THE ISSUE: Expansion of controversial state toll roads dependent on annual funding.

OUR OPINION: Citrus County has an interest in this project.

When we last wrote about the M-CORES project (Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance), the enabling legislation was still making its way through the Legislature. Gov. Ron DeSantis eventually signed it into law (F.S. 338.2278) and since then the project has had the look of a train that couldn’t be stopped. Now, though, it may face a funding challenge.

While many heavyweight state and national environmental groups have lined up against the M-CORES proposal to build more than 300 miles of highway in three areas of the state, the project has strong political support. Mandated task forces studying the three proposed roadway projects began meeting this summer, and haven’t offered much pushback. The general assumption is that it’s going to happen, and the best that opponents can do is influence where and how the corridors are planned and constructed.

It’s important to Citrus County, which plays a role in two of the three proposed corridors. The Suncoast Connector would extend from the northern end of the Suncoast Parkway to the Georgia border. The Turnpike Connector would extend from the northern end of the Turnpike to meet up with the Suncoast. Citrus is on the corridor maps for both.

The task forces, by law, must submit their reports and recommendations by Oct. 1, 2020, to the governor, speaker of the House and president of the Senate. The law further specifies, “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.”

For the current state fiscal year, $45 million was appropriated. However, the proposed FY 2020-2021 allocation of $90 million must be authorized separately by legislators when they meet in January.

The entire M-CORES project is expected to cost $1.1 billion over a decade. That’s a big number. This ambitious roadway plan is already being conducted outside the normal process of first assessing need, and then moving to the study-design-build phases. While state officials may already be thinking about the “build” aspect to meet the law’s deadlines, some citizens are saying there’s absolutely no need for the roadways.

The worst case, from Citrus County‘s point of view, would be for M-CORES to stall or fail. The county is on record stating it does not want the Suncoast to end here. Leaders favor a Suncoast Extension that would take the roadway north through the county.

If state leaders are serious about this transportation project, they should ensure its funding future. They also should practice transparency in the information-gathering and recommendations phases so counties and citizens can feel they’ve been heard.

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