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  1. Transportation

Bowen: Raiding Ridge Road account would not be wise

Look west from Connerton in Land O'Lakes, and the visual is both frustrating and exhausting.

Fifteen red diamond-shaped signs mark a stub-out — the connection for a planned road that never materialized. There are plenty of those around the county, but this one carries extra meaning. On the Suncoast Parkway, south of State Road 52, motorists drive over a similarly dubious landmark. It's an overpass, allowing the parkway to cross a highway underneath, except the road below has yet to be built.

The stub-out to nowhere and the overpass above a phantom highway — with enough space for a still-unneeded interchange — are tangible reminders of the Ridge Road Extension, the highway Pasco County government has chased unsuccessfully since the 1990s.

It's envisioned as 8 miles of asphalt — actually 32 lane miles since it would be a four-lane road — linking Moon Lake and Land O'Lakes, providing Pasco with a third east-west route between U.S. 19 and U.S. 41.

The county now expects to submit a new environmental permit application to the Army Corps of Engineers in the coming weeks.

Yawn.

It is difficult to get excited. This route showed up on the county's long-range transportation plan when Jeb Bush's father was president. But it's been confronting environmental questions for nearly as long, after the state purchased the property for the planned Serenova development and turned it into a nature preserve. The highway's expected route cuts right through the protected land.

The road is considered essential for an evacuation of coastal residents prior to a hurricane. But the county also contributed to its own problems early on by saying an extended Ridge Road would provide access to thousands of acres of ranch land ripe for development. Not a real good reason to traverse the preserve.

There also have been nagging questions about cost. Originally, the price estimate resided in the bargain-basement range of less than $30 million because of donated right of way. The donation never came through and by 2006, at the height of the building boom and peak construction prices, the county acknowledged a more realistic price of $122 million, without even adding in $17 million of related costs.

The current cost estimate is $76 million for construction, of which the county has $46 million budgeted. And that, it seems, could be a temptation for the folks in elected office. At least one of Pasco's commissioners has $46 million burning a hole in his pocket.

Commissioner Jack Mariano wonders if the county should spend that money on other needed road construction in the interim. Commissioner Mike Moore floated a similar idea during his election campaign last year, saying money in reserves should be put to use to accommodate more immediate transportation needs. Moore, however, didn't specify the Ridge Road Extension as the highway account to raid.

Mariano, too, is circumspect with his idea.

"I still support the Ridge Road Extension,'' he said, "but let's build some other roads as we need them and then replenish the money for Ridge Road later.''

The caution is as much political as practical because of the strong support for the highway's construction within the business community.

"For us as a community, from a business sense, it creates more opportunities for business to take place, creating jobs, improving the economy and the quality of life here,'' Chip Wichmanowski, executive director of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce, said of the extension.

"Commerce works when transportation works,'' said Stew Gibbons, a consultant to Hayman Woods of Dallas, the developer of Connerton.

Connerton, designed as a new town concept, requires both east-west (Ridge Road) and north-south (Collier Parkway) routes to successfully achieve its goal. It is approved for 8,600 homes, and, at build-out in 15 to 25 years, it could include the town center, a government center, a corporate campus, a 100-bed acute-care hospital and other so-called employment centers.

But that's not the reason to keep $46 million in the bank for this road. Consider the commission's own action last year to retain subsidized road fees for developers but increase the gasoline tax to balance the county's transportation budget.

One of the justifications for the 5-cents-per-gallon gas-tax hike? Road construction prices had increased 20 percent since 2011. It seems unwise then to start raiding reserves if it's going to cost you more to replenish your road-building account.

Frustration and exhaustion? Imagine the reaction if the county does snag its required federal permit to build the Ridge Road Extension and there's no money in the bank to pay for it.

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