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Parkway project funds already set aside

The state may be in the middle of a three-year study to determine whether the Suncoast Parkway should be extended through Citrus County, but officials have already earmarked the first $45-million toward the project _ just in case.

The Turnpike Enterprise's five-year tentative work program shows money for Suncoast Parkway 2 budgeted for 2008. The funding includes $25.6-million for right-of-way acquisition and $19.4-million for preliminary engineering.

"By that time (2008), the Project Development and Environment study would be complete," said parkway spokeswoman Joanne Hurley. "If the build option is chosen, then the funds would be there to go to the next phases. If the project has a no-build option that is viable, those funds would go back to the central office to be available for other projects."

Hurley said it was the state Department of Transportation's central office _ not the Turnpike Enterprise _ that earmarked the parkway dollars.

But parkway critics such as Janet Masaoy say the funding suggests the 26-mile toll road extension is a foregone conclusion in the DOT's eyes.

"It certainly seems to give the perception of heading in one direction, namely a build alternative," said Masaoy, a Pine Ridge resident and chairwoman of the Citizens Opposed to the Suncoast Tollway (COST).

The Turnpike Enterprise is in the midst of a study to identify possible routes for the parkway extension and weigh its environmental and social impacts.

The study will wrap up in 2005 with a recommendation on whether to extend the road through Citrus County, merging into U.S. 19 at Red Level. The first leg of the Suncoast Parkway runs from the Veterans Expressway in Hillsborough County to U.S. 98 at the Hernando-Citrus County line.

News of the parkway funding came during a DOT presentation Tuesday to the County Commission. At the same time, however, commissioners heard of several other DOT projects that will be delayed because of tight budget times.

DOT District 7, which includes Citrus County, faced a $70-million shortfall in its five-year transportation plan. After shuffling several projects, the shortfall was curbed to $20-million.

Plans to replace the 51-year-old Gospel Island Bridge, a $2-million project, have been pushed back a year to 2005-2006. The design phase for widening State Road 200 to the Marion County line was also postponed from 2003-2004 to 2005-2006.

The five-year plan will be discussed at a Dec. 5 public meeting at the Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main St., Brooksville, 5 to 7 p.m.

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