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Hernando commission's vote for Quarry Preserve puts us on hook for roads

We could just focus on Commissioner Jeff Stabins. In 2004, he ran as a champion of smart growth, but on Tuesday voted for the massive Quarry Preserve development — even though the county's planning staff listed five different ways it could qualify as urban sprawl.

Or we could look at new commission Chairman John Druzbick. In a 2008 election dominated by the last-minute soft-money contributions of Realtors, developers and builders, he benefited more than anyone. Maybe, when he voted for the Quarry, this was fresh in his mind.

But I'd say the most interesting vote in favor of the plan to build a new city, one that will supposedly draw as many as 13,000 folks to an old mining pit 6 miles north of downtown Brooksville, was cast by the self-proclaimed budget hawk, Commissioner Jim Adkins.

Because a vote for the Quarry — or technically, forwarding its plan for state review, as the commission did on Tuesday — could end up putting the county on the hook for $83 million to widen roads.

Here's how:

The state generally requires developers to pay for their projects' impacts on roads (other stuff, too, but roads are usually the biggest expense, especially in the case of middle-of-nowhere projects such as this one, which require miles of new asphalt).

The share of the Quarry's developer, an offshoot of property owner Florida Rock Industries, will probably be about $50 million — a huge but seemingly fair amount for such a monster development.

Also, the law says developers don't have to pay to ease existing traffic problems. That sounds fair, too, of course, but this is where it gets complicated.

Because if we add the Quarry's traffic into our current, strained road network, we come up with $133 million in needed improvements. Subtract the developer's contribution and, cha-ching, we arrive at the aforementioned $83 million.

Let's start with U.S. 98, the two-lane artery that will take traffic to and from the Quarry. As it stands now, the county doesn't plan to spend a dime in the next 25 years on widening this or any other road north of State Road 50, says county transportation planning coordinator Dennis Dix.

Yes, even without the Quarry, U.S. 98 would get a little bit crowded. But compared to the brewing traffic mess in and around Spring Hill, the slight congestion there is something we could live with.

But if the Quarry is built — and I still hope the current, relatively hard-nosed leadership at the state Department of Community Affairs won't let that happen — the county will have no choice but to widen much of U.S. 98 from two to four lanes. The estimated cost is $66 million. Even if every penny of the Quarry's contribution goes for that purpose, the county will be left with a $16 million bill.

Now on to SR 50, the next biggest item on the transportation improvement list. It's farther away from the Quarry than U.S. 98 and currently carries far more traffic from far more sources. And the state has already committed to widening long stretches of the highway from four to six lanes.

So we're okay there, right?

No, because residents from the Quarry will no doubt drive down to the commercial hub at SR 50 and Mariner Boulevard and surrounding stores and medical offices. On some stretches of SR 50, just as on U.S. 98, this takes congestion from tolerable to intolerable levels — or at least levels we wouldn't want to tolerate.

The county planners' report identifies $61 million worth of improvements on SR 50 that would be needed with the Quarry and that weren't planned without it.

Where will all this money come from? Well, certainly the county doesn't have it, according to County Administrator David Hamilton, who took the unusual step of writing a letter to the commissioners before their vote to say just that. That means that if the plans for the Quarry ever do come to pass (a rather big if, considering current market conditions) we might not pay in dollars but in hours sitting in traffic.

As I started to say up top, there are lots of reasons that supporting the Quarry Preserve project is a bad idea. And there are just as many reasons to congratulate commissioners Rose Rocco and David Russell for their "no" votes, even if election-year political considerations might have played a part.

But this is what I'll remember most from the Quarry vote; this is the figure I'll keep in mind when I hear Jim Adkins quibbling about the cost of, say, picnic tables at a county park: $83 million.

Hernando commission's vote for Quarry Preserve puts us on hook for roads 01/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 14, 2010 5:19pm]
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