There is no chance of being pulled over for speeding on the Ridge Road Extension anytime soon. In fact, Pasco County started the second decade of the 21st Century, much like it did the first: Waiting for an answer on its plan to extend Ridge Road from Decubellis Road to the Suncoast Parkway and on to U.S. 41 in central Pasco. That is 10 years of dubious under-achieving, finger-pointing, costly consulting, fluctuating expense estimates and poor governmental coordination.
Case in point: In mid-December, the county said it expected an answer on its pending U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit application within 45 days. But, as Times staff writer Jodie Tillman reported on the 10-year anniversary of that application, no decision is expected before the fall.
The extensive review is tied to Ridge Road's path through the Serenova Preserve, land set aside to mitigate damage from the construction of the Suncoast Parkway. To offset wetland destruction from Ridge Road's construction, Pasco County is proposing to protect 805 acres north of the highway.
At times, the Army Corps said Pasco was slow to answer questions, once comparing the county's response time to molasses trickling down a tree. Some delays were beyond anyone's control. As the review plodded along, some environmental studies grew stale and had to be redone. Likewise, the county missed out on a chance to acquire land for environmental mitigation when a private property owner declined to sell, forcing the county to look elsewhere.
It also should be noted the U.S. Army Corps' scrutiny of the Ridge Road plans coincided with reporting by the Times that discovered 84,000 acres of Florida wetlands had been paved over by development between 1990 and 2003 even though federal policy called for no net loss of wetlands. The agency should not be criticized for simply doing its job in its exhaustive review of this highway.
The proposed Ridge Road Extension remains an import link in the county's east-west road network. The road initially would carry traffic between the county's heavily populated west side and the parkway four miles away. That expense is estimated at nearly $55 million. The second leg, from the parkway east to U.S. 41 near Connerton, is now projected to cost $74.5 million.
To ease concerns that the highway is intended only as a tool to accelerate development, the design calls for a limited access 65 mph highway. The county promotes it as a third west-to-east hurricane evacuation route for coastal residents. Certainly, that role cannot be downplayed. An evacuation of the county's flood zones is projected to take 16 hours to complete, but the time swells to nearly a day and a half under the likely scenario that Pasco evacuates at the same time as Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
But, just as important, providing a third link between U.S. 41 and west Pasco will ease traffic congestion on two state highways: heavily traveled State Road 54 on the south and State Road 52 to the north. Promises to widen SR 52 date to the Gov. Bob Martinez administration, but the road remains two lanes east of the parkway while serving as the daily route for buses serving four schools, garbage trucks heading to the trash incinerator and commuters coming from Spring Hill and Hernando County.
The Ridge Road Extension has been in the county's long-range transportation plan since the 1980s. Its role grew in importance in the mid-1990s after the county scuttled the proposed Bi-County Thruway when traffic projections failed to support building that toll road from Trinity to Interstate 75. The setbacks, understandably, are frustrating, but Pasco County should not be dissuaded from completing this piece to an improved east-west road network.