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Brink: Extending the Suncoast Parkway has gone from boondoggle to folly

The Suncoast Parkway ends at U.S. 98 just south of Citrus County. For years residents have opposed extending the toll road, a project dubbed the "Suncoast 2" into Citrus County. But state officials recently announced that the Suncoast 2 should start construction in early 2018. [Stephen J. Coddington  |  TIMES]
The Suncoast Parkway ends at U.S. 98 just south of Citrus County. For years residents have opposed extending the toll road, a project dubbed the "Suncoast 2" into Citrus County. But state officials recently announced that the Suncoast 2 should start construction in early 2018. [Stephen J. Coddington | TIMES]
Published Jul. 13, 2018

In a few short weeks, the Suncoast 2 toll road project has gone from boondoggle to folly.

State officials pitched the 13-mile extension of the Suncoast Parkway as a step toward eventually linking the road to Interstate 75 near Ocala via a project dubbed the "Coastal Connector."

Connecting the parkway to I-75 would help with hurricane evacuations and take some pressure off the interstate, state officials said. It was a main reason for moving ahead with the dubious extension plan.

Now even that's gone.

The state scuttled the "Coastal Connector" idea in late June after a sustained outcry from Marion County residents and some businesses.

But Suncoast 2 is still a go. Its blacktop and bridges will tear through undeveloped land so that the few drivers who currently use the northern stretch of the Suncoast Parkway can get to and from Lecanto slightly faster. Yes, Lecanto, that mega city in the middle of Citrus County, population 6,000.

The road won't carry on to I-75, nor will it go west to connect to U.S. 19. Instead it will end in an area so thinly populated that it doesn't show up in most government studies on commuting times or traffic congestion.

RELATED: I love the Suncoast Parkway, but extending it is a waste of money

Suncoast 2 doesn't come cheap. Construction alone will cost $135 million, not including land and whatever value you put on the environmental impact. The state's consultants have also already downgraded the revenue projections. The estimate in 2013 was $5.2 million in annual tolls. A year later, it dropped to $3.8 million.

The state has a shaky record on predicting toll revenue, including wildly overestimating projections for the Suncoast Parkway. Could the projections for Suncoast 2 change again? The Florida Department of Transportation did not respond before deadline.

Building the extension doesn't guarantee hordes of drivers will use it. Just look at the Suncoast Parkway stretch north of State Road 50, which opened in 2001. Seventeen years later, it still feels too often like a private highway, with drivers only encountering a few other cars even at rush hour. On some days, more people seem to be on the adjacent pedestrian trail.

The northern stretch has done little to inspire much development, either. Where it ends at U.S. 98, there's a parking lot for the pedestrian trail. That's it. Not even a convenience store or gas station.

The renowned World Woods golf complex is a mile south on U.S. 98, but it opened in 1991, well before the parkway. Almost all of the spread-out housing developments in that area also predate the parkway, and most haven't grown much since it opened. Most of the commercial development has been on U.S. 19, about 5 miles to the west.

Hernando County administrator Len Sossamon supports the extension. He thinks it will be good for the road to end farther north. It will bring more people south into his county to shop and work or visit one of the new restaurants along State Road 50 between Brooksville and Spring Hill.

It's the type of project that attracts business, he said.

"Big businesses don't often believe it anymore if you tell them you'll have a road ready or water and sewer lines ready in time for their project," he said. "They want to see it already done. I think you have to build some of these things as an incentive."

Sossamon eloquently rattled off Hernando's growing retail and real estate development projects, though none of them were near the parkway north of SR-50. He admitted that it could take some time before development creeps north along the parkway.

"That will be more wait and see," he said.

But it would have made more sense to wait to see whether traffic and development picks up on the existing parkway before risking tens of millions of dollars on hope and projections.

There are plenty of better transportation projects worth funding, ones that tackle established problems. Improving and upgrading I-275 or I-4 east of Tampa is just common sense. Those roads carry tens of thousands of drivers a day, often stacked bumper to bumper. Same goes for the upgrades to Ulmerton Road in Pinellas County, or State Road 56 in Pasco or SR-50 in Hernando, and so many others around the area.

The money shouldn't fund the extension of a lightly used road into a lightly populated area. But that's what is going to happen.

On Monday, a federal judge rejected a request to delay the Suncoast 2 project. The plaintiffs had argued that it would destroy a historic turpentine camp and imperil gopher tortoises and indigo snakes. Bulldozers have already begun to clear the route. The extension is scheduled to open in 2022.

RELATED: Judge allows Suncoast 2 construction to continue

It's possible that Suncoast 2 will be so popular that it justifies the cost and environmental damage, and that it brings the long-talked-about development to that barren stretch of Hernando County.

But spending so much money on possibilities feels like folly when we have so many other transportation needs.

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

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