The first ribbon of asphalt will be less than a half-mile, 2,300 feet to be exact, but the journey to get there began three decades ago.
"My dad was a county commissioner when this thing started,'' said Pasco Commissioner Mike Wells Jr., whose father served on the board for eight years ending in 1992.
"This thing'' is the extension of Ridge Road that will connect west Pasco to the Suncoast Parkway and on to U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes. On Monday morning, approximately 100 people gathered at a dead-end street in the River Ridge neighborhood to share congratulations and watch the shovels of dirt go flying in a ground-breaking ceremony.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blessed the project’s route in a permit issued in late December. That is more than two decades after the county first applied for the federal permit and more than 30 years after planners conceived of the route while drafting the county’s first state-mandated land plan in the late 1980s.
Not everyone is happy, though. The 70-member Save Our Serenova Coalition and other environmental advocates have objected because of the highway’s route through the Serenova Preserve. Tim Martin of the Suncoast Sierra Club recently said the club’s legal counsel is working to decide its next course of action.
At Monday’s ceremony, the track hoeand pay loader in the background acted as props. But crews from contractor Cone & Gram already are working on the road’s first leg from the dead-end at Tower Center Road to the current terminus of Ridge Road at Moon Lake Road, just less than a half mile away. That two-lane road is expected to open by September and provide much-needed relief to the heavy traffic traveling to and from the River Ridge Middle and High School complex.
"Finally,'' said Pasco County School Board member Alison Crumbley. "This will help parents, too.''
The building schedule calls for two lanes of the Ridge Road extension to reach the parkway by July 20, 2021, with the remaining two lanes open a year later. The four-lane extension from the parkway to the planned extension of Sunlake Boulevard within Lennar’s Angeline development is expected by be completed by September 2022. The final four-lane leg to U.S. 41 could be done by September 2025.
The route has been pitched as necessary for emergency evacuations, but there is no denying the road is a boon to economic development. Already, the planned road will serve as an east-west route through the giant Angeline development and its 800-acre commerce park that recruited an expanded H. Lee Moffitt Cancer and Research Center has its lead entity.
"Guess what? They need that road to come here,'' Commissioner Jack Mariano said of Moffitt.
Mike Wells Sr. wasn’t the only former commissioner mentioned Monday. Former Commissioners Mike Cox and Ted Schrader and retired County Administrator Michele Baker attended the ceremony, along with a bevy of dignitaries, including U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, Pasco County commissioners, school board members, school superintendent Kurt Browning, constitutional officers, business leaders and current and retired government administrators.
"A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this,'' Baker said beforehand.
Bilirakis and others acknowledged Baker during their remarks.
"You knew it was going to happen, eventually,'' said Bilirakis. "You got it done.''
The 4.2-mile leg from from Moon Lake Road to the parkway will be limited access and elevated through the preserve via 18 bridges. Projected construction costs are listed at just less than $68 million. The county says it already has spent more than $16 million on permitting, right of way, lobbyists, wetland mitigation and other expenses that will push the total price to just less than $90 million.
The second portion, 3.4 miles from the parkway east to U.S. 41 would be built at-grade, with developers picking up the cost. The Florida Turnpike Authority is responsible for the $15 million interchange with the parkway.