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M-CORES highway toll project quietly shelved

By Nathan Mayberg - Editor | Jul 8, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill which will effectively reverse most of the legislation that would have allowed for hundreds of miles of new highway and tolls to be built including ones that would have crossed through the heart of the endangered panther's territory in Polk and Collier County. / File photo by Nathan Mayberg

Proposed new highways stretching hundreds of miles, including some of which would potentially extend through the heart of the endangered panther’s habitat between Polk County and Collier County, has hit a dead end.

The controversial M-CORES (Multi-use corridors of regional economic significance) project, which was reversed in votes by the state legislature in the current legislative session, was signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis this past week. The signing of Senate Bill 100 effectively reverses most of the bill championed by former Bradenton Republican State Sen. Bill Galvano which would have created three new toll road systems which had an estimated cost of $10 billion.

The road expansions proved unpopular with environmental groups, taxpayer watchdog groups, newspaper editorial boards and ultimately legislators themselves who voted unanimously in the State House to reverse the 2019 bill by a vote of 115-0 and in the Senate by a vote of 39-1. The lone senator opposed to the reversal is Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa).

The office of DeSantis did not provide any comment by the governor on the signing of the legislation.

The bill still allows for the funding of roadwork at “congestion points” on U.S. 19 beginning at Suncoast Parkway 2 Phase 3 north from Citrus County to Interstate 10 in Madison County (east of Tallahassee near the Georgia border) which is to be completed by 2035. A smaller extension of the Florida Turnpike from its current terminus at I-75 near The Villages to a point still to be determined by the Florida Department of Transportation on the west side of Florida is possible as well. A report to DeSantis and the legislature on that project is due in December of 2022.

Matthew Schwartz, Executive Director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, hailed the signing of the bill as “a victory. We killed the bulk of it.”

Schwartz had spoken out forcefully against the original M-CORES legislation as presenting a dire threat to Florida’s endangered panthers. His organization had been working on detailing its opposition through an expected challenge through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which was reviewing the project. Ultimately, Schwartz said, the project ended up proving too unpopular with Floridians. “It really had no support from residents,” he said.

“People don’t want sprawl or overcrowding. These highways are a doorway to sprawl,” Schwartz said.

He said the major components of the M-CORES project have been ended, which he believes was meant to open up development in Southwest Florida and other rural sections of Florida.

Some environmental groups were upset that the entire project wasn’t shelved entirely, Schwartz said. The bill reversing most of M-CORES was sponsored by Sen. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart) and Sen. Annette Taddeo-Goldstein (D-Miami).

“Part of the problem with M-CORES is it was a completely done deal. There was no environmental review or cost review,” Schwartz said. He described its passage in 2019 through the state legislature as a “juggernaut they wanted to rush through.”