SMART TRANSPORTATION

The issue: M-CORES state-designated task forces issue reports.

Our opinion: Controversial projects need more study and discussion.

Three task forces of up to 40 people each have been working for more than a year on proposed state transportation projects dubbed M-CORES — Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance. There are three corridors — Suncoast Parkway extension to near the Georgia line, Turnpike extension from Wildwood to the Suncoast, and a roadway linking Polk and Collier counties. Citrus County is involved directly in the first two, and county representatives sat on both task forces.

This massive undertaking grew from a 2019 state law requiring the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to convene these task forces “as an inclusive, consensus-building mechanism” for corridor analysis. The end result, according to the statute: “To the maximum extent feasible, construction of the projects shall begin no later than Dec. 31, 2022, with the corridors open to traffic no later than Dec. 31, 2030.”

In March, the pandemic changed everything. Since then, task force meetings have been online as well as in-person, offering everyone with an internet connection a look into the day-long deliberations.

Predictably, business interests lined up in favor of the M-CORES projects, and environmental groups opposed them. A number of cities and counties also submitted resolutions, both for and against the M-CORES projects. (Citrus County heartily endorsed them.)

Shepherded by expert FDOT personnel, the task forces met their statutorily-required deadlines, and their final reports were published by FDOT on Nov. 15.

Growth will come. It would be shortsighted to think otherwise. Transportation is key to economic development, but isn’t the only consideration. Planning for the future is a must, and the M-CORES task forces provided a venue for competing opinions. Throughout the process, it felt as though this was a pro-forma exercise because state legislators already decreed the outcome. However, those competing opinions were represented in the final report, and are evident in the guiding principles and instructions.

What’s the result of this year of work? Well, it’s complicated. Bottom line, the task forces identified certain “high-level needs” then recommended a number of guiding principles and issued instructions for carrying them out. FDOT committed to following these guidelines and instructions, “to the maximum extent feasible” in action planning for future M-CORES work.

The state’s pandemic-related budget difficulties may affect its ambitious plans for M-CORES. Locally, though, there is strong sentiment for finishing what’s been started. The Suncoast Parkway has entered Citrus County; a priority focus should be to complete its extension to U.S. 19, as originally envisioned.