County loses highway money
By JAMES THORNER
© St. Petersburg Times,
Pasco County has lost $7.5-million in state money it needs to complete Ridge Road Extension, the 8.6-mile highway touted as a crucial hurricane evacuation route between the gulf coast and the county's interior.
Kevin Thibault, a manager with the Florida Turnpike, said Pasco still could reapply for the money, first promised in 1997 to pay for Ridge Road's interchange with the Suncoast Parkway. But the county would have to compete anew with other turnpike projects, Thibault said.
"That opportunity's gone, unfortunately," Thibault said of the $7.5-million included in the state budget year ending June 30. "Funds could be available (again) July 1, 2002."
The county had hoped to start highway construction last year, synchronizing its efforts with the opening of the Suncoast Parkway this past February. The extension road would connect Moon Lake Road in New Port Richey with U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes.
But a challenge from environmentalists, led by Citizens for Sanity and the Sierra Club, persuaded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Southwest Florida Water Management District to withhold construction permits.
The receipt of the $7.5-million was contingent upon Pasco's starting construction of Ridge Road by June 30 of this year.
"That's what it's all about. We had all the agencies lined up. The Sierra Club came on the scene and the agencies backed off," County Administrator John Gallagher said. "It was out of our control."
State Rep. Mike Fasano, who helped broker the $7.5-million for Pasco, disagreed in a letter to the county commissioners dated Monday.
While acknowledging the environmental delays, Fasano blamed the county for postponing the project so long that it gave environmentalists a chance to obstruct.
Environmentalists, concerned about the thousands of acres that the $25-million highway would open to development, consider Ridge Road Extension an invitation to suburban sprawl.
"In my opinion, had the county moved forward in an aggressive manner, they wouldn't have the problems they have today," Fasano said.
The proposed corridor for Ridge Road Extension runs beneath an overpass of the Suncoast Parkway.
The $7.5-million was to have paid for ramps and toll booths between the two highways.
Thibault said Gallagher could build the extension without the interchange, relying on the future generosity of the state to build the ramps.
"He's got a corridor . . . he's got a window to build it through," Thibault said.
That solution might disappoint residents of west Pasco neighborhoods such as River Ridge, some of whom have lobbied for the interchange to shorten their drive to Tampa.
Gallagher said environmentalists could string out construction of Ridge Road another three years, so he's not worried about losing the $7.5-million this budget year.
Fasano agreed -- with qualifications.
"The interchange will eventually come," he said.
"But it's going to come a lot later and cost a lot more for the taxpayers."
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