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Pasco's Ridge Road Extension proposal could see action this year

Last Tuesday marked a milestone for the proposed Ridge Road Extension: Exactly 10 years had passed since federal officials declared Pasco's permit application ready for review.

Ten years brought a lot of things for the proposed east-west highway — objections from environmentalists, a price tag that ballooned from $25 million to $129 million, enough paperwork to take up a third of a federal official's desk — but it has not yet brought a permit.

In fact, the permit request is believed to the longest-running one in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers history, Corps officials say.

"Yes, I know the meter's running," said County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "But if we run away from it now, shame on us."

Indeed, the project appears to be in the homestretch toward a decision.

Yes, they've said that before. But Mike Nowicki, the Corps project manager reviewing the application, said he expects to make a decision by fall of this year.

Nowicki has got a personal deadline he hopes to make: He was supposed to retire in July but the Corps is keeping him on for the rest of the year to see the decision through.

Pasco has got a few tasks left, including some additional title work on the 805-acre parcel it plans to set aside to make up for damaging wetlands. The state Department of Transportation has to get its Suncoast Parkway interchange design into the Corps. Then Nowicki will have to run the latest plans by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, which also has the power to kill the permit.

Is he leaning toward a yes or a no? Nowicki isn't saying yet.

"It's not a foregone conclusion at this point," he said.

The highway, which has been on county planning maps since the '80s, is seen as a crucial hurricane evacuation route for coastal residents, who would otherwise overwhelm State Roads 52 and 54, the only other major east-west routes. It has also been cited as an economic lifeline for a number of developments, including Connerton.

But the road would cut through the Serenova Preserve, a 6,000-acre patch of wilderness once slated for one of Pasco's first big housing developments but later conserved to make up for the environmental damage caused by construction of the Suncoast Parkway.

As part of an agreement with state and water district officials, Pasco maintained the right to build a road through the property.

Even so, putting a highway in a preserve forms the heart of environmentalists' objections and has helped make the project a complicated one.

Officials cite a number of reasons for the long permitting delays.

Nowicki points to the occasions when Pasco took more than a year — once, about two years — to respond to his information requests.

"And when we got it back," he said, "it's not right."

His last checklist went to Pasco in May. He just received the county's response last month and more questions have since cropped up.

"Whenever you look at a project more, you're going to find holes. That's Murphy's Law," said Nowicki. "This particular one should have probably been deactivated a couple of times. But I thought, what's the point? It's coming back."

Michele Baker, Pasco's chief assistant county administrator, said that early in the process, county officials were more focused on obtaining a water district permit and didn't pay much attention to the Corps permitting.

And, as she put it, "The delay is part of the delay": Pasco had to redo a wetlands assessment and another analysis on alternatives to extending Ridge Road, for instance, because the first ones were dated.

Said Hildebrand: "Every time we think we're there, there's another stumbling block in the way. I feel like Sisyphus."

If everything goes the way Pasco officials hope, construction on the first leg of Ridge Road Extension, connecting to the Suncoast Parkway, would begin as soon as next year. The second phase, which would likely be built by developers to reach U.S. 41, is scheduled for 2018, said Baker.

But if the permit goes through, Pasco could expect a legal challenge to it from environmental groups, who already submitted 10 binders worth of objections to the Corps. Those groups have also said the project is little more than a boondoggle and that it will cost far more than Pasco predicts.

Asked if his group Citizens for Sanity planned to sue over a permit, Clay Colson said, "Our official stance is 'no comment,' " and he hung up.

And if the permit does not go through, Pasco would also appeal, said Baker.

"This east-west road is too critical for public safety," she said. "We can't give up. We will not give up."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Fast facts

By the numbers

Estimated construction costs

2000: $25 million

Now: $129 million ($54.8 million for the first leg, $74.5 million for the second)

How much

already spent

$5.7 million

Where some of that money has gone

$3.8 million to consultant Pitman-Hartenstein & Associates

$221,435 to Biological Research Associates (now part of Entrix)

$251,470 to lobbyist Jake Varn's firm

Pasco's Ridge Road Extension proposal could see action this year 02/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 6, 2010 2:19pm]

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