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Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Florida Senate Scales Back Toll Road Plan, Including Suncoast Parkway Extension

Suncoast Parkway
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media

Under the new bill, transportation officials would develop a plan that would extend the Suncoast Parkway north alongside U.S. 19 by the end of 2035.

The Florida Senate on Thursday approved a proposal to scale back a controversial toll-road plan that was a priority of a former Senate president.

Senators voted 39-1 to pass a bill (SB 100) that would do away with much of the plan --- dubbed the Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance, or M-CORES --- pushed through in 2019 by then-President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Senate Transportation Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who is sponsoring the bill, said the COVID-19 pandemic has required a reevaluation of state priorities and that her proposal draws upon the recommendations of task forces that looked at the road projects last year.

“The pandemic has really required that we reevaluate things,” Harrell said. “And one of the things that I really believe that is both a policy and a budget issue is M-CORES.”

The 2019 law called for building a toll road from Collier County to Polk County; extending Florida’s Turnpike to connect with the Suncoast Parkway; and extending the Suncoast Parkway from Citrus County to Jefferson County.

Harrell’s would eliminate the road between Collier and Polk counties, while requiring plans to extend the turnpike west from Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway and to lay out a route that would weave the Suncoast Parkway north along U.S. 19 to connect with Interstate 10 in Madison County.

The proposal has not been addressed in the House. The only similar House bill (HB 763) simply seeks to do away with the M-CORES plan and has not been heard in committees. Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, cast the lone dissenting vote Thursday on Harrell’s plan.

Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, also filed a straight repeal bill (SB 1030) that has not been heard in the Senate.

“I'm happy to work through this system and come up with this compromise, because certainly, you know, it's better than what we had before.,” Polsky said Thursday.

The task forces, which spent about 15 months reviewing the M-CORES projects, sent a report to lawmakers in November calling for a deeper dive into the future traffic needs of the state.

They also suggested lawmakers direct the Department of Transportation to further determine if the projects would reduce congestion on Interstate 75; establish how the roads would be used for disaster evacuations and response; consider the economic pluses and minuses in shifting traffic into rural regions; work with local governments so utility and broadband expansions meet existing policies about urban sprawl; and protect environmentally sensitive resources such as springs, wetlands, and floodplains.

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Ocoee, successfully amended Harrell’s bill Thursday to add language from the task forces.

“The recommendations protect not just the environment, but also our farmlands, rural and minority communities,” Bracy said.

The M-CORES projects were promoted by Galvano as a way to help handle future growth, and he linked the roads with adding broadband and other infrastructure.

Under Harrell’s bill, transportation officials would develop a plan that would extend the Suncoast Parkway north alongside U.S. 19 by the end of 2035.

The bill also would direct transportation officials to start project-development and environmental work on an extension of the turnpike from where it ends now in Wildwood. They would have to submit a report to legislative leaders and the governor on the project by the end of 2022.

The M-CORES projects, if they continue, are slated to be completed by 2030.

Harrell’s bill would include non-tolled alternatives for local traffic along U.S. 19; require property owners impacted by the roads to get at least one access point for each mile of land owned; and seek to avoid dividing historic minority communities.