Editorial: Interior road network shouldn’t be rushed into existence, or dismissed entirely

Editorial Board
 |  Naples Daily News

There shouldn’t be a headlong rush to build miles of new toll roads through the interior of Florida.

And based on reports sent this week to Gov. Ron DeSantis, there isn’t.

That affords us the opportunity to reflect on the pros and cons of three separate toll road projects that have been under study in what is known collectively as the Multiuse Corridors of Regional and Economic Significance, or M-CORES.

One, a proposal to improve the transportation corridor from Collier County northward to Polk County, merits our particular consideration.

As was the case with the other two study areas, the task force looking at the Southwest-Central Florida Connector found it didn’t have enough data to complete its mission of evaluating the need for and impacts of the road. It found more study is needed, and we concur.

Fears by some in the environmental community that the task forces were a mechanism to accelerate the M-CORES concept have not come to fruition.

That being said, it is important to note that the task force also didn’t dismiss the idea.

That too, is important.

All of us might wish Florida’s relatively undisturbed interior would remain relatively undisturbed, but that isn’t likely to happen. More people are moving to Florida every day.

A walk outside Tuesday, when reports of the task force findings appeared on the front page of the newspaper, tells you why. The balmy climate is a people magnet. Tuesday was just as pleasant in LaBelle as it was in Pelican Bay.

The favorable tax environment is another.

More: Collier commissioners show M-CORES support, with conditions

More: Task force navigates Florida panther protection during toll road meeting

We could go on, but suffice to say Florida needs to be prepared for growth. The study puts the current population of the nine-county area at 2.3 million, which is expected to grow by 30 percent over the next 25 years.

It stands to reason many of those new residents will locate inland, where land is cheaper.

The state could opt for the “don’t build it and they won’t come” approach, but that has proved impractical when tried along the coast. They come anyway.

We have heard and been part of discussions for decades over how to change the calculus in Immokalee to make it something more than a farming community infamous for dilapidated housing and low wages.

The task force forecasts that economic changes brought about by the pandemic mean people will opt more and more for home delivery of products.   

A better road network, one that would allow Immokalee to take full advantage of its airport as a cargo destination able to accommodate trucks that could serve all of southern and Central Florida, would be an asset in that new reality.

If we’re serious about improving economic opportunity in Immokalee, we have to recognize a better road network is essential.

The preference of the task force that existing road corridors be expanded or improved is an important element of its report.

There’s no need to create new corridors out of what is now farmland or environmentally sensitive areas.

The M-CORES concept, if it comes about, includes aspirations for improved broadband internet service, something the task force says is lacking in the rural areas.

The task force also directs the Florida Department of Transportation to look for ways to reduce the reliance on septic tanks in the interior as it considers road projects. That would help solve water quality issues that plague the interior.

Better hurricane evacuation, access to jobs and medical care go along with the sort of smart growth the task force recommends.

None of this will be cheap or easy. Nor will it be quick.

Next steps include evaluating the need in the various sectors of M-CORES, looking at financial viability and narrowing down specific routes.

The Southwest Florida task force, which included Collier County Commissioners Bill McDaniel and Penny Taylor, Naples City Council member Mike McCabe, and Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, met 13 times over 15 months before producing its report. More than 1,000 people attended those meetings, and more than 14,000 submitted original or form letters on the topic.

We encourage the Legislature and FDOT to continue with this deliberative and transparent approach as the next steps occur. Florida’s future is worth the extra time and effort.

Brent Batten wrote this for the Naples Daily News editorial board.

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