As activists battle with the county over whether to extend Ridge Road through a major environmental preserve, there remains an issue that's difficult to nail down: How much would the road cost?
A public notice issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week lists the road's cost at $101 million and says Pasco has $132 million set aside for the project. But the county argues those figures don't tell the whole story. Falling construction prices over the past several years have dropped the total project's cost to $83 million, county officials said.
As with other road projects, cost estimates can fluctuate based on volatile construction prices. Lately, those prices are down because of a slow economy. As contractors compete for scarce business, many of them are willing to cut into their profits to find work.
"The bids from the last two or three years have been very competitive," said Deborah Bolduc, the county's engineering services program administrator.
Of course the trend will likely work in reverse when the economy picks up. Michele Baker, the chief assistant county administrator, said that's all the more reason to move quickly on the project.
"If we were to build sooner rather than later, we would enjoy good construction costs," she said.
Plans have been on hold for more than a decade as the county waits for an environmental permit from the Corps. The limited-access road would cut through the 6,000-acre Serenova Wilderness Preserve, which was set aside to compensate for wetland destruction as a result of building the Suncoast Parkway.
That's the biggest complaint from environmentalists who oppose the project. But they also say the county is understating the cost.
The Citizens for Sanity group in 2006 released a cost estimate using state Department of Transportation figures that pegs the cost at $300 million. The biggest difference is a much higher construction cost and an $84 million price tag for stormwater management. A spokesman for the group said they have not updated those figures to reflect current construction prices.
Baker said that stormwater figure is "not even close," and that the county included those expenses in its estimates.
The $132 million figure in the Corps' public notice comes from a December 2009 long-range transportation plan released by Pasco's Metropolitan Planning Organization. The $101 million construction estimate is also pegged to 2009 average costs released by the state DOT.
The county has already spent $6.5 million on the project. That includes money for design and engineering, as well as for environmental studies and for past consultants to help with securing permits.
But construction costs have been the hardest to nail down. Five years ago, for example, the county expected to spend nearly $147 million to build the 8-mile road. That figure is down to $64 million.
The county also estimates it will spend between $5 million and $7 million for environmental mitigation.
To compensate for destroying 59 acres of wetlands, the county plans to preserve 220 acres of swampland between the River Ridge subdivision and the Jay B. Starkey Wilderness Park. It would also set aside one of three larger tracts: an 830-acre strip of the 4G Ranch, 519 acres known as the Crockett Lake tract, or 881 acres of the Starkey Ranch near Trinity.
Despite the changing price tag, Baker said the Corps is focused on environmental concerns, not cost.
"That's not their purview," she said. "It's up to (county commissioners) to figure out how can we afford to build that road."
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.