© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001
Eighteen years after its conception, the Suncoast Parkway opens to motorists today, providing a convenient commuter beltway into Tampa from Pasco and Hernando counties.
Accompanying the 42-mile, $507-million stretch of toll road in the near future will be new development -- homes and commerce centers sprouting near its exits.
Environmentalists decry the new highway as poorly planned, harmful to plants and animals, and primarily a way for landowners and commercial speculators to reap big profits.
True, the highway will change the landscape forever, and it most certainly will generate development in areas that now are little more than pastures and parishes. But the inescapable fact is that the road is desperately needed to relieve the traffic congestion in the fastest-growing area of Tampa Bay.
Whatever damage might result from construction of the parkway, it is more palatable than the alternative of entering this century with no multilaned route from heavily populated western Pasco and Hernando counties into Hillsborough.
Planners originally envisioned the parkway as a limited-access option to overcrowded and overdeveloped U.S. 19. But no vacant right-of-way existed in Pinellas County, and land acquisition costs in Spring Hill pushed the route eastward, away from the coast.
State estimates acknowledge that the Suncoast Parkway won't relieve traffic on U.S. 19. But that reality only strengthens the corridor's importance in helping to ease the number of motorists on the rest of the region's overtaxed road system.
Even more disconcerting is the uncertain future of east-west roads planned to connect to the parkway.
A dispute between the developer of Trinity Communities in southwest Pasco and the state Department of Transportation has delayed widening of State Road 54 between Trinity and Odessa.
In addition, a challenge from the Sierra Club has stalled the planned extension of Ridge Road from west Pasco to U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes.
In Hillsborough County, planners have been unable to devise an east-west route to link the burgeoning Citrus Park area with the University of South Florida and New Tampa.
And in the northernmost territory of the Suncoast, Citrus County, opposition to the second phase of the parkway, which would run from the current terminus at U.S. 98 up to U.S. 19 in Red Level, has grown from a whisper to a murmur.
Although Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Legislature have accelerated funding for engineering studies of the proposed route, no money has been committed to right-of-way purchase or construction.
If those roads are not built, the parkway's potential may never be fully realized.
The parkway is the largest expansion ever of the Florida Turnpike system, and in time it will become an important economic development factor in Pasco and Hernando counties. But the road will only ease, not solve, traffic congestion in the Tampa Bay area.
Planners and lawmakers should continue to explore other ways to move travelers to and fro, including mass transit.
At the same time, they should work diligently to strengthen growth management laws that, with proper oversight and enforcement, can prevent the sprawl so many fear will become this corridor's legacy.
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