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 cited the Wekiva process as their model.
I take some pride in that process as one of its architects. I chaired the task force that planned the Parkway, and I have chaired the commission overseeing it for 16 years. But there are some crucial differences between the successful approach we took with the Parkway and the approach, so far, with M-CORES.
The M-CORES legislation passed last year created task forces for the 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 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 differences emerge.
First, the Wekiva task force was named by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Agencies were represented by their leaders, not deputies.
Second, the task force convened before legislative authorization for the Parkway, not after.
Third, our meetings were guided by a critical question: If, not when, we build this road, how will we protect the resource? Environmental protection had equal billing with building the road.
Fourth, the Wekiva task force’s 17 recommendations 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 those recommendations could be undone in the future. By contrast, any recommendations from the M-CORES task forces are strictly advisory under last year’s law.
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 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 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 make environmental protection an equal priority. Legislators can ensure the task force recommendations won’t be ignored by enshrining them in law. And legislators can create a body to oversee further planning and construction of the expressways and enforce the recommendations.
These improvements might slow down the M-CORES process. But the wealth of resources at risk from the expressways — fragile waterways, wetlands, wildlife corridors, working farms and rural communities — are more than worth any extra time and trouble.
Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine 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.