Just two years after enacting an expedited highway corridor development program, the Florida state Senate has scaled back the effort in the face of pandemic-influenced economic realities.
The bill, which is expected to clear the state House of Representatives and be signed by Gov. Rick DeSantis (R), cancels the 2019 Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program, which authorized the fast-tracking of upgrades to three transportation corridors using a combination of upgrades to existing highways and new tolled facilities that would be managed by the Florida’s Turnpike enterprise. Totaling more than 300 miles, the program’s estimated costs for full build-out had ranged upwards of $20 billion or more, with construction bonds to be paid off using new toll revenue.
But that was then. State Sen. Gayle Harrel (R), sponsor of the repeal legislation, has said that the pandemic’s effects on state revenues had forced a reevaluation of the approach to the M-CORES projects, which had also drawn opposition for their absence of both needs analyses and environmental impact assessments.
Introducing the measure earlier this year, Sen. Harrel said it was “very, very doubtful” that the billions of dollars of bonds necessary to carry out the original vision of M-CORES could be paid for with Turnpike revenue.
Under the new legislation, the Florida Dept. of Transportation will continue to pursue improvements in two of the original M-CORES corridors, albeit with conventional planning and development processes. They include upgrading existing highways between the tolled Suncoast Parkway north of Tampa to Interstate 10 by 2035, and extending Florida’s Turnpike westward to a yet-to-be-determined location along the Suncoast Parkway. A feasibility status report on the latter project is due to be submitted to the state legislature next year.
The new law also drops a mandate to build the third M-CORES corridor—a proposed tolled expressway linking the state’s central and southwest counties.
In addition, the bill authorizes an annual transfer of $35 million from FDOT to the Florida’s Turnpike toll road enterprise for the next 30 years, and authorizes the two agencies to explore other high-speed transportation corridors across the state.
Ananth Prasad, president of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association and a former state transportation secretary, characterizes the legislation as a “refinement” of the M-CORES vision, rather than a repudiation of its intent.
“Rather than attempt something that wasn’t achievable” in the current economic climate, he says, “the legislature refined it into something that is.”
Prasad also disputes widely publicized contentions that M-CORES projects would be made up entirely of new toll roads.
“We were never going to build 300 miles of toll roads,” he says, adding that growth pressures along Florida’s southwestern coast likely will require some kind of investment in the now-discarded M-CORES corridor.
“The needs for connections between regions won’t go away anytime soon,” he says.
Despite Florida’s efforts to minimize pandemic-related effects on its economy, January 2021 traffic volume in the state was 9.1% below the same period last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Reduced demand could cut into anticipated revenue for new toll lanes that are part of the Interstate 4 reconstruction project through Orlando. FDOT has yet to announce toll rates for the 21-mile corridor, which is scheduled to be complete in 2022.