M-CORES expressway planners must think green | Commentary
By Lee Constantine
Jan 23, 2020 | 12:01 PM
The Wekiva Parkway — a 25-mile, soon-to-be completed expressway in Central Florida — has become the gold standard in our state for how to build an environmentally responsible highway. In the past year, proponents of the three M-CORES expressways authorized for more than 300 miles of environmentally sensitive land in rural western Florida have repeatedly cited the Wekiva process as their model.
I take some pride in the Wekiva process as one of its principal architects. I led the task force that planned the Parkway, then have chaired the commission overseeing the project, an appointment I have held for 16 years under four governors. But there are some crucial and consequential differences between the successful approach we took with the Parkway and the approach, so far, with Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES).
If advocates for the new expressways want to achieve the same success we had with the Parkway, they would be wise to take note of those significant contrasts and make some changes.
The M-CORES legislation that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed last year created task forces for each of the three expressways to consider their economic and environmental impact, as well as their need, before issuing recommendations. With members appointed by Florida Secretary of Transportation Kevin Thibault, these task forces include representatives of government, business, academia and environmental groups.
In 2003, another task force made up of diverse stakeholders was appointed for the Wekiva Parkway. But here’s where the crucial and consequential differences emerge.
First, the Wekiva task force was named by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Agencies were represented by their leaders, not by deputies. These high-level, executive appointments gave the task force real clout.
Second, the task force convened before legislative authorization for the Parkway, not after. Gov. Bush challenged me as chairman and other members to reach a consensus on building the road and protecting the Wekiva River, one of just two Florida waterways designated as a National Wild and Scenic River.
Third, our meetings were guided by a simple but critical question: If, not when, we build this road, how will we protect the resource? Environmental protection was not our secondary goal; it had equal billing with building the road. This explains why the task force identified sensitive land that would have to be publicly acquired and permanently protected before the Parkway could be built. It also explains why we limited interchanges to avoid sprawl and other undesired development along the Parkway.
Fourth, the Wekiva task force’s 17 recommendations — approved 27-1 by members after months of weekly meetings — were codified in the Wekiva Parkway and Protection Act, a bill unanimously passed by the 2004 Legislature. I knew that without the force of law behind them, those recommendations could be undone in the future, jeopardizing the hard work of the task force. By contrast, any recommendations that come from the M-CORES task forces are strictly advisory under last year’s law. They can be downgraded or even dismissed by the Department of Transportation.
Finally, the law created the Wekiva River Basin Commission as a watchdog to oversee the Parkway’s construction. If not for the Commission, bad ideas that would have unraveled protections for the Wekiva, such as adding interchanges or non-conforming land uses, might not have been stopped.
It may be too late to reboot the M-CORES task force process with executive appointments, and the law authorizing the expressways has already passed. But if the Wekiva process is truly the model to which the M-CORES process aspires, the task forces can change their mindset to making environmental protection an equal priority. Also, when the task force recommendations are ready, legislators can ensure they won’t be ignored by enshrining them in law. And legislators can create a body to oversee the additional planning and construction of the expressways, and enforce the recommendations.
These improvements could potentially slow down the M-CORES process. But the wealth of resources at risk from the highways — fragile waterways, wetlands, wildlife corridors, working farms and rural communities — are more than worth any extra time and trouble.
The author, a Seminole County Commissioner, sponsored the Wekiva River Parkway and Protection Act as a Republican state senator. He is vice chairman of the Florida Conservation Coalition and a board member of 1000 Friends of Florida.