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Since 2001, Suncoast Parkway hasn't been the smoothest ride

SPRING HILL — The sun is just beginning to peek over the horizon as Todd Campbell backs a dark green Mercedes out of his garage.

Campbell heads east on County Line Road, and a few minutes later he's zooming south on the Suncoast Parkway, pushing 80 mph. About 30 minutes later, the 41-year-old insurance underwriter is at his desk at Health Plan Services, near Tampa International Airport.

Forty miles, 50-some minutes, $2.25 in tolls.

Campbell has changed jobs twice since 2001, but he has been commuting on the half-billion-dollar, four-lane parkway since it opened a decade ago this weekend.

"I had no problem paying tolls because I was saving an hour of drive time every day," Campbell said.

The possibilities for progress along the Suncoast corridor were, like the road in front of Campbell back then, wide open.

The 42-mile parkway, extending from the Veterans Expressway in northern Hillsborough to U.S. 98 near the Citrus-Hernando line, suddenly made Pasco and Hernando counties seem less like the hinterlands.

By the parkway's five-year anniversary, potential became reality as developers opened the throttle. "Coming soon" signs sprouted from the sand to announce the next subdivision, office park or retail center.

But the second five years have not been as kind, with slackening revenue and dreams of development deferred.

The revved-up real estate market finally blew in 2007. Gas prices climbed above $4 a gallon in 2008, and the unemployment rates in Hernando and Pasco counties have roughly tripled, cutting the number of commuters and commercial traffic.

In 2008, after several years of pedal-to-the-metal increases, the parkway's toll revenue slipped for the first time.

In early 2009, Florida's Turnpike Enterprise announced that it was indefinitely shelving plans to build the second phase of the parkway through Citrus County.

The turnpike enterprise predicted in 2006 that the parkway would earn about $25.7 million in toll revenue in 2010. The actual figure: $20.6 million.

But even with projections scaled back, the road is still bringing in enough money to comfortably pay the debt on its 30-year construction bonds, said turnpike spokeswoman Christa Deason. She noted that toll revenue showed a modest gain in 2010.

A daily average of 24,500 vehicles passed through the Anclote toll plaza between state roads 52 and 54 last year, and 35,800 through the Van Dyke plaza, just before the Suncoast turns into the Veterans.

"We've been able ride this out," Deason said, "and now we're seeing the traffic pick back up again."

The first 32-mile stretch of the Suncoast, from the Veterans to State Road 50 in Hernando, opened Feb. 4, 2001. There was confetti, a marching band and protesters sporting pig noses who called the road "the porkway." The northern section, from SR 50 to U.S. 98, opened that summer.

Traffic counts and toll revenue fell short of projections back then, too. Opponents, including environmentalists who lamented the loss of wetlands, said the shortfalls validated the view that the road was built not to satisfy an existing need, but to help power development.

The parkway helped feed the North Suncoast housing boom as interest rates dropped and easy mortgages proliferated. Property values and the number of building permits issued along the corridor soared. The tax bases expanded in Hernando and Pasco counties as people and businesses moved in. That was especially true in the Airport Industrial Park, just east of the toll road in Hernando.

"You don't have to be a brain surgeon to figure out what the Suncoast Parkway did for Pasco County," said Mike Wells, a former Pasco commissioner who now serves as property appraiser.

Traffic and toll revenue increased each year. Cyclists, runners and other enthusiasts raved about the multi-use trail that runs along the parkway.

In early 2006, Newland Communities got approval from Pasco officials for its massive Bexley Ranch project on more than 6,800 acres immediately east of the parkway, 2 miles north of SR 54.

The parkway was instrumental in Newland's decision to seek approval for some 6,000 single-family homes, 1,000 multifamily units and more than 800,000 square feet of office and commercial space, said Rick Hacrow. The plan was to start construction immediately.

Then the bubble popped.

Some developments that were already under way still have vast swaths of vacant land. Many others were mothballed to wait out the recession. Values for residential, commercial and retail property have been halved or worse since 2006.

Last year, the parkway corridor saw 341 new home starts, down more than 86 percent from 2,539 in 2006, according to Metrostudy.

That year, some 2,200 new homes were built along the corridor with prices of more than $200,000 — nearly 88 percent of all new home activity. Last year, just 91 new homes were built at or above that price point.

Newland won't be selling developable lots and parcels at Bexley Ranch before the end of 2013, Hacrow said. "But we're still very bullish on the area."

Pasco County officials were elated when T. Rowe Price announced it would build an office complex on State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes. The parkway was cited as a big factor. Construction was expected to start by the end of 2009. No earth has been moved.

Now that there are some signs that the economy's transmission has finally slipped out of reverse, most agree the parkway corridor will play a vital role as businesses start to hire again and expand.

"(The parkway) may have fed into the economic distress we're in now, but by the same token it will fuel the recovery," said Hernando County Commissioner Dave Russell.

"When people get back to work," said longtime Hernando Realtor Gary Schraut, "they'll be driving up the parkway, and I think you'll see the area along the parkway recover first."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Since 2001, Suncoast Parkway hasn't been the smoothest ride 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 10:52pm]
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