To safely move motorists between west and central Pasco, the county needs to add at least 10 new lanes of highways over the next two decades. Trying to get the first four built remains a tedious chore after 12 years.
The planned Ridge Road Extension, from Decubellis Road in Moon Lake to U.S. 41 in Land O' Lakes with an interchange at the Suncoast Parkway, is a vital piece of an improved east-west transportation network as both an emergency evacuation route and as an alternative to congested state highways. The Ridge Road Extension should not be sidetracked by emotional arguments that fail to acknowledge the redesigned highway's environmental safeguards to limit sprawl, protect wildlife and mitigate damaged wetlands.
The objections center on the planned route through the Serenova Preserve, a 6,000-acre parcel once planned as a 6,400-home development. The state purchased the site in the 1990s to compensate for 200 acres of wetlands destroyed by the Suncoast Parkway construction. In conserving the land, the state agreed to allow the planned Ridge Road route to remain on the Serenova property and to pay for the parkway interchange. The county, however, has yet to win approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is again accepting public comment on the project until Jan. 27.
The time line of this road plan predating the creation of the preserve is often overlooked. Extending Ridge Road westward first appeared on the county's long-range transportation maps in the 1980s. At the time, some Gowers Corner residents favored it as a preferred alternative to a wider State Road 52. Later, Ridge Road became a more important part of the county's plans after Pasco scuttled the Bi-County Thruway, a planned toll road connecting Trinity and San Antonio.
Expecting the existing highways of State Roads 54 and 52 — even with eventual expansions — to suffice in meeting east-west traffic demands is short-sighted. Already, the four-lane stretch of SR 54 between U.S. 41 and the Suncoast Parkway is heavily traveled by morning and afternoon commuters, by traffic headed to the middle and high school complex on Sunlake Boulevard, and by residents of the subdivisions abutting the highway. Traffic will get even heavier with the planned construction of the T. Rowe Price campus and other development along the highway. SR 52, meanwhile, remains a two-lane road east of the parkway, even though unkept promises to widen the road all the way to I-75 date to the Gov. Bob Martinez administration.
Ridge Road is designed as a limited-access four-lane highway that will carry traffic traveling 65 mph, and it is not intended to be a spine for unbridled growth. The plans include multiple wildlife crossings, and the county will set aside up to 1,100 acres of swamps and uplands to compensate for the 59 acres of wetlands destroyed by the highway construction.
The environmental accommodations are reasonable. So, too, is Pasco County's attempts to plan adequately for its current and future transportation needs. The Ridge Road Extension remains an imperative part of that plan.