DADE CITY — Despite the eye-popping cost and the objections of a former regional land manager, county commissioners this week approved up to $1.2 million in extra studies for the long-sought extension to Ridge Road.
The traffic and wildlife studies are in response to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is weighing whether to issue a wetland permit for the proposed 8-mile road linking heavily populated west Pasco with the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 41 at Connerton.
The corps began reviewing the project in 1998 but essentially asked the county to start over last year. Federal officials argue the county did not fully vet alternatives to the road and that its studies of threatened wildlife in the area are too old.
The biggest complaint from environmentalists? The 2-mile portion that cuts through the 6,500-acre Serenova preserve. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency objects to the project in its current form because of potential damage to the tract's wetlands.
At a Wednesday commission meeting, the project drew sharp criticism from Kevin Love, who spent 35 years as the land management director for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
"There are a couple of really good reasons why this thing has been going for 15 years and $8 million and we're still at the starting line," he said. "The reason it's taken us so long to get back to the starting line is just it's a bad idea and a bad product."
He added: "By severing one of the county's natural treasures, Serenova, you will irreparably diminish its ecological and hydrologic function."
Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker noted that Serenova was once slated for a massive development with thousands of homes. She said the road was planned before the land was preserved as part of the deal to build the Suncoast.
"We have objectors who believe that we should not be putting a road through a preserve," she said. "In my opinion, we have preserved land around a road."
Baker called it the county's "last chance" to build a major east-west highway in addition to State Roads 52 and 54. The county has long argued the road would provide another option for people to move inland during a major storm.
"There is a tremendous need for this road," Baker told commissioners. "I would beg of you to stay the course for the future of Pasco County and for the safety of your residents who live along the coast."
Many in the business community say the road is key to accommodating future growth.
"The notion of not having Ridge Road coming through the county and making this vital connection … is crazy," said engineering consultant Pat Gassaway. "Those that do not think so put the interests of the environment above the interests of the human beings that we are here to serve."
Commissioner Pat Mulieri said she believes the county can balance environmental concerns with the need for the road.
"My only problem with Ridge Road, it just seems like it's a black hole, a money pit," she said. "We just can't seem to get it going."
Love, the former Swiftmud official, said the road's design would not minimize threats to wildlife.
"All the culverts and all the wildlife underpasses aren't going to solve that," he said. "Most critters aren't going to go under a 300 foot tunnel."
The biggest portion of the additional cost, roughly $514,000, is for updated wildlife studies. Another $216,000 would be spent on traffic studies, and $165,000 would create a mitigation plan to compensate for the road's environmental damage. Baker said she hopes the work can be completed by spring.
Commissioners unanimously agreed to pay for those studies and keep trying for the Ridge Road permit. Though he fears the corps will continue delaying the project, Commissioner Jack Mariano said, "We can clearly show we need another evacuation road."
Lee Logan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6236.