Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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M-CORES: Paving Over Rural Florida

Rural Florida "says no" by Jesse Wilson; Observer Graphic

As Floridians endure a public health crisis that has resulted in a 10.4% unemployment rate and grave economic uncertainty, Governor Ron DeSantis has slashed more than $1 billion from the 2020-2021 state budget.

None-the-less, the state is continuing to fast-track a reckless and unpopular plan to construct three new toll roads through rural and wild Florida. I wonder why.   

The state will spend $738 million over the next five years just to plan for these new toll roads. The cost to build the roads is unknown, but estimates are $20 billion dollars plus. 

The plan is called “M-CORES, Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance. It was signed into law by Gov. DeSantis in 2019. There are three toll roads: the Suncoast Connector, the Northern Turnpike Connector, and the Southwest Central Connector.

These toll roads are being sold on the promise that they will bring increased broadband access, water quality improvements, and economic development.  

I am involved with the process because Levy County falls within the proposed areas for two of the proposed toll roads, the Suncoast and the Northern Turnpike connectors. I cannot disagree more with the M-CORES sales pitch.

These roads are not needed and stand to ruin many of the diminishing parts of Florida’s natural and rural past which make areas like Levy County so special and so important.

As a Levy County Commissioner, I represent 41,503 residents. We are proud of our rich agricultural and environmental assets. We are known for our timber, cattle, peanuts and watermelon. Our clamming industry is nationally recognized. 

Our County’s environmental treasures include Goethe State Forest, Cedar Key Preserve, Gulf Hammock State Management Area, the Lower Suwannee River and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges, and the Suwannee River delta.

The M-CORES plan not only ignores those natural and economic cornerstones of our County, but puts our entire County’s identity at risk.

This spring, when the COVID-19 crisis was breaking, I presented a resolution to the Board of County Commissioners to take a formal position against the M-CORES plan to prevent it from destroying Levy County with new roads and the subsequent suburban sprawl.

The resolution, with the support of the community, passed 3-2. Subsequently, the resolution was transmitted to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

The FDOT chaired and controlled task forces have neither officially recognized nor honored the County Commission’s formal position despite repeated assurances from FDOT officials that local government positions on the roads will be respected.

Do we matter or are we an afterthought because we are rural? As a county, we are being pushed around. Don’t we have a say in our future?

The City of Cedar Key also passed a “No Build” resolution and recently, Alachua County unanimously passed a “No Build” resolution. We need our neighboring counties to join with us to protect our rural way of life. We need our elected officials and government agencies to acknowledge our concerns.

Part of the problem with the state’s continued fast tracking is its rigid timeline coupled with the fact that day-long, in-person meetings have been replaced with three-hour virtual meetings. These virtual meetings have been fraught with uncertainty surrounding technical glitches, lack of public involvement and the inability of task force members to have a constructive conversation about the issues and concerns with M-CORES. 

For ten months, the task force members were not receiving the public’s feedback from FDOT and countless and repetitive meetings have been seen by many as dog and pony shows, having left the public feeling fatigued.

The M-CORES task force process has been flawed from the beginning due to location and scheduling. The virtual meetings got off to a rough start and it does seem that DOT has done a lot to cure the virtual defects.

In both the in-person and virtual meetings, opposition has been strong and speakers in support of the M-CORES have been few-and-far between.

The people who live and work in the rural areas and those who visit these areas to get away from the sprawl are overwhelmingly against the toll roads. 

So far, there is no demonstrated need for these new roads.

The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted our county and state revenues and our priorities should change in response.

I call on the other local governments and the Task Force members to stand up and say, “Enough is enough.”

“We will not stand back and let the state pave over our future.”

Lilly Rooks is a 22 yr. Levy County Commissioner and a resident of Cedar Key. She believes these roads "will separate people and communities."

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