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The Southwest-Central Florida Connector would run about 140 miles, from Polk County to Naples. (Credit: WINK News Drone)

Southwest-Central Florida Connector road project in jeopardy

A group is fighting to make changes to a controversial road project, saying it could affect more wildlife than first thought.

No Roads to Ruin, a coalition of more than 100 organizations, says that in addition to the impact on the habitat of Florida panthers, the Southwest-Central Florida Connector could affect manatees and water quality. It would run about 140 miles, from Polk County to Naples.

The opposition comes as lawmakers in Tallahassee are talking about eliminating funding for the road, which would relieve traffic and provide more hurricane evacuation routes.

State Sen. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), chair of the state transportation committee, says it will cost billions and she just doesn’t know if it’s worth it, especially right now. She has introduced a bill – SB 100 – that may put a halt to some expensive toll roads throughout the state due to financial reasons from the pandemic. The bill would basically repeal legislation passed in 2019 to build those roads.

“When this was proposed two years ago, it was a very bold initiative,” she said.

“We are looking at how we can reenvision our existing roads and using the environmental footprint that already exists without creating problems.”

It doesn’t, however, include any projects in Southwest Florida.

“Most of the emphasis is in more of the northern part of the state … right now, the Polk-Collier is not on the agenda,” Harrell said.

Michael McGrath, who belongs to the Sierra Club and the No Roads to Ruin Coalition, says that’s why their coalition can’t fully support the new bill.

“We won’t be satisfied until we see the full removal and stopping of all three,” he said.

“Right now it only removes the south connector, but it still fails to remove the northern turnpike extension that would go through parts of Central Florida.”

McGrath says it cuts right through the heart of panther habitat.

“These are some of the most environmentally sensitive lands in our state,” he said. “It will be the nail in the coffin for the Florida panther.”

The proposed bill goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

RELATED
Southwest-Central Florida Connector interactive map

Reporter:Taylor Smith
Writer:Jackie Winchester
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