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Just returned from her trip to Tampa, where she attended the first meeting of one of three advisory boards tasked with setting guidelines for their respective proposed toll roads, Jefferson County Commissioner Betsy Barfield last week gave the Monticello City Council an update on the project.
Barfield's takeaway from the meeting, and her message to local residents, was to prepare for the toll road's eventuality, as its coming was inevitable. The only input that local residents would have into the project, she said, was how it would look coming through Jefferson County and how the community might protect its cultural and environmental resources.
Whether the community wanted it or not was not one of the choices, she said.
“The Senate leadership is driving this train and they're going at a fast pace,” Barfield said, referring to past Senate President Bill Galvano, who, with his cronies, rammed the legislation through the Florida Legislature during the last session. “I've never seen a road project of this magnitude done in 10 years.”
Construction on the project, per the 2019 legislation, is set to begin no later than Dec. 31, 2022, and be completed by Dec. 31, 2030. The three task forces, meanwhile, have until Oct. 1, 2020, to complete and submit their written findings to the state.
Barfield added that this community was going to have to do a delicate balancing act between what it wanted and what it could live with.
Ultimately, she said, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) would be calling the shots on the project in terms of the three roads' routes, with input from the Governor and no doubt lawmakers and other interested parties.
“We are not going to be able to say where the road goes,” Barfield said of the advisory board of which she is a member. “That will be the job of the FDOT. Our task is to provide guidelines. But the FDOT is seeking input from the public as a whole. They're looking for communities to come together as a whole and tell them what they want the roads to look like.”
By look like, she meant in terms of the associated infrastructure that is supposed to be a part of each of the roads, such as water and sewer lines and broadband capabilities.
Barfield urged local elected officials and residents to get involve in the process early and let the FDOT known of their concerns or whatever suggestions via the website https://floridamcores.com/.
“If you want a bypass around the town, don't be shy about the telling the FDOT where you want it,” Barfield said. “Now is the time to do it.”
Some other tidbits that she offered: the experts indicated that it would be a logistical nightmare to use existing roads for the three toll roads; the plan was to take the road across Jefferson County and into Georgia and eventually all the way north to Tennessee; and Madison County was lobbying to get the toll road to cross its boundaries.
“But I wouldn't bank on anything that I say about the routes,” Barfield said, adding that it was too early in the process to really know anything.
Clerk of Court Kirk Reams, who accompanied Barfield on the trip to Tampa as the second of this county's appointees to the task force, emailed the Monticello News that his participation was more that of an observer from the gallery.
“It was mainly an organization session with members introducing themselves and voicing their concerns on the potential impacts to their respective organizations,” Reams emailed. “I believe that the task force will be meeting as a whole group six more times between now and October 2020, when (its) recommendations are due to the Governor and Legislature. Sprinkled throughout this timeframe will be various public workshops in the areas affected, which will allow for much public participation and comment.”
The goal of each advisory board – per the legislative directive – is to do an analysis of the environmental, land-use and other impacts of the proposed corridor on each of the communities that it crosses.
The toll road that is slated to come through Jefferson County is one of three such proposed roads, called Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES).
The three are the SunCoast Connector, which would extend from the SunCoast Parkway's present terminus in Citrus County and proceed north through Jefferson County and into Georgia; the Southwest-Central Florida Connector, which would extend from Collier County to Polk County; and the Northern Turnpike Connector, which would extend from the northern terminus of the Florida Turnpike northwest to the SunCoast Parkway.
Besides providing funding for road building, the legislation approved in the last session includes money for water, sewer and broadband internet access, generally viewed as “the building blocks of any massive development.
The proposed roads have the backing of such groups as the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Transportation and Builders Association and Florida Trucking Association.
Opponents include scores of civic, conservation and environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, 1,000 Friends of Florida, Friends of the Everglades, League of Women Voters of Florida and Tall Timber.
The funding for the three roads is expected to go from $45 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, to $90 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, to about $135 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year, and then become a recurring $140 million annual expenditure starting with the 2022-23 fiscal year.
And that's just for the planning phase. Billions more will be required to construct the hundreds of miles of limited access highways, according to the projects' critics.
Never mind that the new roads will spawn urban sprawl, lead to degradation of the environment and habitat for endangered species and turn north Florida into a copy of Central and South Florida, the projects' opponents say.