Pasco County has squirreled away nearly $55 million to build the first phase of the Ridge Road Extension, a local highway connecting the Moon Lake area of west Pasco to the Suncoast Parkway. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise has no money set aside to construct the interchange linking the two roads. Projected cost for the interchange and tollbooths is $20 million.
The sobering reality that the long-delayed Ridge Road Extension project could begin as a road to nowhere hit home this week when Florida's Turnpike Enterprise said it budgeted no money for the next five years for the planned interchange.
County commissioners, sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said they believed the turnpike authority had reneged on a previous verbal agreement to make the interchange money available when Ridge Road construction began. They are right to feel frustrated, but this is not an act of bad faith. More realistically, the authority is reacting to the financial implications of a drop in toll revenue and the county's inability to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to approve the highway construction.
Expecting the turnpike authority to forgo maintaining the parkway — it plans to spend nearly $33 million over the next two years to resurface the highway through Pasco — while the county struggles to obtain permission to extend Ridge Road is simply implausible. It also fails to account for escalating prices. At the outset of the decade the interchange cost was pegged at $7.5 million; it increased to a projected $13.5 million five years later and now is estimated at $20 million. It is a lot of spare change to keep sitting around when other needs become more pressing.
That being said, the authority cannot give short shrift to its previous commitments, and must be willing to expedite construction of the interchange if the county ever does secure environmental permits to build the road.
In 2005, the county agreed to a turnpike request to drop the money — budgeted at $13.5 million at the time — from its work program because of the uncertainty of the Ridge Road construction. The authority used the money to build a new interchange at Lutz-Lake Fern Road, but agreed to make dollars available for the Pasco interchange in the future. The state needs to ensure that is not the distant future.
Promises of tying Ridge Road to the parkway date to the Lawton Chiles administration and this isn't the first time with the state and county have disagreed over the timeline. The on-again, off-again interchange originally wasn't to be built until two years after the parkway opened, but the state agreed in 1997 to build the connection simultaneously with the Ridge Road construction, scheduled at the time to be completed in 2000.
Environmental challenges, new design work and securing additional property to mitigate wetlands damage of the proposed route through the Serenova preserve stalled Ridge Road while the parkway opened in February 2001. The county now says it expects to forward a final application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the end of the year and anticipates an answer within 45 days.
Extending Ridge Road 4 miles from Decubellis Road to the parkway is an essential part of an improved east-west road network in a heavily congested part of the county. Pasco's access points to the parkway are now spaced nearly 10 miles apart at State Roads 54, 52 and County Line Road adjoining the border of Hernando County. Building the Ridge Road Extension without a parkway connection serves no purpose. If the county obtains its environmental permits, the state needs to hold up its end of the bargain.