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Ridge Road Extension project: more studies, more money

Pasco County commissioners will decide next week whether to spend up to $1.2 million in extra traffic and wildlife studies to secure a federal permit for the elusive push to extend Ridge Road.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested new information on more than 20 topics over the summer. Among other items, it wants detailed studies of wildlife threatened along the 8-mile route and a new review of transportation alternatives such as widening State Roads 52 and 54.

County officials worry the request adds unnecessary costs to taxpayers and will further delay the project. They hope to negotiate with the Corps to reduce the scope of the studies and the overall cost.

"They're making us redo work that we had done before," said Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator. The corps essentially hit the reset button on the project last year, even though it has been evaluating it since 1998. The Ridge Road Extension is thought to be the longest-running environmental permit project ever considered by the corps.

The commission will discuss a contract for the studies during Wednesday's meeting in Dade City.

Baker stressed that the $1.2 million figure is a maximum cost for the studies. The county has already spent $4.3 million on design and permitting work since the project began. Even with the extra cost, she said that portion of the project's budget is reasonable compared with its scope and complexity.

The proposed limited-access road would connect heavily populated west Pasco with the Suncoast Parkway and eventually link to U.S. 41 at Connerton. The county has long argued the road is a vital link in the county's transportation system that would provide a new evacuation route during a major storm.

Environmentalists object that the road would cut through the 6,500-acre Serenova preserve. The federal Environmental Protection Agency, which opposes the project in its current form, considers the tract's wetlands to be an "Aquatic Resource of National Importance." That designation provides higher legal protection.

About $261,000 of the $1.2 million would be spent on transportation alternatives. That would include a look at whether widening existing roads could handle projected future traffic. It would also look at elevating the road through Serenova or partially elevating the road when it crosses wetlands.

Such a solution would go a long way toward easing environmental concerns. It would also mean the county spends less to purchase environmental land as mitigation. But it would still likely add many millions to the project's cost.

"They're both going to be very expensive alternatives," Baker said. "Is it practicable?"

About $514,000 would be spent to update wildlife studies for six animal species and for plants. Under corps requirements, such studies must be less than five years old. Pasco's studies were done in 2005.

The most expensive study, projected to cost $293,000, is to determine the habitat of the threatened eastern indigo snake. Baker said the study costs so much because the work is labor-intensive. She said the county has long promised to include mitigation for the snake.

In addition to studies of individual species, the county must also complete a comprehensive study that looks at the road's effect on the surrounding environment.

The other major portion of the work is $165,000 to create a mitigation plan to compensate for the road's damage to wetlands and wildlife. Baker said she hopes to have the work finished by the end of spring.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

In other Pasco Commission news

Commissioners on Wednesday also will consider whether to spend nearly $250,000 for a feasibility study to add managed toll lanes along the State Road 54/56 corridor. Pasco's chief planner, Richard Gehring, discussed the idea with state transportation officials and Tampa Bay business leaders during a bus tour this week.

Such a plan would rely on electronic tolls that would increase at rush hour. Lanes would likely be elevated in the center of the highway.

The study would develop a conceptual alignment, including how drivers would enter and exit managed lanes from general-use lanes. It would also assess potential costs to acquire right-of-way, how to accommodate express bus or other transit options and ways to pay for the project.

The study would cover 33 miles from U.S. 19 to U.S. 301, including the segment of SR 56 that has not yet been built. It would be paid for with mobility fees, which are charges on new development to pay for roads associated with growth.

Ridge Road Extension project: more studies, more money 11/02/12 [Last modified: Friday, November 2, 2012 8:47pm]
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