M-CORES at Plantation

Mark and Virginia Anderson were among attendees of a public viewing of the M-CORES Turnpike connector virtual meeting held last month at the Plantation Inn on Crystal River.

Social distancing was not an issue.

Thirty-one chairs, spread apart in the Plantation Inn’s Sabal Room, all but one or two empty.

Around the room, waiting to help anyone who might show up, were just under a dozen staffers sitting behind tables, laptops at hand.

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On the big screen was a large M-CORES logo, with a face or two appearing but mainly voices.

Theirs were the voices of task force members from Citrus and surrounding counties, discussing alternative pathways for Florida’s Turnpike to connect into the Suncoast Parkway.

COVID-19 slowed down, but did not stop, the state’s task forces set up to provide advice to the Florida Department of Transportation on a trio of toll road projects.

M-CORES — Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance — was created by state law in 2019. Its charge is ambitious: Start construction on three toll roads in 2022 and have all three completed by 2030.

Two of the three directly impact Citrus County: The Suncoast extender from Citrus to Jefferson counties, and the turnpike extender from Sumter County to as yet a point unknown on the parkway.

While the legislation calls for task forces to meet in each affected county, the pandemic has led to alternative plans. Now task forces meet remotely with citizens able to join in via the same process.

Citrus County Commissioner Jeff Kinnard, who sits on both the Suncoast and Turnpike extension task forces, said it seems more residents are participating remotely than those who showed up in person when the groups met together.

“When we’ve met live, we might have 15 or 16 people get up to speak,” he said. “We still have about that many speak, but a lot more folks are registering to give input.”

While residents may watch and participate in M-CORES meetings at home, this past week was the first hybrid approach of making the virtual meeting available at a public site. If someone wanted to speak during public comment, a video camera was set up so that person could be seen by task force members appearing remotely.

The turnout was sparse: Nine attended Wednesday for the turnpike meeting, six for the Suncoast meeting on Thursday, FDOT spokeswoman Beth Frady said in an email to the Chronicle.

On the other hand, 199 individuals participated in the Northern Turnpike Corridor virtual meeting and 219 individuals participated in the Suncoast Corridor virtual meeting, she said.

Frady said FDOT set up the public viewing sites for those who do not have access to the internet at home.

“The purpose of offering a hybrid meeting approach is to be as inclusive and accessible to everyone who chooses to stay informed and involved with the M-CORES program,” she wrote. “We are aware that access to technology and internet availability is limited in some of the communities within the study area. The in-person viewing locations remove that barrier, plus offer an opportunity for those who attend to speak directly to the program team.”

Inverness attorney Clark Stillwell, who represents the interests of developers, wandered into the turnpike viewing site Wednesday morning and stayed about 15 minutes. Along with a reporter and Florida Highway Patrol trooper assigned to the location all day, he was the only one there not associated with FDOT.

“It’s disturbing,” he said of the lack of public attendance. “People need to know about these projects.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com.