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Extend the Suncoast Parkway? No thanks. Florida has more pressing transportation needs.

The proposed extension would likely cut through several sparsely populated rural counties.
The northern reaches of the Suncoast Parkway often don't get much traffic.
The northern reaches of the Suncoast Parkway often don't get much traffic.
Published Feb. 1, 2019

Here we go again.

Senate President Bill Galvano has dusted off the idea of extending the Suncoast Parkway to Interstate 10 and then to the Georgia border.

The plan would push the lightly used toll road through some of the state's least-populated counties all in the name of needing "to improve access so prosperity can return there."

And here I thought it was 2019, not 1919.

Tearing up what's left of the state's rural tranquility in chase of the almighty dollar is misguided. Most of the people who would use such a road already live in the area or would drive right through without adding more than a few bucks for gas or a bag of chips to the local economy. Much of the "prosperity" would come in the form of unchecked sprawl, which the state needs as much as another Red Tide outbreak.

The Suncoast Parkway opened in 2001. It was a much-needed addition, at least in how it helped connect the Veterans Expressway in Tampa to the rapidly growing parts of southern Pasco County.

But the parkway winds all the way through Hernando County to the Citrus County line. In the northern reaches, it's so sparsely used that it's like driving on your own personal highway. Despite that, the state is spending $135 million to extend the four-lane road 13 miles farther north to Lecanto.

Galvano didn't say specifically which route the proposed road would follow to link up with Interstate 10. From Lecanto, it's about 110 miles, and another 20 miles to Georgia.

It's a good bet that it would pass through Levy County. From there, possibly some combination of Gilchrist, Dixie, Lafayette, Taylor and Madison. How small are they? On an average day, more drivers — about 30,000 — use Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa than live in many of those counties.

Sure, the state is growing. About 6 million more people will call Florida home by 2045, according to mid-range estimates from the University of Florida. But they won't be evenly distributed around the state. Most will gravitate toward our big cities, including the Tampa Bay area, projections show.

MORE BUSINESS: The argument for building the controversial 50-story condo tower in St. Petersburg.

Hillsborough alone could add 1 million residents over the next 25 years. We will need to widen existing local roads, and, yes, build new ones to accommodate the surge in population. As will Orlando, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and the state's other big cities.

Levy County, on the other hand, will grow by just 15,000 people during that period, according to the highest end of the estimates. Dixie will add 6,000, about the same as Gilchrist and Taylor. The low end of the projections has them not growing at all.

So this new road isn't anything like linking busy Pasco to Tampa. Very few people commute between Lecanto (pop. 6,000) and Perry (pop. 7,000), or Dunnellon (pop. 1,800) and Newberry (pop. 6,000).

We shouldn't neglect our rural counties. Far from it. If they need an economic pick-me-up, the state has other levers it can pull. But building a massive road in the hope it will boost a sparsely-populated area's financial prospects is a risky use of taxpayer money. In this case, too risky, given how few drivers use the northern part of the existing parkway.

The state, after all, has only so much money to spend on roads. We need to make every dollar count.

On Friday, as he announced his state budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis was circumspect about the proposed road. He said he wanted to know more, before adding that congestion in urban areas including Miami and Central Florida needed addressing.

Here's hoping the governor lends some common sense to this debate. The state has too many pressing transportation needs to spend what will likely be way more than $1 billion on a road through nowhere.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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