DADE CITY — After waiting more than 20 years for permits, battling legal and political challenges, Pasco County officials don’t want to delay another minute getting vehicles onto the Ridge Road Extension when it is completed as early as next month.
This week, Commissioner Jack Mariano told fellow commissioners that he had driven on the nearly completed extension. “This is going to be a phenomenal road,” he said, noting the unique bridges over protected areas throughout.
But Mariano warned there might be a delay, because the Florida Turnpike Authority will not have a fully operational toll plaza at the Suncoast Parkway interchange by the time construction is done.
“We need to get the road open quickly,” Mariano said, adding that county Administrator Dan Biles is working with state turnpike officials to resolve the issue.
“Let the people start traveling it. It’s the people’s money that built it,” Mariano said.
His comments sparked a flurry of discussion about how badly the road is needed in that area.
Construction on the project began two years ago, extending the four-lane road 8 miles eastward from Moon Lake Road, past the Suncoast Parkway and on to U.S. 41. The project has been a high priority for county officials and is expected to open up better road networks and access to the county. The intersection of Ridge Road and the Suncoast Parkway is near where Moffitt Cancer Center plans to develop 775 acres into a cancer research hub.
Commissioner Mike Moore said his state legislative allocation request for the 2022 session is $14 million to help the county finish the road to U.S. 41 quicker than could be done without state help.
Biles said that, as Mariano had seen, “the road is on the verge of being ready for traffic,” in the next month.
The problem, Biles said, is that the toll plaza on the north side of Ridge Road at the Suncoast Parkway interchange may not be completed until spring. While there is a toll-taking location on the south side, he said state toll road officials don’t want the road opened until all the toll equipment is in. County officials, he said, are talking with the state about that.
While commissioners on Tuesday agreed to allow Biles to try to negotiate the road opening with turnpike officials, they also voted to send a letter supporting the immediate opening of the road in case those negotiations fail.
“The department is committed to providing transportation solutions for a growing Florida and understands the needs in and around Pasco County,” said Angela Starke, spokeswoman for Florida Turnpike Enterprise, “which is why the partnership for a new interchange at the Ridge Road Extension and Suncoast Parkway is significant.”
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Starke did not respond to specific questions about timing of the road opening or the toll plaza delays.
The state would lose approximately $3,000 daily in each direction without the toll equipment in place, Biles said, but waiting until the equipment is ready to go, “that doesn’t make sense ... once it’s ready, it should open.”
The road will mean a “substantial reduction in traffic” on multiple area roads, including State Road 52, Moon Lake Road, De Cubellis Road and Starkey Boulevard, Biles said.
The extension has been mired in permitting problems and legal actions because the route takes it through the Seranova Preserve.
The state acquired the Serenova Preserve, a former ranch set for a large commercial and residential development, in the 1990s to offset the environmental damage from construction of the Suncoast Parkway. As part of the acquisition, the state’s water management district did not object to Ridge Road’s path through the preserve.