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  1. Transportation

Bowen: Endless Ridge Road Extension effort dates us all

Here's what happened in November 1998:

Voters elected an eager beaver named Jeb Bush to become Florida's governor.

Monica Lewinsky signed a book deal, and the U.S. House of Representatives started impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.

Steve Simon defeated Ed Collins for the District 4 Pasco County Commission seat.

Steve Spurrier threw his visor on the sidelines in Gainesville.

The New York Yankees basked in the glory of an ongoing dynasty, having just concluded a season in which they won 114 regular-season games and took the first of three consecutive World Series championships.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered around 9,000.

Consumers purchased gasoline for $1.15 a gallon. Home buyers acquired 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages at interest rates twice as high as today's offerings.

Crews marked just their fourth month of work on the three-year task of building the Suncoast Parkway.

And, oh yeah, Pasco County applied for a federal environmental permit to build a new four-lane road called the Ridge Road Extension to run 8 miles from Moon Lake Road to U.S. 41. It would provide a third east-west route across the western half of the county, paralleling State Roads 54 and 52. The anticipated cost was listed at $25 million.

Fast-forward nearly 18 years. Bush is a failed presidential candidate. Clinton campaigns on behalf of his wife, former first lady Hillary Clinton, as she runs for the White House. Voters have flipped the District 4 commission seat three more times. Spurrier retired. The Yankees are pedestrian. The Dow, as this was being written, sat at 17,481. A gallon of gas is back near two bucks. The state is now planning to extend the parkway through Citrus County.

Meanwhile, the Pasco County permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers is pending. Still.

Like the Dow, the cost of gasoline and the price of most everything else, there is an escalating expense associated with the Ridge Road Extension. Next week, commissioners will be asked to approve $347,000 to keep their Washington, D.C., consultant working to obtain the environmental permit for the road, now projected to cost $102 million to build.

"It is frustrating,'' said Commissioner Mike Moore. "All the money we've been paying over the years, and we don't know if there's an end in sight.''

The county hired Dawson & Associates in 2014 to rewrite the permit application at a cost of $500,000. In May 2015, commissioners agreed to pay the company another $261,000 for nine months of additional work. If the new spending is approved Tuesday, the checks to Dawson & Associates will reach $1.1 million.

That is just the current cost. The county previously spent $17 million for right of way and for different consultants to try to get the permit approved.

Questions about consulting costs tied to the Ridge Road Extension come in part because there is more than $40 million collecting cobwebs in a reserve account set aside for the construction while the county simultaneously confronts potentially exorbitant spending issues on transportation, storm water drainage and other infrastructure.

The county applied for the Army Corps permission — required because the four-lane highway traversing the 6,000-acre Serenova preserve will damage wetlands — simultaneously with its application for a Southwest Florida Water Management District permit. The water district gave its approval in 2003, but the federal permit application was snakebit from the outset. The county paid consultants Pittman Hartenstein & Associates nearly $3 million for design, permitting and route study work, only to discover in 2000 that the company failed to provide sufficient information about alternative routes, believing it to be unnecessary since no federal money was involved in the project.

Correcting the omission cost another $800,000. Meanwhile, Jake Varn's law firm, hired as a county lobbyist on the project to shepherd the permit application, was paid more than $250,000.

Even then, the application ping-ponged between federal requests for additional information and county responses in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, three times in 2010 and again in 2012. The following year, the Army Corps said the county needed to fully vet all potential alternatives — sound familiar? — and the county retained Dawson to do just that and resubmit its application in 2015.

So, that's a lot of years and a lot of dollars without a lot of asphalt. None, in fact.

Think back again to 1998. Babies born that same year the county filed its permit application turn 18 years old in 2016. They've been driving automobiles for three years, stuck on the same crowded roads as the rest of us.

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