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Parkway fight hits final stretch // RESIDENTS' VIEWS SECONDARY

Regardless of whether Citrus County residents want the Suncoast Parkway to run through the county or end at the Citrus/Hernando line, state planners have the final say.

And so far, they say there is a need for the toll road extension.

The Department of Transportation takes public comments into account, but officials say those comments are given secondary weight to the state's need to build roads to ease expected traffic.

"You've got to look at those comments to see if they outweigh the need for the project," said Kevin Thibault, director of production with the Turnpike District.

Asked whether any comments have hindered plans for the parkway, Thibault said: "Not from the ones we've seen."

Still, the DOT has scheduled a public hearing on Thursday at the National Guard Armory on Venable Street in Crystal River. It will begin with an informal open house at 5 p.m. A DOT presentation starts at 7 p.m., and public comments begin at 7:30.

Could any of those comments change the DOT's mind?

It is possible, Thibault said. But any such comment would have to bring to light a new, factual problem. For example, the person would have to prove the existence of a threatened or endangered species in the parkway's direct path.

After Thursday's hearing, the DOT will accept written comments for 10 more days. Officials then will evaluate comments and finalize their study on the road, known officially as Suncoast Parkway Project 2.

Thibault said shifts in the proposed corridor still are possible, although planners studied 26 possible routes before choosing the current path.

Within about two months after the agency stops accepting comments, the final study is to go to District Secretary Jim Ely. If Ely approves it, then the DOT will have decided officially to build the parkway.

When the state could build the road is another matter altogetherand would be decided later, based on projected tolls.

The Turnpike District generally waits until after a project meets approval to begin estimating revenues that the road would generate. At the moment, planners have no evidence that Citrus' portion of the parkway would be a moneymaker, though they are banking on traffic increases to eventually make the road profitable.

Last year, DOT officials said that construction of the Citrus portion of the parkway could begin as early as 2003. But since then, they have stepped back from that estimate.

The $235-million road is not included in the district's current five-year work program, through 2002, nor in its 10-year finance plan. Both of those plans, however, are updated yearly.

Meanwhile, plans for the Suncoast Parkway in Hernando and Pasco counties are rolling forward. The DOT plans to spend about $46-million this year to complete most right-of-way acquisitions in those counties.

When finished, Suncoast Parkway Project 1 will run 44 miles from Veterans Expressway in northern Hillsborough County to U.S. 98, just south of the Citrus-Hernando county line.

If the DOT stays with its plan, the parkway eventually will continue through Citrus, merging with U.S. 19 near Red Level.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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