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    Road’s the rage

    [Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
    Matt Santora, far right, and Susan Davis, in trench coat, join Saturday's protest against the Suncoast Parkway.

    By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


    Even when it was still two years from reality, the Suncoast Parkway lured Peter Morchy Sr. and his family from Palm Harbor to Spring Hill.

    His daily commute to downtown Tampa couldn't get much worse, because he already traversed the congested lanes of U.S. 19. A new highway connecting Spring Hill to the Veterans Expressway and ultimately to Interstate 275 promised to give him more time at home.

    Standing on the toll road's northbound lane at State Road 52 Saturday morning, Morchy said it was worth the wait. "It should cut my transit time from 11/2 hours to maybe 45 minutes," said Morchy, who works for Americana Ships.

    After 17 years of planning and 21/2 years of construction, the first 32-mile stretch of the 42-mile, $507-million toll road had its official, speech-filled kickoff Saturday. The celebration included a ribbon-cutting, parade, cake, beads and protests.

    Under cover of a tent, expressway planners and backers spoke of the highway's virtues. They said it will promote "positive growth" by controlling where development occurs. They praised its ability to make it easier for people to work, shop and visit each other from Citrus County south to Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

    "I just can't come up with any negatives of taking a group of people and making another group of people accessible to them," said Steve Simon, Pasco County Commission chairman.

    Outside the tent in the rain, about 100 protesters had a distinctly different perspective.

    Carrying signs decrying the "porkway" and wearing rubber pig snouts, the road's opponents ridiculed the notion that a four-lane highway through what had been natural habitat could benefit anyone. They considered the expressway little more than a road to urban sprawl and environmental degradation.

    The planned Suncoast extension between U.S. 98 and U.S. 19 north of Crystal River must not become reality, they said. Meanwhile, the stretch between SR 50 and U.S. 98 near the Citrus border is set to open this summer.

    "Every place does not need a tollway. Citrus County is one of those places," said Joyce Valentino of Inverness, a member of Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway. "Our presence today is to show we're not giving up."

    Representatives from the Sierra Club, which sued unsuccessfully to stop the first portion of the road, also sought to drum up opposition to the road.

    "These are some really important lands we need to protect," said Gerry Swormstedt, chairwoman of the Sierra Club Florida chapter. Noting the rain, she said, "Nature is crying. That's what's happening."

    Jim Ely, secretary of the state Turnpike District, viewed the rain as a blessing rather than an omen. Considering the lengthy drought, he said, "God bless the rain. We need it."

    He had a similar view of the Suncoast Parkway, Florida's fifth major toll road project in seven years. Ely also welcomed the protesters, adding that he looked forward to working with them in planning the extension.

    The opponents' input helped improve the Suncoast, which includes a nature-friendly bike trail, said state Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville and chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

    "We incorporated many innovations with concerns to invasiveness on the environment on this road," Russell said. But, he said, the plans for this and other roads will continue.

    "The growth is inevitable," he said. "It's very important that we work to direct that growth in a way that is responsible, and I don't mean only economically, and I think the Suncoast does that."

    Government leaders have the responsibility to ensure that they don't let development run amok, said Jim Norman, a Hillsborough County commissioner. Roads that centralize traffic and ease congestion are only the first step, he said.

    Sharlene Grant of New Port Richey, who owns a carwash on State Road 52, said she sees the positive side of the Suncoast.

    "I see it as being a benefit to the business community and the commuters who have to get down to Tampa or north to Citrus County," she said. "We've got to go somewhere."

    Her 15-year-old daughter, Ashley, said the road would allow her family to get to Tampa International Airport more quickly. It also will make it easier to get to better shopping malls, added Kelly Andrews, 16, Ashley's cousin.

    Mike Calano Sr. of unincorporated Hernando County had mixed feelings about the road.

    "It's nice it's opening, but it's also a shame. This used to be a scenic run for deer," he said. "In 1980, if you would have told me a road was coming through here, I would have looked at you and called you a liar. But the times, they are a-changing."

    And that's just fine with Morchy, who looked forward to an easier drive to Tampa on Monday. On Saturday, though, he had to take pictures as his son, Peter Jr., became the Suncoast's first official rider.

    Winner of a raffle, Peter Jr. rode in the vintage car that led the Suncoast opening parade.

    He judged the Suncoast a success: "It was a nice ride coming back and forth."

    The general public will get to make its own assessment starting at 8 a.m. today, when the Suncoast opens to traffic. Tolls will be suspended for at least two weeks.

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