NEW PORT RICHEY — Federal environmental regulators have given initial approval to the planned route for the Ridge Road Extension, a proposed 8-mile, four-lane highway linking west Pasco to U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes.
The Army Corps of Engineers notified Pasco officials last week that the county's preferred route, a nearly $102 million highway elevated through portions of the Serenova Preserve, is considered the "least environmentally damaging practical alternative.''
That federal ruling is necessary before the county can do additional analysis to minimize and mitigate potential damage to wetlands as part of its application for the federal permit to build the highway.
"This is not a permit,'' said retiring County Administrator Michele Baker. "This is a very important next step, and we are excited about the opportunity to move forward to bring this critical public safety project to a permitting closure.''
The county's permitting consultant, Dawson & Associates, is scheduled to brief commissioners May 9 on the next steps and possible time frame for completing the permitting process.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, announced the Army Corps' preliminary route approval late Monday afternoon.
"Continuing nearly two decades of work, I'm pleased to report further progress in the regulatory process for the Ridge Road extension project. Thanks to the efforts of state and local officials, and the people of Pasco County, I'm hopeful this critical public safety project will soon become a reality," Bilirakis said in a statement.
Pasco officials view the highway as a key emergency evacuation route for coastal residents while environmentalists object to it as an unnecessary road to serve future development.
The county first applied for its federal environmental permit in 1998, but changed tactics in 2014 and hired Dawson & Associates to rewrite the application. So far, the county has paid the company $1.1 million for its work.
The consultants studied 17 route alternatives before recommending that the highway travel on bridges across portions of the 6,500-acre Serenova Preserve. Even with the partially elevated route, the highway would impact nearly 23 acres of wetlands and 86 acres of upland wildlife habitat.
Baker said wetlands mitigation may be easier to achieve now that the 1,200-acre Old Florida mitigation bank is available on the east side of U.S. 41 near Connerton, not far from the eastern terminus of the Ridge Road Extension route.