Legislators say they have Florida’s future in mind when they tout a plan to build three new toll roads through the state.

If they genuinely want to help, they would abandon that pie-in-the-sky project and build a digital highway that will really bring Florida into the 21st century.

We’re talking about expanding broadband capacity to the neediest parts of the state. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a reliable internet system is no longer a luxury.

Education, business, healthcare and economic development are increasingly dependent on broadband. But in rural Florida communities, too many students can’t go online to learn. Too many doctors can’t take advantage of the tele-health revolution.

Too many people have trouble simply getting food delivered during a pandemic because their Lyft or Uber apps don’t work.

Studies show at least 10% of Florida’s population — roughly 2 million people — don’t have sufficient broadband capacity. They aren’t in Orlando or Miami. They’re in rural counties that typically have the state’s highest poverty rates.

These people need a broadband upgrade much more than a new slab of asphalt running through a nearby pasture. But that’s the 330-mile remedy being cooked up by legislators with the M-CORES project.

They rushed through a bill in 2019 approving construction of three toll roads through remote stretches of the western peninsula by 2030. It would be the state’s largest infrastructure project in a half-century.

Details were sketchy then, and they’re not much clearer after months under the magnifying glass.

Task forces were formed to study each of the proposed segments. The reports they submitted last week said toll roads aren’t needed right now, but studies will continue as the state develops specific construction plans.

There’s no doubt Florida needs a long-term growth management plan. But M-CORES has too many unresolved environmental, demographic and other concerns to fit that bill.

Proponents like former Senate President Bill Galvano are still pushing M-CORES as the foundation of the state’s growth plan. One of their biggest talking point is how it would bring “broadband expansion.”

It’s sort of like a car salesman saying buy a $4 billion car and we’ll throw in broadband floor mats.

Don’t be fooled.

“The Task Force recognized that a new transportation corridor is not a prerequisite for broadband deployment,” the Northern Turnpike Task Force reported.

In simple terms, if a community can get electricity, it can get broadband. Fiber optic cables, utility poles, cell towers and other equipment still must be put in place.

That would be easier with a massive road-building project. But building a reliable internet system does not depend on building a turnpike. And broadband expansion would be a lot cheaper than that turnpike.

It’s impossible to say exactly how much cheaper because nobody knows how much M-CORES will ultimately cost. Estimates range from $4 billion to $24 billion.

It’s also hard to say how much broadband expansion in Florida would cost. But one study showed the entire U.S. (not counting Alaska) could be adequately wired for $19 billion.

The main thing keeping internet service providers from expanding is it’s not a good business decision. There’s simply not enough return on investment in areas that don’t have many customers.

The only way to change that is through public-private partnerships where costs are shared. That’s the approach other states are taking, and most are doing it with far more urgency than Florida.

South Carolina just designated $50 million in CARES Act funding to broadband expansion. Illinois is spending $420 million over the next four years to upgrade its system.

Florida passed a bill creating an “Office of Broadband” this year. The measure threw in $5 million to the M-CORES project for broadband expansion.

Again, there’s no telling what the final M-CORES price tag will be. But the 2019 bill allocates about $135 million a year for the next decade. Most people in rural Florida would rather that money be spent of fiber optic wire.

The task forces sought public input, and a study of 10,000 responses showed 93% of the people opposed the M-CORES plan. They care far more about dependable internet service, so much so that one task force recommended the state consider making that an entirely separate project.

Legislators shouldn’t just study that idea. They should run with it.

Broadband is quickly becoming almost as vital as electricity and running water. Its expansion shouldn’t be tied to a potential boondoggle that won’t be completed for at least 10 years.

Legislators need to realize Florida’s digital future has already arrived. And right now they are leaving the state’s most needy citizens stranded by the side of a very long road.

An editorial from the Orlando Sentinel.