After three years of overwhelming public opposition, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) shelved the third and final proposed toll road of the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program. Defenders of Wildlife and our allies throughout the state never wavered in our opposition. Floridians have achieved a significant victory in stopping these unnecessary and destructive highways that posed unprecedented risks to many imperiled and iconic species.
The M-CORES law, enacted by Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) on May 17, 2019, required 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 massive highway expansion project would have irreversibly transformed landscapes across Florida and would have been the largest highway expansion in Florida since the creation of the Interstate System in the 1950s.
The three proposed toll roads from north to south were the Suncoast Connector, the Northern Turnpike Connector and the Southwest-Central Florida Connector. As proposed, these new transportation corridors would have created over 330 miles of new and expanded highways, feeder roads and associated sprawling residential and commercial development. These massive new corridors would have destroyed and fragmented farms, ranches, forests and wildlife habitat for the endangered Florida panther and threatened manatee, as well as black bear, gopher tortoise and many other species in some of the state’s most rural landscapes.
In 2019 and 2020, Defenders’ senior representatives Elizabeth Fleming and Kent Wimmer served for 18 months as appointed members on the three regional task forces to advise FDOT on environmental and economic considerations for three new toll road projects. Through our participation in 37 task force meetings, Defenders helped shape the final reports and recommendations, and advocated for maximum protection for wildlife and habitat, as well as avoidance and mitigation of harm to public lands and natural systems.
In fall of 2020, the three regional task forces recommended to FDOT that none of the three toll roads should be built. With opposition to M-CORES on both sides of the aisle due to its fiscal, environmental and community impacts, the 2021 legislature and the governor partially repealed M-CORES. This new law eliminated the Southwest-Central Florida Connector that would have run through essential Florida panther habitat in the western Everglades. The bill also pushed back the Northern Turnpike Connector’s schedule for completion. Regarding the Suncoast Connector, the bill required FDOT to upgrade US 19 to make it a limited access highway instead of creating a new toll road. Finally, it included the M-CORES task forces recommendation of avoiding conservation lands "to the greatest extent practicable."
Following several years of strong opposition by citizens and local governments, on August 4, 2022, FDOT paused the Northern Turnpike Connector as it could not recommend a specific corridor “until options can be reassessed to address concerns of the Department and the community."
While we are pleased that FDOT heeded the public’s opposition, Defenders will remain vigilant and engaged with FDOT and its many transportation planning processes. We know environmentally damaging proposals like M-CORES are like zombies that can come back to life. This is at least the third time the Southwest-Central Florida Connector has been resurrected, and the second time that the Northern Turnpike Extension has been revived.