Imagine building a sleek highway with miles of smooth blacktop stretching into the horizon.
Then imagine the highway has only one on-ramp: a cratered dirt road that knocks a car's wheels out of alignment.
That might be the best way to describe some boaters' concerns about the Hudson Channel dredging project.
"It's like a highway to nowhere," said Jim Kitzler, who just finished his term as commodore of the Hudson Beach Yacht Club. "You can't get to it."
County-hired crews are working day and night to dredge the Hudson Channel, clearing the path for commercial fishermen and leisure boaters coming in and out of the main Hudson marinas. But the $2.6-million project doesn't include dredging the minor channels that connect local boaters to the main drag.
Those minor paths _ including a north-south channel used by residents of Sea Ranch, a 500-home community where gulf access is the main perk _ are rocky and shallow, particularly at low tide, Kitzler said.
"You can see everybody trying to get out there on low tide and they're tearing their boats and their props up," said Kitzler, who can't get his 34-foot sailboat out during the winter months.
"We really need to open it up so people here could actually use it," he said.
Kitzler approached County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand about the problem several months ago, at a meet-the-candidates event in Heritage Springs. Now county engineers are trying to figure out if the extra dredging can be done.
"I just said we can look at it," Hildebrand said. "If it's possible, fine. If not, we can't do it."
Officials say the effort is a long shot. It took the better part of two decades to line up the permits and funding to dredge the Hudson Channel.
Any additional dredging will require new permits, county engineer Jim Widman said.
"This one we have to do in a month," he said.
Why the rush?
It only makes financial sense to dredge the minor channels right after the main one, while the crews, equipment and dredge material drop-off site are still in place, Widman said. The crews expect to finish the Hudson Channel within a month or so, he said.
"This opportunity may not exist again in the future," Widman said.
And already the effort has hit a few potholes.
The county has to check for sea grass before getting a dredging permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection. But since the sea grasses wither away during the winter, the engineers can't just peer underwater. They have to do underwater soil borings to see if sea grasses root there, Widman said.
Those tests, coupled with a mapping of the channel floors, will cost roughly $20,000 and take a couple of weeks to do, he said.
Then officials have to figure out how much the extra dredging would cost _ and how to pay for it.
Engineers giddily announced last month that the Hudson Channel project would come in $207,600 under budget, because new calculations showed less material had to be removed. Commissioners supported using that money to dredge the minor channels, if the county could get the permits.
But Widman discovered a math error last week that erased the savings.
The elevation in a surveyor's measurements had been off by 1.68 inches _ which might not sound like much, but over the length of a 2.1-mile channel, it added up to 2,600-cubic yards of extra material to be dredged, Widman said.
If commissioners want to clear out the minor channels, they will have to dip into a contingency fund, he said.
The matter likely will come to commissioners Jan. 25, once engineers have more information on the scope and possible price of the dredging. If they find sea grass beds in the minor channels, however, the extra dredging is off.
The state won't let the county tear up sea grass beds without replacing the plant elsewhere, Widman said. And the county doesn't have the time to put together a mitigation plan before the dredging crews leave, he said.
"It all boils down to whether there are any sea grasses," Widman said. "If there are, that would be a major stumbling block"
The dredging of the main Hudson Channel will make it much easier for boats to get in and out _ and it will bring a nice boost to property values. Property Appraiser Mike Wells estimates values along Clark Street could jump 15 to 20 percent in the first year and could continue rising if the market remains strong.
"I think you'll see a significant increase in property values as a result of good boat access," Wells said.
As for whether additional dredging would boost the property values in Sea Ranch, Wells said: "There's no question."
But residents like Kitzler, who lives in Sea Ranch, say they just want to see smoother sailing.
"It's a shame you're going to have such a nice channel," he said, "and no one can get to it."
Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhallsptimes.com.