As Hurricane Irma barreled up the spine of Florida in September 2017, residents who live around the northern reaches of the Suncoast Parkway saw what a statewide race to evacuate looks like.
The parkway ended at U.S. 98 and dumped motorists out near the Hernando-Citrus county line. Cars lined up bumper-to-bumper on roadways that never see congestion, and hurricane supplies from gasoline to bottled water along the route evaporated.
Now there is a plan to take the parkway through Citrus County and north all the way to Georgia. Local officials from Hernando and Citrus counties last month gave it their stamp of approval. The state has not settled on the pathway north of Citrus to the Georgia state line.
Fortified by support from local leaders who were ready after the storm for the road to extend into Citrus, the state launched into Suncoast 2 last summer.
Construction began in July after one last legal challenge from opponents who fought the extension for decades. This leg, which costs $135 million, will bring the highway north 13 miles to State Road 44 in Lecanto and has an expected completion date in 2022.
It will include full interchanges at U.S. 98 and W. Cardinal Street, and a partial interchange at SR 44. It will have one wildlife corridor and three wildlife culverts, 15 new bridges and all-electronic tolling. It also extends the Suncoast Trail to SR 44 and adds a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 98.
Planning is underway for the next stretch of the parkway, from State Road 44 north to County Road 486 in north-central Citrus County.
Suncoast 2 has been dubbed "the road to nowhere,'' because the state has no plan for where it ultimately would go. But earlier this year, state Senate President Bill Galvano announced that he wanted the road built to Georgia.
Last month, the Hernando/Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization unanimously passed a resolution supporting Galvano's plan for the parkway and other state road projects. The transportation advisory board includes elected officials of Hernando and Citrus counties, plus the cities of Brooksville, Inverness and Crystal River.
Citrus County officials earlier had said, "we're not getting involved in where it goes. We just don't want it to end in Citrus County,'' said Jeff Kinard, Citrus County commissioner and chairman of the planning organization.
Planning board member and Citrus County Commissioner Ron Kitchen said the group was "approving the concept'' of taking the road to Georgia, but not endorsing any particular corridor to get it there.
Officials in some counties to the south were concerned that extending the Suncoast Parkway could take state funding from other critical projects, Kitchen said. Florida Department of Transportation officials at the meeting said they did not expect that to happen.
Various alignments proposed for the parkway extension have generated opposition from residents in those areas.
Some community leaders have argued that they don't want the highway slicing through rural lands that have been held by pioneer families for generations. In Marion County, horse-farm owners blasted plans for the road to cut through their area and connect to Interstate 75, under plans for a so-called "Coastal Collector'' to relieve traffic congestion.
State road officials took that option off the table last year.
In Pine Ridge, a Citrus County equestrian community that sits at the end of the next parkway extension, residents have rallied against having an exit ramp near them onto County Road 486.
Galvano's memo urging parkway construction put the focus on "revitalizing historic rural Florida communities.''
"In the past, much of Florida's infrastructure funding has primarily been focused on Florida's urban areas in order to improve safety, relieve congestion, create mobility and to promote commerce and tourism,'' he wrote in a Jan. 30 memo to his fellow senators. "While this funding has improved access and created economic growth for our urban areas along our coasts and in Central Florida, there has not always been the same focus on large portions of rural Florida.''
Contact Barbara Behrendt at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.