SEBRING — State officials’ draft report on the Florida Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) program and a proposed Southwest-Central Florida Connector don’t support that road.

In the draft report, available at floridamcores.com, the collection of regional officials serving on the M-CORES Southwest-Central Florida Connector Task Force said they cannot recommend a new corridor between southwest and central Florida, based on the data they have now on potential need and impacts.

The Task Force, however, did identify a series of potential high-level needs for future evaluation by FDOT and ways in which FDOT should assess the need for a road like the proposed Southwest Corridor.

The report also said the statute that created M-CORES charges FDOT to adhere to the recommendations by each Task Force for design of multiple modes of transportation and multiple types of infrastructure in each corridor.

To that end, the task force has recommended an action plan for future activities in this study area.

Residents have been invited to comment online via links at floridamcores.com. The report is due to Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature by Nov. 15, before the start of the winter holidays.

The report may please people who spoke at the last M-CORES task force meeting for the Southwest to Central Florida Connector don’t want it at all. Almost to a person, those who spoke to the task force on Sept. 23 requested Task Force select and recommend the “no-build” option in its report.

Most of those residents cited the potential damage to the Florida Panther.

Chosen as state animal in 1982 by a vote of students throughout the state, the Florida Panther is a large, long-tailed, pale brown cat that grows to six feet or longer, and is considered the most endangered of all Florida’s symbols.

According to the Florida Department of State at dos.myflorida.com, the panther has been protected from legal hunting in Florida since 1958, on the federal endangered species list since 1967 and on the state’s endangered list since 1973.

The animal’s future depends entirely on management decisions made on its behalf by state agencies, primarily the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of State reports.

Human population growth remains the primary threat to the panther’s range and continues to diminish the quality of existing habitats, which is what commentators said during the M-CORES online webinar meeting.

Randy Couch, identified as a wildlife ecologist, told the task force the panther stands to lose 24% to 36% of its habitat to sea level rise in coming years.

A toll road through their geographic range would accelerate the rate of development with another 2-3 million people, and further accelerate their loss of habitat, he said.

Other people who commented on the panther said males are usually the ones killed on the road since they must move away from each other and from their parents to find hunting grounds.

Vivian Young, communications director for 1,000 Friends of Florida, said the planning process for a road of this magnitude has been circumvented by the task force process and used hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money.

“A road like this sprawls residences and commercial [development] into environmental land,” Young said.

She also said it would draw commercial development toward the road and away from any nearby downtown districts, versus helping to build up those communities.

Carol Pratt of Naples said the Legislature and FDOT would serve transportation needs better by taking the money outlined for M-CORES and putting it toward existing projects.

Instead of building one huge hurricane evacuation route, Pratt said, funds could improve local hurricane shelters, providing better protection close to home for anyone who might have to evacuate.

At its mid-September meeting, the Highlands County Board of County Commission voted unanimously for a resolution in favor of the M-CORES program, in support of a route that comes to, through, or close to Highlands County.

Commissioner Jim Brooks was quick to point out that no one yet knows whether or not a route will visit the county. No routes have been discussed in any of the previous task force meetings, and no exact routes were mapped out at the Sept. 23 task force meeting.

The county’s resolution supported a route through portions and Hendry and Glades Counties and running north through Highlands toward southern Polk County, with interchanges on State Roads 70, 66 and 64.

The resolution, also in favor of the M-CORES program, states that Highlands County’s incorporated communities and special districts support improving the county and state’s existing transportation infrastructure, along with building a new corridor.

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