ACTION ALERT - Attend the March 25 Meeting of the Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force in Ocala to Comment on the Proposed Toll Road

This Action Alert was distributed via email to members of the Villages, Marion Big Scrub and Sumter Chapters because the Ocala meeting location is local for them, relative to members of other chapters.  However, the scale and scope of the proposed M-CORES toll roads makes them relevant to all Florida residents.  If you wish to attend the meeting and submit comments, or otherwise provide comments to FDOT, details are provided below.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has scheduled a meeting of the Northern Turnpike Connector Task Force for 10:00-4:00 on Wednesday, March 25, at the Hilton Ocala (3600 SW 36th Avenue) in Ocala.  You are receiving this Action Alert because you are a member of either the Villages, Sumter, or Marion Big Scrub Chapter of FNPS and therefore live near the meeting location, and within or near the study area for the proposed toll road. If so, the 40-mile road would impact your community and quality of life directly.  It also means this may be your best, most convenient opportunity to speak directly to the Task Force members appointed to provide guidance to FDOT on if, and where, the road should be built.   If you have an opinion about this massive project, let them hear it from you in person, during the public comment period that starts at 4:00 pm.
If you aren’t familiar with the project, you can review the basics in a report we published in the Sabal minor 21(6) or at the M-CORES website. We have provided some possible talking points below.  The impacts of a project like the Northern Turnpike Connector M-CORES toll road would be so massive and broad in scope, they extend far beyond our FNPS mission to speak for native plant conservation.  If you choose to comment on the project, whether in person at the Task Force meeting or by email to FDOT.Listens@dot.state.fl.us , comment on something specific you care about.  Public sentiment is against the roads based on comments expressed at the meetings, and it appears to be resonating with some Task Force members.
The public comment period on March 25 is scheduled to begin at 4:00, and speakers are limited to 3 minutes.  So plan your comments in advance.  Share your most serious concerns, and let them know if you live in the area and would be affected directly.  Everyone who submits a speaker form will be allowed to speak; however, the submittal of speaker forms begins at the 10:00 start of the meeting, and speakers will be called in the order forms are received beginning at 4:00.
The Florida Native Plant Society is continuing to assess the potential impacts of the M-CORES projects on native plants and other sensitive natural resources.  FDOT has released a “Draft Avoidance Areas Map that identifies conservation lands the road would not impact.  You can download the map, and other documents describing the project, at https://floridamcores.com/event/northern-turnpike-connector-task-force-meeting-4/#documents.  If there is a natural area in the Study Area that is special to you, it may well be in the crosshairs of the future highway and the development it is intended to promote.  A list of possible talking points is provided below.  If you share our concerns, or have others of your own as a potentially affected resident, please try to attend the Task Force meeting in Ocala on March 25.
Consider the following:
  1. Nearly 1.2 million acres of protected conservation land, and more than 158,000 acres of land in already-approved Florida Forever projects, is located in the Northern Turnpike Connector Study Area, underscoring the immense conservation value of this region.
  2. Agriculture’s contribution to our economy is second only to tourism. The Northern Turnpike Connector Study Area encompasses a huge swath of Florida’s agricultural land base, including commercial forests and ranchland that are indispensable to maintaining connectivity among existing conservation lands in the region.  Some of those privately owned forests and ranches have been proposed for protection as approved Florida Forever projects and more than 28,000 acres are approved for protection as Rural and Family Lands Program projects,
  3. More than half of the 2.5 million acre Study Area consists of fire-dependent plant community or fire-maintained agricultural land.  A major highway bisecting the length of the region would compromise huge investments in land conservation, and productivity in affected ranches, forests and cropland, by reducing the long-term ability to conduct essential prescribed burns.  Imperiled species and natural communities, and economically valuable agricultural, could suffer to accommodate a road that does not satisfy any identified transportation need – even if they have already been “conserved’ through public investment. 
  4. Claims that the roads would bring important infrastructure, like high speed internet, to isolated rural areas and help address hurricane evacuation needs are questionable. High speed internet and other utilities could be extended to rural areas without investing billions on unneeded roads, and Florida’s Department of Emergency Management prefers improved evacuation planning that would allow evacuees to remain close to home as a safer and more cost-effective solution than building new roads.
  5. The Florida Department of Transportation’s systematic approach to planning for our transportation future has not identified a need for these roads, which could cost more than $30 billion to build – not including right-of-way acquisition!  Current data from the Turnpike Authority indicates toll receipts would not come anywhere close to covering debt service on the bonds required to finance a project of this scale.  Which transportation projects already vetted on the basis of need and available funding will be shelved to free up funding for M-CORES roads?  Which other pressing needs will go unaddressed? Siphoning billions from FDOT’s budget to study and build unnecessary toll roads would require painful – and unnecessary! - tradeoffs.
  6. Our utter dependence on roads and the internal combustion engine to meet most of our transportation needs requires a paradigm shift that recognizes the reality of climate change.  We must invest in the infrastructure of the future.  The transportation network of the future will be different, and a toll road like the Northern Turnpike Connector would be antiquated before construction is even completed.
  7. FNPS has adopted a formal policy on the development of transportation infrastructure, and M-CORES does not meet the basic premise that new roads must be justified by a valid transportation need. See the full text of the policy, which may provide you with additional points to consider, at https://www.fnps.org/assets/pdf/pubs/policy_transportation.pdf.
If you are unable to attend the March 25 meeting of the Task Force, you can email your concerns to FDOT at  FDOT.Listens@dot.state.fl.us .  However, the power of your comments can be greater when speaking your concerns in person, directly to those involved in the decision-making process, and this will be your best opportunity to attend a meeting in your own “neighborhood”.
Bottom line: moving forward with the M-CORES Northern Turnpike Connector project would require the expenditure of billions on a toll road that would not meet any real transportation need in the name of promoting economic development. Millions of acres of natural greenspace and agricultural land are at risk from the M-CORES projects.  Projects of this scale need to be the subject of careful deliberation, yet even a cursory assessment raises profound doubts about the need for, and wisdom of, such a road.

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