Spring 2020 | Vol 13 | No 2
Suncoast Connector Toll Road Update
Update — As many eNews readers are now aware, Tall Timbers is deeply concerned about the proposed Suncoast Connector toll road, a proposed 150+ mile toll road corridor extending from Citrus County through Jefferson County. (Background information below). The Suncoast Connector is just one component of the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance Program (M-CORES), hastily passed by the Florida Legislature in 2019.
Tall Timbers continues to be actively engaged in this complex issue. We are working with subject matter experts on several important issue papers shedding light on key environmental, coastal resiliency, and economic issues related to the toll road; collaborating with local, regional, and state partners to protect our shared conservation and community interests; meeting with key leaders to share our concerns; and engaging in many outreach and education activities to keep interested parties like you up to speed on this issue.
In recent weeks, COVID-19 has forced the postponement of in-person Task Force meetings. In their place, the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) has coordinated two webinars to update Task Force members on key issues, and provide the public with opportunities to provide input. DOT is to be applauded for their efforts to continue this complex process amidst the pandemic. Unfortunately, public participation has suffered as many members of the public have been unable to weigh-in with their concerns. That said, during a recent webinar, 37 out of 38 public speakers opposed the Suncoast Connector toll road.
If you have not already done so, we encourage you to join the more than 1,000 concerned citizens who have signed up to receive periodic updates from Tall Timbers about this project.
Issue background — Tall Timbers remains alarmed about the proposed new toll road’s many potential negative impacts. US Highway 19, a four-lane divided roadway, runs throughout the length of the eight-county Suncoast Connector planning area and is substantially underutilized. In fact, for much of its route through the toll road planning area, US 19 functions at between 16 and 20 percent of its maximum service volume.
Aside from being unnecessary, a new toll road or the co-location of new travel lanes along the US 19 corridor would cost billions of dollars ─ an unnecessary luxury when Florida is struggling with declining tax revenues amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. (April tax collections based on March sales activity were down $773 million or 28 percent). Even without this economic crunch, it will be crucial in the future to avoid placing costly infrastructure in a flood-prone corridor, where over 50 percent of the study area is in a 100- or 500-year floodplain and 30 percent is vulnerable to category 5 storm surge and rising sea levels.
And then there are the irreplaceable natural treasures of the Big Bend region. Government, private landowners, and non-profits have invested millions of dollars protecting forests, wetlands, rivers, and focal species in the most undeveloped coastal area left in the Sunshine State.
Recommendations — For these and other reasons, Tall Timbers opposes the construction of a new toll road corridor or the co-location of new travel lanes within the existing US 19 corridor, from Jefferson County through Levy County. Instead, we support transportation improvements in Citrus County ─ which could include tolled and non-tolled roadways — to address mobility challenges in that rapidly growing county. (Notably, the population of Citrus County exceeds the combined population of the other seven counties in the study area).
North of Citrus County, the existing US 19 corridor is highly underutilized and is not in need of new tolled travel lanes. As an alternative, mobility projects that are broadly supported by local communities, businesses and residents, could enhance traffic flow near rural communities. We also recommend further evaluation by DOT of the consensus recommendations contained in the 2016 Interstate-75 Relief Task Force for enhancing traffic flow in Central and North Florida.