Citrus County, you’ve been here before. For decades you’ve debated about toll roads, development, and how to hold onto what’s special about your beautiful piece of Florida. It’s been a long and arduous road but largely, you’ve been in the driver’s seat.

All of that has now changed. With the bloated mess that is the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) toll roads, Citrus, along with 18 other counties, are now in the proverbial back seat. And the biggest problem is, no one really knows who is driving.

This time next year, lasting decisions will be made about how our home will look forever. Following a mere 13 months of community feedback, a group of high-level bureaucrats, influenced by vested interests like trucking and asphalt industries, will have rubber-stamped the destruction of rural areas and environmental treasures, like springs and forests.

Citrus County is included in study areas for both the Northern Turnpike and Suncoast Connector, making your voice and experience especially relevant to the conversation. As you know, there’s a lot to consider when building a road, from the projected ridership and economic benefits, to the impact to the environment and local community. And now’s the time to tell FDOT that you don’t want these roads to ruin.

It takes time to get road projects right. The process to justify, plan and design the Veterans and Suncoast parkways has been ongoing since the 1980s. In contrast, the state is expected to begin construction on 330 new miles of toll roads in 2022 (just three years from now), all based on a single piece of legislation that only saw one committee stop by the Florida House in the 2019 session. FDOT’s Chief Engineer Will Watts described this as a “very aggressive timeline” at last week’s Florida House Transportation and Tourism Appropriations Subcommittee meeting, while also indicating the very sparse guidance that the Legislature gave his agency.

Shockingly, FDOT still cannot articulate the true role of the three task forces, except that they will not recommend a specific route, but merely offer guidelines. For the first time, FDOT suggested that task forces can recommend a “no build” option, which is contrary to what they’d previously said. Meanwhile, FDOT will simultaneously start planning the road alignment in January 2020, with design and engineering studies beginning in March 2020. If that sounds like putting the cart before the horse, I’d argue that they don’t even know what’s in the cart or who the horse belongs to.

The economics are lousy. The Legislature has already poured $135 million of our hard-earned tax dollars into task forces and planning phases over the next two years yet has not produced a single study demonstrating that the roads are a worthy investment. Included in the state budget is an annual allocation of $100-plus million (estimated) to the State Transportation Trust Fund; the ambiguous “plus” allows lawmakers to continuously increase spending without accountability.

I often travel to Citrus County and am shocked by the low ridership along the northern sections of the existing toll roads. The Suncoast Parkway was projected to collect $150 million by 2014, but in actuality, it only brought in $22 million. I’ll do the math: looking at actual revenue versus collection estimates, it generated just 14% of what was promised. When it was initially built, FDOT and Turnpike Enterprises promised that it would generate millions in revenue for rural counties. But they were wrong, and you paid — and continue to pay — for their miscalculations.

If a toll road connecting Citrus with metro Tampa — population 3 million — isn’t economically viable, a proposed new 150-mile stretch to Jefferson County — population 14,000 — is laughable, at best. If a further extension is needed to avoid dead-ending in Citrus County, it should follow the same rigorous, community-

driven process as it has previously. The Legislature needs to show the taxpayers that it’s a smart investment. You, the taxpayer, shouldn’t write a blank check to developers and bureaucrats who want to pave and develop paradise.

Lines will be drawn in January and you are the last line of defense against bad government and bad economics. It’s time for Citrus County to get back in the driver’s seat. Stand up for our springs, tax dollars, and quality of life by saying “No Roads to Ruin!”

Both task forces will meet this week in Citrus County. The Northern Turnpike task force will meet on Oct. 22 with public comment at 4:30 p.m. and will hold a community open house on Oct. 24 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The Suncoast Connector task force will meet on Oct. 23 with public comment at 4:30 p.m. These meetings will be at the College of Central Florida Citrus Learning and Conference Center. The Suncoast Community Open House is on Oct. 24 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Old Town Education Center.

Lindsay Cross is the Government Relations Director at the Florida Conservation Voters (FCV). Cross has lived in the Tampa Bay region for 18 years. Cross’ background is in environmental science and policy, with previous leadership roles at the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and Florida Wildlife Corridor. Cross ran for the Florida State Senate District 24 in 2018 with a focus on protecting the environment and improving public education.