(ran PS edition of Pasco Times)
Some members of the Suncoast Parkway 2 Advisory Group, along with about a dozen people in the audience, came to Tuesday's meeting with what they thought were key questions.
Does Citrus County need the second leg of the parkway?
And do the people want it?
In both cases, they were taken aback by the response from state Department of Transportation officials: This is not the forum for those debates.
"You make people feel helpless, absolutely helpless," one woman in the audience said.
That was not the intention, DOT project manager Carl Gibilaro told the Times on Wednesday. Those issues will be addressed in other parts of the state's three-year study on the parkway, he said. The 16-member advisory group is supposed to focus on a different key question:
If the Suncoast Parkway extension must be built through Citrus County, where should it go?
"The question is, as we're looking at different corridors and alignments, what do you want to make sure we look at?" Gibilaro said. "We want to make sure we don't overlook anything, that we have another set of eyes looking at it."
The group brainstormed dozens of factors Tuesday evening, from the location of existing roads and utility networks to the proposed parkway's effect on stormwater flow.
Even so, people on the panel and in the audience couldn't help but stray into other areas. Several asked why the parkway extension should terminate at U.S. 19 near Red Level instead of veering northeast toward Interstate 75.
The state dismissed that option years ago, Gibilaro said, but he will research the reasons to see if they are still valid.
Others complained that the state looks at the County Commission to gauge community support for the project. Commissioners have unanimously supported the parkway extension, saying it is needed to carry the traffic that Suncoast Parkway 1 brings to the Hernando County line.
Advisory group member Jim Bitter renewed the call for a nonbinding referendum on the parkway. "It would cost the county not a penny and give a good, solid indication of yea or nay," he said.
Commissioner Roger Batchelor, also on the panel, replied that the support for the parkway should be based on the need for the road.
"It shouldn't be a popularity contest," he said.
As part of this parkway study, the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research is conducting the next best thing: a scientific poll of Citrus County residents' views on the parkway.
Most of the telephone surveying was done last week, and the analyzed data should be available in six to eight weeks, Gibilaro said.
Residents will have other opportunities to register their views. Some have sent letters or e-mails to the DOT voicing support, Gibilaro said. The state will also hold three public hearings before deciding whether to build the parkway extension.
Parkway foes say it's hard to debate routes without talking about the need or desire for the road.
"In effect this does stifle the debate because DOT and (H.W. Lochner, the consultant performing the study) are running the meetings," said advisory group member Janet Masaoy, head of the Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway. "On the other hand, it seems to me that if the committee members keep bringing these issues up, it's going to make it very difficult for DOT and Lochner to concentrate on something else, and perhaps we'll be given a forum or some other way to talk about it."
The group's next meeting will begin at 6 p.m. May 21 at the Lecanto Government Building.
_ Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhallsptimes.com.
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