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Lack of local support leads DOT to scrap turnpike plan

(ran PW PS editions of Pasco Times)

The state has shelved the plans for extending Florida's Turnpike through Levy County to U.S. 19.

The state has put the brakes on its plan to extend Florida's Turnpike from Wildwood to U.S. 19 in Levy County, citing a lack of support from local governments and residents, as well as questions about the project's financial viability.

The proposed northern extension would stretch 49 miles from the turnpike's northern terminus at Interstate 75 to a point south of Lebanon Station.

The extension was designed to provide traffic relief for I-75 north of Wildwood.

But the Department of Transportation has stuck the plans on a shelf.

"We are going to suspend any further action," said Raymond Ashe, manager of the Turnpike District's environmental management office, during an interview Thursday.

The district recently finished its project development and environmental study. That study, among other things, included a public hearing at which project critics far outnumbered supporters.

Those critics decried the environmental damage sure to be caused by road construction, not to mention the inevitable development that would follow.

Other people complained because the toll road would bring unwanted traffic near their property.

One of those critics was Pine Ridge resident Janet Masaoy, who also has opposed construction of the Suncoast Parkway.

"I'm very pleased that they're not going to do another path of destruction," Masaoy said Thursday.

Formal planning work on the turnpike extension started in 1988. Since 1992, transportation planners have worked with their counterparts in other agencies to fine-tune the proposed path and avoid environmentally sensitive areas.

Last year, state agencies agreed on a slightly different version of the project's eastern leg, and a dramatically different alignment for the western leg between U.S. 41 and U.S. 19 that would move the project terminus about five miles closer to the Citrus border than originally planned.

The state had not set aside any money to construct the road; in fact, planners were careful to note that the project wouldn't get off the drawing board until it proved financially and logistically feasible.

Ashe said the city of Dunnellon and the Levy County Commission had expressed displeasure with the plans. In addition, the plan was not included in the comprehensive plans of Levy, Marion or Sumter counties.

Also significant, Ashe said, is that the state plans to widen portions of Alternate U.S. 27, a road that can help motorists move between U.S. 19 and the interstate, and that the state has widened I-75 north of Wildwood, allowing that road to carry more vehicles.

The state won't revisit the proposed turnpike extension until the plan receives more local support and more evidence of economic feasibility, Ashe said.

Copies of the environment report should be available late next week at the public libraries in Crystal River, Dunnellon and Bronson.