Views vary on survey for Parkway
By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
LECANTO -- The survey seemed like a way to answer the long-standing question: Do Citrus County residents want Suncoast Parkway 2?
The random telephone interviews with 800 Citrus residents, conducted earlier this year by the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, showed nearly 60 percent favor extending the parkway from the Hernando County line to U.S. 19 near Red Level.
Some people said their support hinged on finding the right location or minimizing the impacts to the environment. Only 13.5 percent opposed the road outright.
"I'd say it was pretty overwhelming. There were more folks in favor of it than opposed to it," said Jack Reynolds, who represents the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce on the Suncoast Parkway 2 Advisory Group.
"I think that would tell us it's the vocal minority that we hear from opposed to the parkway," he said.
And yet, public support for Suncoast Parkway 2 remains in the eye of the beholder.
Toll road opponents say other parts of the 36-question survey show a public that has strong environmental concerns, little awareness of the road-planning process and mixed understanding of Suncoast Parkway 2.
The survey results released last month show that:
Nearly 81 percent said it was important for the Florida Department of Transportation to try to reduce the negative impacts of the parkway.
More than half (51.8 percent) admitted they had little or no knowledge about the way new roads are planned in Citrus County.
Almost as many (51.5 percent) had little or no knowledge about Suncoast Parkway 2, the proposed 26-mile extension currently under consideration.
"It seemed to me people were saying, "We don't know anything about building a road,' ' said Teddi Bierly, a member of the Citrus County Native Plant Society. "They're trusting the parkway people to build the road -- or to make the right decision about whether to build it -- and they're saying we don't want our environment ruined."
Other aspects of the survey are also open to interpretation.
For example, 58 percent of the people surveyed are relative newcomers who have moved to Citrus County since 1990.
Parkway supporters say the number reflects the population growth that is driving the need for the toll road.
"I think that growth is coming whether there is a parkway or not," said Economic Development Council president Paul Danner. "If they feel the quality of life in Citrus County is something they want, they're going to come here. We're trying to recognize there's going to be growth and try to plan now for it."
To parkway foes, however, the influx suggests a large group of residents who may know little about the Suncoast Parkway.
"I still do think there are an awful lot of new people who don't know much or anything about this road," said Janet Masaoy, chair of Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise paid $36,000 for the survey to gauge residents' attitudes on growth and transportation issues in Citrus County, project manager Carl Gibilaro said.
"It's more than coming out and saying are you for or against the Suncoast Parkway," Gibilaro said.
The survey is part of the turnpike's three-year study to determine whether the Suncoast Parkway extension should be built, and if so, where.
Aside from footing the bill, however, the Turnpike Enterprise had no hand in the telephone survey, Gibilaro said. That job fell to the Center for Urban Transportation Research in Tampa.
"We wanted to get an independent body to do this," Gibilaro said. "The way the survey was handled and the way everything was documented followed approved scientific procedures. If someone else followed the same procedures, they should come up with the same results."
Some have questioned the accuracy of an 800-person survey in a county with 118,000 residents.
But most national surveys use considerably smaller samples. Gallup Poll, for example, usually surveys 1,000 people to represent the views of 187-million American adults, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Experts say the key is selecting people at random. The Center for Urban Transportation Research used a computer that randomly dialed phone numbers with Citrus County exchanges. Gallup Poll and other surveyors use the same technology.
Some parkway opponents remain skeptical of the survey, however.
"In my mind, it's not an independent study because it was paid for by the Turnpike Enterprise and (H.W.) Lochner," the consultant conducting the three-year parkway study, COST chair Masaoy said. "I feel that there are some strings attached to the results."
Masaoy questioned the need for a survey at all, saying the Turnpike Enterprise already has a measure of the public support for the toll road.
A tally from the Feb. 6, 1997, public hearing on Suncoast Parkway 2, which drew a standing-room-only crowd to the National Guard Armory, showed 550 people opposed the project and only 79 were in favor, she said.
"The sentiment from that meeting was overwhelmingly opposed. Why are they discounting that now?" Masaoy said. "Why was there a need to have another survey?"
Because the recent turnpike survey used scientific methods, however, officials say it more accurately reflects the Citrus County population.
The survey held no surprises for Skip Christensen, president of the Sugarmill Woods Civic Association.
He conducted an informal e-mail poll in his community several months ago. About 90 percent supported the Suncoast Parkway 2, he said, mainly because it would alleviate traffic on U.S. 19.
"(The turnpike survey) didn't tell me anything I didn't already know," Christensen said. "And I don't think the survey is going to sway anybody one way or the other."
The 60-page report might be rich with information on Citrus County, but parkway supporters and opponents alike are drawing their own conclusions.
"I think there are folks who are going to be opposed to the project no matter what, and I don't think this survey is going to sway their opinion," chamber member Reynolds said. "We certainly respect and understand their opinion. But in the opinion of those in favor of the parkway, we think it will be more beneficial than detrimental to the community."
-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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