Despite intense public opposition and dubious traffic projections, the Florida Department of Transportation has announced that construction of the toll road known as "Suncoast 2" is expected to start in early 2018.
The 13-mile, four-lane extension of the Suncoast Parkway has been dubbed by critics as "the road to nowhere" because it ends in the middle of Citrus County. It doesn't bend west toward U.S. 19, or east toward Interstate 75, and there are no firm plans to extend it.
The Suncoast Parkway currently ends amid undeveloped land north of U.S. 98 at the northern edge of Hernando County. The Suncoast 2 would extend the tollroad halfway through Citrus County, to State Road 44.
Construction bids will be opened Oct. 17, said Carol Scott of the Florida Turnpike Authority. Scott told members of the Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization on Tuesday that construction would start by early 2018.
Turnpike Authority officials did not respond to requests for further details about its Suncoast 2 plans or financial projections. Environmental groups challenged the rationale for proceeding with the road, given the lack of traffic on the original Suncoast.
Longtime opponents said they will soon file new legal challenges to stop construction.
"There's very little population in that area so there's no good reason to build this road," said Tim Martin, conservation chair of the Suncoast Sierra Club. "It seems like a costly gift to road builders and developers at the expense of the environment — the very opposite of smart growth."
Citrus County Commissioner Ron Kitchen, a member of the MPO, supports the Suncoast 2 but wants to see it extended further north, to County Road 486.
Supporters of the Suncoast extension believe it would act as a bypass road and could spur development in mid-county. However, no funds are allocated for a new leg past S.R. 44.
The state started advertising for bids to build the new roadway on Aug. 14.
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When the $507 million toll road from northern Hillsborough to Hernando County first opened in 2001, its supporters were sure it would spark a massive building boom. They expected new residents and businesses galore would soon fill the 42-mile toll road with cars and trucks and the state's coffers with money.
The DOT's consultants, a California-based company known as URS Greiner Woodward, predicted the Suncoast toll booths would rake in $150 million a year by 2014. That forecast wasn't close. Nor were the next two. The consultant eventually settled on a forecast of $38 million a year.
But when 2014 rolled around, the road was so empty that the Suncoast collected a mere $22 million.
That's because the boom that the road was intended to spark never caught fire. Instead, the Great Recession happened. Land along the parkway is so empty that a SuperTarget store that opened on State Road 54 in Odessa to take advantage of the expected population boom closed last year.
That same consultant, San Francisco-based URS Greiner Woodward, provided overly sunny financial projections for the Veterans Expressway in Tampa; the Seminole Parkway near Sanford; the Polk Parkway near Lakeland; and the Garcon Point Bridge near Pensacola. In a 2000 interview with the then-St. Petersburg Times, URS officials said they were "basically guessing."
URS was since been taken over by a rival, Aecom, which now holds the $5.9 million annual contract for making Florida toll road projections.
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Now DOT is forging ahead with Suncoast 2 — although regional planning officials say it's unlikely to attract as many drivers as Suncoast 1, given its distance from Tampa Bay's urban centers.
As with the Suncoast 1, the toll projections for the new toll road have repeatedly dropped. In 2013, the DOT's consultants predicted it would make $5.2 million when it opens in 2020. A year later they dropped that to $3.8 million. DOT officials say the 2014 projections are the ones they will use in planning the new highway.
The Suncoast 2 has been in the works for decades, drawing opposition at every step. When the DOT first held a public hearing on it in 1997, more than 600 people sent in written comments, and 545 were completely opposed. Three years later, opponents collected 4,700 signatures on a petition opposing the road.
The DOT put Suncoast 2 on a back burner in 2008 because the state's economic meltdown had seriously hurt Suncoast 1's toll revenue. The project would still be in mothballs today, except for Gov. Rick Scott. In 2015, without any explanation, the governor injected $150 million of taxpayer money into the project, reviving it.
The road has been touted as an important help to Citrus County's economic development in the future and is supported by the Citrus County Commission and business leaders there. The county was hit hard not only by the building bust but also by Duke Energy's closure of the Crystal River nuclear plant in 2015.
But the Citrus business community has questioned whether this will help them at all. The road would actually draw people away from traveling through Crystal River and Inverness, where they might stop to do business, said John Wade, president of the Citrus County Council, a coalition of homeowners groups, in a 2015 interview.
"What does this actually do for the citizens of Citrus County?'' Wade said. "This is not a toll road for Citrus County. This is a toll road for relief on (Interstate) 75 for people to pass through.''
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The road's impact on the environment has also been questioned.
The DOT says it avoided all but the edges of a few wetlands in designing the route. But it still cuts through 7 miles of the Withlacoochee State Forest, impacting 278 acres there.
Last year the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission granted the road a permit to wipe out habitat for and even kill burrowing owls and five other species, in exchange for a promise to build highway underpasses for wildlife and buy land that would be preserved as habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service signed off on the project July 28.
Last year a transportation task force considered other options for the direction and end of the Parkway. But after numerous meetings — many of them involving rural counties that didn't want a big highway slicing through their communities — the task force reached no conclusion about where the road should go.
Even those who support the Suncoast 2 believe it needs to go somewhere.
"They can't let it stop at 44,'' said MPO board member Nick Nicholson, a Hernando County commissioner and a member of that task force. "It needs to be extended."