An exasperated Pasco County commissioner said the long-delayed Ridge Road Extension project could be coming to fruition.
"Hopefully, we're down the homestretch.''
That was in 2004. The frustration came from then-Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. She retired and moved from Florida six years ago, still unable to drive on the Ridge Road Extension.
But that homestretch could now be reality, county officials say, as they continue the quest for a federal environmental permit. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approves, the county would extend Ridge Road nearly nine miles eastward from its end at Moon Lake Road to the Suncoast Parkway and then on to U.S. 41 in Land O' Lakes.
They even publicly state a date for the finish line: Sept. 20, 2019. That is when the county expects final approval from the Army Corps to begin construction. It would be 21 years and seven months after the county first applied for the federal permit.
"The theory is we're closer than ever,'' said Sam Beneck, the project manager for Pasco County. "If the permit came today, we could start today.''
Naturally, there is skepticism.
"We've been doing that for 20 years,'' said Marilynn deChant, a member of the citizens committee advising the county's transportation planning agency.
Environmental groups have been even more outspoken and with less diplomacy.
"The Ridge Road Extension is going nowhere except into Pasco's version of Fantasy Land,'' said Daniel Callahan of New Port Richey, who routinely criticizes the Ridge Road Extension project during the public comment portion of Pasco Commission meetings.
The pushback comes because the highway will cut through the Serenova Preserve, a 6,500-acre parcel purchased by the state to offset environmental damage tied to the Suncoast Parkway construction. The Ridge Road Extension design now calls for the first leg of the road to the parkway to be elevated via 18 bridges. It would have no access beyond connections to two existing neighborhoods near the Moon Lake and Ridge roads intersection. Construction is projected to cost $68 million, which the county says it has on hand.
The county already has committed approximately $20 million to: pursue the permit; buy right of way; design the road; and purchase mitigation credits to offset wetlands that will be damaged during construction.
The Florida Turnpike Authority is responsible for building the $15 million interchange at the parkway, though the county is fronting $1 million for design work to avoid a potential delay.
The second leg, from the parkway east to U.S. 41, would be built at-grade with developers picking up the cost. Though, it would be built in two phases, a single environmental permit covers both legs.
Pasco County says the road is needed as a hurricane evacuation route and to enhance east-west mobility in a county that has few alternatives beyond State Roads 52 and 54.
Environmental groups scoff at the rationalizations, saying the 2017 evacuation during Hurricane Irma worked fine. They call the planned highway a gift to developers and contend the county is under-reporting the price because it can't afford the construction cost.
"The numbers just don't add up anymore for Pasco County,'' said longtime critic Dan Rametta from the Save Our Serenova coalition. "The county has already wasted millions of tax dollars, and we call on them to stop wasting a dollar more.''
The Suncoast Sierra Club, working with the coalition, previously said 30 organizations signed a letter to the Army Corps objecting to the road going through the Serenova Preserve.
But an examination of alternative routes didn't alter the county's conclusion on the best place for the road.
"Ridge Road is still the highest benefit. That's why the county has stuck with it for 20 years," said Beneck. "It isn't as though there's a close second.''
The road has plenty of advocates. The Pasco Economic Development Council organized a push for people to send supportive comments to the Army Corps during a recently concluded comment period. And the potential for the road to provide another link between west and central Pasco with a connection to the Suncoast Parkway is sparking significant real estate investments.
The nation's largest home builder, Lennar Homes, paid $23.65 million to purchase 2,900 acres of ranch land, formerly owned by the Bexley family, east of the parkway and south of SR 52. The company has not revealed its plans other than to say it "had the opportunity to create a new community that (is) smartly planned, walkable, pays homage to the natural landscape and benefits everyone in Pasco County and the region overall."
On a smaller scale, a company headed by real estate investor Dewey Mitchell paid $3.3 million in May for the retail center on U.S. 41 at the entrance to Wilderness Lake Preserve.
"There is great potential there, especially when Ridge Road goes through.'' said Mitchell. "That certainly played into our consideration.''
The potential may be a way off. The environmental groups have promised legal action if the permit is issued.
As the public waits for a decision from the Army Corps, there is a joke going around about planning a celebration in February.
Somebody should buy the Ridge Road Extension a drink.
It's turning 21.
Contact C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2.