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As parkway support grows, foes face uphill battle

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By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002

No one should be surprised that the results of a poll released last week show a clear majority of Citrus County residents favor extending the Suncoast Parkway from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to Red Level near the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

An independent survey commissioned by the Times five years ago reached the same conclusion.

The most telling story now comes from comparing the results in 2002 to those from 1997. And the analysis is not encouraging news for those who are working so hard to derail the second phase of the parkway, which the Florida Turnpike Enterprise is contemplating building sometime in a decade or so.

Consider these numbers:

Fifty percent of the respondents in the 1997 survey supported building the 26-mile extension of the toll road. Now, that number has risen to almost 60 percent. It is important to note that only 35 percent of the current respondents support the toll road unconditionally, and that 24 percent supported it on the condition that there would be a limit on damage to wetlands and wildlife.

Still, the outcome is a persuasive argument that support has grown in the past five years.

The opening of the first leg of the parkway to Hernando County, and the presumed use of it by many Citrus County residents, probably contributed to that increase. A boost in population, particularly among younger people and professionals who frequent the metropolitan Tampa Bay area and appreciate the convenience, most likely helped.

The number of people who are undecided or simply don't care if the road is built has not changed much. Twenty-five percent were undecided five years ago, and today that number has increased only slightly to 27 percent.

But the most telling statistic to compare between the surveys is the number of people who don't want the parkway. In 1997, 25 percent of the respondents firmly opposed its construction; today that number has dropped to 14 percent.

That seems to indicate that the groups organized against the parkway are failing to persuade their neighbors.

Adding credibility to the results of the most recent survey is the fact that 800 people were questioned. That's almost twice the norm for such a survey, and 488 more than the 312 people who participated in the Times-commissioned survey in 1997.

Turnpike officials won't base their decision to build the road on this survey, of course. But it is one of many factors that will help them decide.

What makes the results of this survey so discouraging to parkway opponents is that they no longer can assert that they are carrying out the grass roots will of the people. While detractors are no doubt sincere when they express concern about the impact on the environment and the big-city problems of crime and congestion the road may bring, they must admit now that most people don't share those fears.

Members of Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway are discounting the results of the recent survey and predicting that their cause will gain momentum in years to come. They may be right, but it's an understatement to say that will be an uphill battle. Not only do they have the Turnpike Authority and state Department of Transportation to contend with, they have to overcome the apathy of their neighbors as well as the clear majority, who grow more comfortable each day using the existing link to Tampa Bay.

Jim Bitter, a parkway opponent, community activist and a man who has a plausible opinion about most issues, has a good suggestion that I hope the Turnpike folks will consider, though.

Bitter suggests conducting a similar survey every year to check residents' collective pulse on this topic.

Every year might be a little much, but every few years is reasonable.

But these things cost money. Who will pay?

As one of those in the majority who, based on the available information, thinks extending the parkway is in the long-term best interest of Florida's transportation network, I think opponents should share the cost of the surveys.

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