In 2019, Florida’s governor signed the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) bill requiring Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to plan, develop and fund three new toll highways and utility corridors in the western half of the Florida peninsula from the Everglades to the Florida-Georgia line. If realized, this proposal would result in the largest highway expansion in Florida since creation of the Interstate System in the 1950s.
Since Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders) opened an office in Florida in 1994, we have been a leader in state transportation policy and project work to ensure that wildlife conservation and habitat protection are an integral part of transportation planning. We advocate for the inclusion of wildlife crossings in road designs, as well as modifications to existing roads where necessary, to allow safe passage across roadways to maintain habitat connectivity and allow for range expansion for Florida panthers, bears and other wildlife. We serve on the Florida Panther Recovery Team and its transportation sub-team to help further panther recovery and ensure that transportation projects do not undermine continued progress. As members of each of the three M-CORES task forces, we are working to ensure these projected highways and associated planning processes integrate conservation priorities and consider land use impacts. The proposed highway and utility projects would pass through some of the last undeveloped lands in Florida and have the potential to transform intact landscapes undoing decades of conservation gains and dramatically affecting habitat for the endangered Florida panther and many other wildlife and plant species.
During the first three task force meetings, our comments emphasized avoidance of conservation lands, utilizing existing road alignments and compatibility with local comprehensive plans. Prior to passage of the M-CORES legislation, Defenders produced a web map for the public showing the significant biological, natural and cultural features that may occur within the three study areas. FDOT has since created its own mapping tool, modeled after Defenders’ map, and has committed to adding future land use layers from local comprehensive plans and optimal management boundaries for public conservation lands. Because these projects will have extensive impacts on wildlife, its habitat and working lands, we are encouraged that FDOT is focusing on “avoidance, minimization, mitigation and enhancement,” and the task forces have voiced support for targeting existing rights-of-ways instead of creating entirely new highways. We estimate that over 50,000-acres will be impacted directly by the M-CORES projects, plus magnitudes more indirectly once the roads open new areas to sprawling development.
The current planning process for the three proposed highways aims to move forward as quickly as possible even though FDOT has yet to quantitively or qualitatively justify their need. FDOT has not demonstrated whether they are financially feasible, nor has the agency shown how the benefits outweigh the costs, especially the opportunity costs. Instead of diverting funding to these ill-considered highways and utility corridors, our position is Florida’s limited transportation and mobility funding should be directed to projects already on FDOT’s 5-Year and Long-Range Plan priority lists. Funds are desperately needed to improve transportation systems that serve Florida’s highly populated and rapidly growing areas maintenance backlogs and safety issues.
Through our task force appointments, we will continue to advocate for maximum protection of wildlife and habitat. Defenders is seeking a holistic and proactive approach to shape the proposed alternatives, which should include no-build alternatives for each proposed study areas.
Elizabeth Fleming and Kent Wimmer of Defenders of Wildlife serve as environmental/conservation representatives on M-CORES Task Forces that provide guidance and recommendations to FDOT regarding environmental and economic impacts for the respective study areas: Wimmer serves on the Northern Turnpike Connector and the Suncoast Connector task forces and Fleming serves on the Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force.