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All await state's move on parkway extension

Studies must be performed and money allocated, but all signs indicate the state will build the leg between U.S. 98 and U.S. 19. That is, unless environmentalists succeed in stopping the plan.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2001


LECANTO -- Now it's Citrus County's turn. Or is it?

That's the big question these days when it comes to the Suncoast Parkway.

Part of the road in Pasco and Hernando counties is open. The remaining leg, stretching north to U.S. 98 near the Citrus border, should be ready in the coming months. The north-south toll road will serve as a shortcut between metropolitan Tampa Bay and the Nature Coast -- and beyond.

After the parkway's first phase is up and running, all eyes will turn to Citrus. Will the state build an extension between U.S. 98 and U.S. 19 north of Crystal River? If so, when?

The state isn't answering that question yet. But last year, the Legislature, at Gov. Jeb Bush's request, allocated $47-million to accelerate planning.

That doesn't mean the Citrus leg definitely is a go. State planners still must complete environmental studies and perform a cost analysis. Transportation planners have not set aside a dime for construction.

Still, all signs indicate that the state will elect to build the Citrus leg. And that is fine by county commissioners, who have long said that, if the parkway is built to U.S. 98, then the state should build the proposed Citrus leg.

Otherwise, the commissioners have said, the road will dump traffic onto U.S. 19 and clog Homosassa and Crystal River.

While on the campaign trail last year, commissioner Vicki Phillips probably best summarized the commission's collective thought on the parkway: Citrus should make certain it properly monitors commercial development along the proposed parkway corridor, protects the environment and widens nearby county roads as necessary.

"I am committed to seeing that it comes with the least amount of impact to Citrus County," Phillips said.

That logic is lost on Janet Masaoy, a Pine Ridge resident and head of Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway Inc., known as COST.

"The road is not needed," Masaoy said.

Masaoy said the state's traffic projections are notoriously wrong. Even if they were accurate, she said, the numbers wouldn't justify building the Citrus leg. Besides, the road is guaranteed to cause environmental harm, hurt endangered species and inspire unnecessary and destructive urban sprawl.

The opening of the parkway's first phase is a disappointment for Masaoy. "Our goal always has been to stop Project 1 at the Veterans (Expressway). Our thrust has always been to do that," she said.

Still, she said there is reason for hope.

The Sierra Club and its attorney, Lesley Blackner, have battled the state in court for months, saying the state didn't proceed properly when planning and building the parkway's first phase. Sierra didn't get into court until after bulldozers started moving dirt on the parkway's first phase, but the club still has pressed on.

There will be plenty of time to fight the Citrus leg.

"I wouldn't say we're discouraged. We have the support of the Sierra Club and Lesley Blackner," Masaoy said. "We are not going to be behind the curve. We will fight this fight before the construction starts.

"I'm disappointed that it's opening because it will allow growth in those wetlands areas."

Among those advocating construction of the Citrus leg, aside from the county commissioners, is Don Crane, president of the non-profit group Floridians for Better Transportation.

Crane, whose group is based in St. Petersburg, is a former state legislator and a former member of the Florida Road Board, which is the predecessor of the state Transportation Commission.

Through the years, Crane repeatedly has noted that Citrus growth will continue and that people who wish to stop it will be unsuccessful. Road planning is part of responsible growth planning, Crane has said.

Crane said that, if U.S. 41 and U.S. 19 had been built as controlled-access roads, there would be no need for the Suncoast Parkway. But that obviously was not the case. Thus Crane, who has lived in Florida since 1950, said the state has "full justification" to build the Citrus leg.

"I understand fully that there are a lot of people up there who say they don't care about the economics. They are just happy the way they are," he said.

But Crane said that vision is short-sighted. For one, he said the parkway will enable high-income Tampa Bay workers to live in Citrus and commute to their jobs; such a development would help the local tax base.

"I look at this as an economic opportunity to do higher-end developments, whether they are commercial or residential," Crane said.

And besides, Crane said, growth is coming, anyway. Better to build the infrastructure ahead of time and then keep a close eye on local government, whose zoning and land-use decisions will determine more than anything whether the road is useful or a harbinger of bad things.

"The question is: Can we do it right?"

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