FILE - Florida Senate president Bill Galvano

Florida Senate president Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton

A multibillion dollar, decade-long proposal spearheaded by Senate President Bill Galvano to funnel funding into three long-planned but dormant toll-road projects has advanced to the Senate floor, but its adoption in the chamber as well as in the House is uncertain.

Senate Bill 7068 was unanimously approved Thursday by the Senate Appropriations Committee and now awaits presentation on the Senate floor. A House committee bill carrying the proposal has two panels to go before it is ready for a chamber vote.

SB 7068, shepherded through the committee process by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, would create the Multi-Use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) Program to “advance construction of regional corridors to accommodate multiple modes of transportation and infrastructure to revitalize rural communities, encourage job creation in those communities and provide regional connectivity.”

M-CORES would build the proposed 150-mile Heartland Parkway from Polk County to the Naples area, extend Suncoast Parkway about 150 miles north from Chassahowitzka to the Georgia state line and extend the Florida Turnpike about 40 miles west from I-75 to Suncoast Parkway.

M-CORES would be funded through annual license plate tag revenues shifted into the State Transportation Trust Fund (STTF) from the state’s general fund and several other state Department of Transportation funds.

SB 7068 calls for $45 million in fiscal year 2020 and $90 million in FY21 year and then $135 million annually through 2030 from the STTF, totaling more than $1.3 billion, to finance a state turnpike bond to pay for the bulk of the project.

According to a 24-page analysis of the 21-page bill, state law requires no more than $10 billion in bonds be outstanding to fund turnpike projects. As of June 30, 2018, the Florida Turnpike Enterprise (FTE), which manages the state’s eight turnpike systems, had $2.6 billion in outstanding bonds and its five-year capital plan includes $1.5 billion in additional bonds.

Construction would begin in 2022 and end by Dec. 31, 2030.

Much of Thursday’s Senate Commerce Committee discussion on SB 7068 focused on establishing task forces to study economic and environmental impacts of each project. The bill allocates $410 million for studies over the project’s span.

Lee said the task force groups would include a cross-section of agency stakeholders and an “appropriate conservation or community” nonprofit member and would control the process.

He said they would help recommend “where interchanges are located” and “how alignments are developed” to advise on routes that could be economically or environmentally harmful.

They would have so much authority, task forces could vote against their own M-CORES projects. “There is nothing in this legislation that is self-executing,” Lee said. The state “could easily come back with a no-build on one or more of these corridors – that’s entirely possible.”

Among issues cited by opponents – albeit, muted on the Senate side – is the possibility of spending a half-billion dollars studying projects that have already been rejected or delayed in the past without any guarantee the expenditure will lead to pouring concrete.

Galvano dismissed that concern during a news conference last week with reporters. “I think the task forces will help us plan, develop and engineer,” he said. “But the need is so overwhelming that I don’t think [dropping a project] is a possibility.”

Lee acknowledged road extensions and connectors in the M-CORES proposal have been discussed and debated before and said opposition by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club of Florida, is understandable.

“When alignment studies are done and decisions are being made, significant wildlife habitats and environmentally sensitive areas are always under consideration in these projects,” he said, suggesting the task forces will provide an opportunity for those concerns to be addressed.

Lee said the intent of the bill is to invest in lagging infrastructure to generate economic development in rural areas.

“A lot of Florida’s transportation-infrastructure funding has been directed mostly toward the urban areas in our state,” he said. “With this program that we will come up with, we are looking beyond those urban areas to some of the areas in our state that have not benefitted equally from some of the economic growth that we’ve experienced here in the state of Florida.”

The M-CORES package is geared for rural development so it won’t appeal to elected officials from urban areas, Lee said.

“If there are people that think we need to all live in an urban area and ride around on scooters, I can’t help them,” he said. “I mean, that’s just not reality.”

Galvano cheered the bill’s advance to Senate floor in a Thursday tweet.

“Pleased to see SB 7068 advance to the @FLSenate floor,” he said. “The time has come to prioritize these critical infrastructure enhancements and to combine those efforts with innovations that enhance surrounding communities, while providing new opportunities for job creation.”