I’ve spent 10 hours over the past three days parked in front of my computer screen listening to and speaking against the roads to ruin during the M-CORES webinars. And let me tell you, webinars, at least those I was part of this week, are an ineffective way to transparently engage the public.
We are all adjusting to an augmented, social-distancing reality due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the virtual toll road task force public meetings did not serve the purpose of collecting and sharing public comments in a meaningful way. It all points to the sham that this process has been from the beginning and the need to dismantle it now.
The webinars were designed to keep the toll roads task force members engaged by prompting them to do a “homework” assignment. Their work is basically to, once again, tell the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) which areas to avoid and now, to add in “attraction” areas.
Attraction areas are defined as places where a connection to or service by an enhanced or new corridor is desired to accomplish economic, community, environmental, or other goals. Like much of this process, the purported benefits are based more on assumptions, rather than actual facts. What we do know is that roads bring more air and water pollution, fragmentation of wildlife habitat, and less choices for those that desire a rural lifestyle.
The exercise, as well as private discussions with DOT staff and consultants, will be done outside of the public view. The public was also only shown a series of text-heavy slides, not the multiple files shared with task force members beforehand.
The public comment period can best be characterized as a hot mess. Members of the public were called out and unmuted, meaning that they needed to be ready at a moment’s notice and to fully understand how to use the appropriate technology. Relying on digital technology to share public comments is inaccessible to those who are not technologically savvy or do not have access to hardware and internet. Over the three days of public comments, only about a quarter of those that signed up to speak publicly gave comments. It is unknown whether they simply didn’t log-in or whether they tried but couldn’t get through. What is also unknown is whether the task force members were still listening.
The benefits of an in-person meeting are that you can make eye contact and gauge the energy and attention of the participants. You know who has left the room or is distracted by other things. On a voice-only webinar, there is no way to know. This platform did allow some participants that could not take a day off work to drive to a remote location to speak up. But call-in comments should be a component added to in-person meetings, not a substitute.
Of the 96 people that spoke, over the three-day period, only two were in favor of the toll road. One was a gentleman from Georgia. All other comments expressed the same concerns that we’ve had all along – that the roads to ruin are bad for our water, our health, our wildlife, our agriculture, our rural communities, our climate, and our economy. Health and economy were discussed time and again, as our state looks at significant budget deficits and loss of life.
I don’t fault DOT for hosting the webinar; it has its marching orders to proceed with this disastrous project. But with a global pandemic and a changing world, it’s time to exit this sham of a process and invest our money in what really matters: improving the health and safety of our community members, protecting our natural environment, and fixing crumbling infrastructure that people actually use, rather than causing more destruction.
We have a long road ahead. Can we count on you to help us fight against the Roads to Ruin? We value Conservation Voters’ investment in Florida’s land, water, climate, and democracy, and stopping these roads in their tracks is CRUCIAL to conserving our state. Thank you for staying active and engaged, and supporting our work to protect our water, wildlife, and rural communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating how vulnerable our state is. Research from Harvard University’s School of Public Health has shown a link between poorer air quality and increased mortality from COVID-19. Abundant and clean freshwater is critical for us to maintain good personal hygiene. And maintaining a supply of local food from our Florida farms can enhance our food security. All of these will be in jeopardy if we build this road to ruin.
The benefits that are promised to small rural communities in the path of destruction, like broadband, come with too many strings attached. Levy County Commission recently took the bold and brave step of passing a No Build resolution this month because the residents there understand that the costs greatly outweigh the lauded benefits, which are based more on assumption than fact. Residents in other counties are also speaking up. Please listen to them. They know what is right for their community.
Our state will be grappling with a budget deficit and economic uncertainty for years to come. The legislature and FDOT have never been able to show that this project is economically viable. During good economic times, this project was wasteful and unnecessary. Now, during a global health and economic crises, building these roads would be negligent.
Task Force members: as you are challenged to look at avoidance and attraction areas, the homework should actually be quite easy – color the entire area in dark magenta (avoidance). The only thing we can guarantee that this project will attract is more destruction of our natural areas, degradation of our water resources, and the dismantling of their rural lifestyles.
As always, and even more so now, the only responsible option is NO BUILD.