Highway route through wilderness area sparks Hillsborough environmental concerns

A state proposal would extend Pasco’s SR 56 through the Lower Green Swamp and Upper Hillsborough Preserves.
 Intersection where State Road 56 ends eastward at U.S. 301, pictured on Friday, June 4, 2021 in Zephyrhills.
Intersection where State Road 56 ends eastward at U.S. 301, pictured on Friday, June 4, 2021 in Zephyrhills. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published June 4, 2021|Updated June 4, 2021

Moving traffic around the city of Zephyrhills could mean directing cars and trucks onto a new road through two nature preserves totaling more than 22,000 acres.

The plan, one of two under consideration by the state Department of Transportation, “just basically takes the route through that entire wilderness area; fragments it, splits it in half,” said Forest Turbiville, director of Hillsborough’s Conservation and Environmental Lands Management Department.

The state proposal calls for extending State Road 56 eastward from its current terminus at U.S. 301 to meet U.S. 98. The 15-mile route would travel along the Pasco-Hillsborough county line, putting it in the location where Hillsborough County’s 12,800-acre Lower Green Swamp Nature Preserve meets the 9,961-acre Upper Hillsborough Preserve owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

An aerial view of U.S. 301, showing the proposed area to extend State Road 56, which now ends at U.S. 301, eastward to U.S. 98.
An aerial view of U.S. 301, showing the proposed area to extend State Road 56, which now ends at U.S. 301, eastward to U.S. 98. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

“I am incensed that the state would be contemplating building roads impacting one of our most precious nature preserves,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith.

The project potentially endangers wetlands, wildlife corridors and the Hillsborough River — the city of Tampa’s drinking water source, she said.

Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White said he too was concerned about the wildlife fragmentation and “really just the question of how necessary is this extension.”

The project’s intent is to continue an east-west route through Pasco County’s southern tier. The highway begins at U.S. 19 in west Pasco as State Road 54 and the corridor becomes State Road 56 just west of Interstate 75. It continues eastward through the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel and ends at U.S. 301. Extending the highway to U.S. 98 would allow regional traffic to bypass the city of Zephyrhills and to have a more direct route to Lakeland and Interstate 4 in Polk County.

The study area for the proposed State Road 56 extension from U.S. 301 to U.S. 98.
The study area for the proposed State Road 56 extension from U.S. 301 to U.S. 98. [ Florida Department of Transportation ]

The SR 56 extension and improvements to U.S. 98 “will make it easier for people and commerce to move from our neighboring counties into Pasco County,” said Pasco Commissioner Mike Moore.

State documents show the proposed corridor through the preserves would impact 131 acres of conservation land. It has an estimated construction cost of nearly $89 million. Wetland mitigation expenses could be as high as $13.3 million, but right-of-way costs would be less than $4.5 million.

The alternative route calls for widening existing roads to take traffic on U.S. 301, Chancey Road and Pasco County Road 54 in order to reach U.S. 98.

“Certainly, roads get widened every day in every county in every state across the country. So, that seems like kind of a no-brainer,” said Turbiville.

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Lance Smith, Zephyrhills City Council member and chair of Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization favors that route, too. Right of way is already available and that route choice would also provide a direct, four-lane road right into the city’s industrial lands.

A top concern, however, is that route plan would affect up to 85 homes and 243 parcels, pushing estimated right of way costs to nearly $36 million. But it also has lower construction costs, $70 million, and cheaper wetland mitigation expenses.

The alternative through environmentally sensitive lands poses a different problem, said Councilman Smith.

“Sometimes, getting a permit is darn near impossible,” Smith said, pointing to Pasco County’s 20-year effort to obtain a federal permit to build the Ridge Road Extension through the Serenova Preserve.

But Pasco Commission Chairman Ron Oakley said he prefers the route hugging the Pasco Hillsborough county line because it could bring improved drainage to the Crystal Springs area of southeast Pasco.

The state has scheduled a public meeting on the route study for 3 p.m. Tuesday, June 15 at the Alice Hall Community Center Hall, 38116 5th Ave., in Zephyrhills.

The timing of the study also irked Hillsborough County interests. Though the state held a kick-off meeting in August 2019 in Pasco, Hillsborough Commissioner Smith and Turbville said they just learned of the project in May, after all but two of the alternative routes had been eliminated.

“Before they start laying lines around on a map through our most precious natural resources, somebody over there should pick up the phone and talk to somebody over here,” said Commissioner Smith.

The state said it notified Hillsborough County officials because the ongoing feasibility study identified a corridor in close proximity to Hillsborough.

“If the corridor along the Hillsborough County (line) is recommended to move forward into the (project development and environment) phase, we will coordinate more closely with Hillsborough and Polk County officials, agencies and staff,” Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the state’s regional transportation headquarters, said via email.

The study was financed by a prior legislative earmark, she said.

Commissioner Smith questioned the wisdom of a $930,000 study on what she called a “road to nowhere” at the same time Gov. Ron DeSantis’ vetoed pedestrian safety projects in the city of Tampa and the Department of Transportation has postponed rebuilding of the Westshore interchange where the Howard Franklin Bridge, I-275, and the Veterans Expressway meet.

District 5 Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith.
District 5 Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Tampa Bay Times ]

“It’s very frustrating that the state does not share our priorities for fixing our roads and improving our roads where people actually live rather than putting roads through wilderness for the benefit of some future developers somewhere,” the commissioner said.

If the project proceeds, construction isn’t likely to occur anytime soon. Last year, Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization listed the SR 56 extension last on its priority list of 22 road projects, Carson said.