toll roads, estimated to cost $26.4bn, is not needed and will destroy fragile ecosystems

The new roads contemplated by the m-cores project are estimated to cost $26.4bn.




The new roads contemplated by the m-cores project are estimated to cost $26.4bn.
Photograph: Michael Stubblefield/Alamy

Opponents of Florida’s largest highway construction project in decades say officials are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to advance three new unwanted toll roads that would destroy more than 50,000 acres of rural landscape and pave hundreds of miles through ecologically fragile wetlands and wildlife corridors.

A diverse coalition of opposition groups fighting the state’s so-called m-cores project insists the 330 miles of new highways planned for south-west, central and north Florida at an estimated cost of $26.4bn are not needed, and wanted the process halted at least until in-person public hearings could resume to evaluate the proposals.

The state, however, has pressed ahead with online meetings, appointing taskforces it requires to make recommendations to Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, by 15 November. Virtual gatherings held over the last 10 days, the coalition said, were beset by technological issues with the digital format so lengthy and laborious that it was almost impossible for their voices to be heard.

“It’s the opposite of technologically easy, it’s the opposite of allowing any kind of normal facilitation to the public,” said Cris Costello of the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club, which has partnered with almost 100 other concerned stakeholder groups and businesses in the No Roads to Ruin coalition.

“Many fewer people will sit through seemingly interminable webinars, without seeing anyone’s face, without the ability to speak up and show their opposition, except at the tail end and without knowing who of the taskforce is even still present to hear them.”

“In April we had 60 or 70 people sign up and maybe 20 would get through to speak because of technical difficulties. In this last season there were maybe seven or eight. [Yet] the opposition is overwhelming.”

The three proposed components of m-cores, short for multi-use corridors of regional economic significance, have been controversial from the start, with the Democratic state representative Evan Jenne blasting them as “toll roads to nowhere.

Supporters, notably the Florida senate president, Bill Galvano, who introduced the legislation, argue that new roads and extensions of existing highways are needed to speed hurricane evacuations, relieve congestion and improve trade and logistical links, including broadband, water and sewer connectivity to rural communities.

Opponents, however, say the roads solve problems that don’t exist, pointing out that the bill was fast-tracked through the Florida legislature last summer with no preliminary determination of need or financial feasibility by the state’s department of transportation (DOT).

“If there’s no demonstrated need, no demonstrated economic or environmental feasibility, a threat to agricultural production, threats to wildlife and water resources, a threat to Florida’s iconic small-town character, you pile these threats one on top of another and it’s common sense there’s overwhelming opposition,” Costello said.

Governor Ron DeSantis waves as he and the Florida department of transportation secretary, Kevin Thibault, left, to open a new interchange in Orlando in May.


Governor Ron DeSantis waves as he and the Florida department of transportation secretary, Kevin Thibault, left, to open a new interchange in Orlando in May. Photograph: Barcroft Media via Getty Images

The coalition also accuses Republican politicians of ignoring the economic reality of the Covid-19 era by ring-fencing $738m in taxpayer money to fund project planning for the next five years, even as DeSantis slashed $1bn from the state budget in response to the pandemic.

The spending watchdog group Florida TaxWatch analyzed the Suncoast Connector element of m-cores, a 150-mile corridor from north of Tampa to the Georgia border, and concluded it was “a risky project with a significant price tag and little transportation need, proposed in a highly sensitive environmental area that is vulnerable to coastal flooding and rising sea levels”.

The group’s critical report also doubted the road would generate enough use to meet its cost, noting Florida was already experiencing declining toll revenues, fuel taxes and car rentals.

In a statement to the Guardian, the Florida department of transportation challenged the coalition’s $26.4bn estimate. “No paths/courses for the proposed corridors have been determined by the task forces at this time. As such, any estimation for a cost for a corridor would be very unreliable,” it said.

Lindsay Cross, government relations director of Florida Conservation Voters, has questioned the makeup of the taskforces, which include local politicians and environmental groups, but are weighted with representatives of trucking, transportation and construction industries, the Florida chamber of commerce and economic development council.

“If an entity can benefit financially from a decision-making body in which they are a member, in other endeavors it would be expected to recuse itself. In this case they’ve been invited to the head of the table while some communities weren’t even invited to dinner,” she said.

Galvano, the Florida senate president, rejected the claim that online hearings were throttling public comment.

“We have been monitoring the meetings and it certainly seems that while no one could have anticipated the impacts of Covid-19, the electronic format has provided significantly more opportunity for public comment than would ever have been possible with in-person meetings,” Katie Betta, Galvano’s spokeswoman, said in a written statement.

“As for the technological issues the DOT and every other entity learning to use an online platform during the pandemic has experienced, when he’s not working on legislative issues, President Galvano is running his law firm, not engaged in technological subterfuge as part of some covert effort to thwart public comment.”