The Florida Department of Transportation announced big news on August 5, saying it completed a study of the Northern Turnpike Extension without recommending a specific corridor to connect to U.S. 19, and that it would not move forward until options could be reassessed to address significant community concerns; this is big news. Some context on this complicated issue might be helpful.
For more than two years, Tall Timbers, conservation organizations around Florida, and residents statewide raised concerns and objections over Senate bill 7068 from 2019 (known as M-CORES), which called for the construction of three toll roads spanning over 330 miles throughout the state. From 2019 to 2020, steering committees evaluated each of these three proposed toll roads, ultimately producing final reports containing numerous recommendations and concluding that they could not agree that there was “a specific need for a completely new greenfield corridor or modifications of existing facilities through the study area to achieve the stated purpose.”
Subsequently, in 2021, the Florida Legislature passed SB 100, which repealed M-CORES and removed the requirement for a toll road through Jefferson County and the Red Hills. SB 100 instead called for DOT to include in their work program, “the construction of controlled access facilities as necessary to achieve the free flow of traffic on U.S. 19, beginning at the terminus of Suncoast Parkway 2 Phase 3 [Citrus County], north predominantly along U.S. 19 to a logical terminus on Interstate 10 in Madison County.”
SB 100 also called for DOT to begin working on a study to extend the Florida Turnpike from its current terminus in Wildwood (Sumter County), to a new terminus determined by DOT (somewhere on U.S. 19 in the Florida Big Bend). This is the Northern Turnpike Extension that DOT just shelved in the face of widespread citizen opposition and “No build” resolutions from Citrus and Levy Counties and the towns of Dunnellon, Inglis, and Yankeetown.
Questions we’re asking:
Does this mean the Northern Turnpike Extension to U.S. 19 in Citrus or Levy County will not be built? That’s hard to say. DOT’s statement notes that while the controversial project is sidelined, the door is still open to evaluating corridor concepts that respect environmental and community concerns. In the near-term, DOT will focus on improvements in the I-75 corridor, as suggested by many conservation groups, residents, and toll road steering committee members.
How does this decision affect the Florida Big Bend and the Red Hills? At this point, DOT will continue following the legislative directive in SB 100 to study improvements to achieve the “free flow of traffic” on U.S. 19 from Red Level in Citrus County to Madison County. Critics have noted that the perceived need for improvements to the underutilized U.S. 19 was based in part on connecting U.S. 19 with the Florida Turnpike, resulting in increased traffic from Central Florida through the Big Bend. Absent that interconnection, it appears to raise the bar for justifying significant enhancements to U.S. 19, which Florida TaxWatch noted in 2020 was a project with “little demonstrated transportation need.”
Before the end of 2022, DOT is scheduled to hold additional public outreach opportunities to receive input on potential improvement to U.S. 19. Communities throughout the Florida Big Bend—which includes one of the longest stretches of undeveloped coastline in the continental United States—will need to fully participate to ensure DOT hears concerns about impacts to natural resources, working rural lands, and rural community character in a state that has already lost many of those amenities.