A proposed highway extension in southern Pasco County would cut through two wilderness preserves, threatening wildlife, wetlands and the area’s drinking water supply. As the Tampa Bay region continues growing smart transportation decisions must consider more than moving cars down a highway. An alternate expansion route would be less convenient for drivers, but in this case the most direct route isn’t the best one.
Planners with the state Department of Transportation are considering two plans for extending State Road 56, the perpetually jammed thoroughfare that traverses the southern border of Pasco and connects thousands of commuters to Hillsborough County. The DOT wants to extend SR 56 from its current terminus at U.S. 301, east of Wesley Chapel, further east to U.S. 98 in Polk County. Extending SR 56 would allow drivers to bypass the city Zephyrhills, provide a needed link to Lakeland and Interstate 4 and save money on acquiring rights-of-way. But it carries other steep costs.
The proposed route would travel along the Pasco-Hillsborough county line, 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. The state’s own studies show the plan would damage 131 acres of conservation land. Its wetlands are part of the ecosystem that feeds the Hillsborough River, which supplies Tampa’s drinking water. What is the purpose of government conserving land if only to break its own rules later in the name of development?
There are also wetland mitigation expenses, estimated at $13.3 million, construction costs of $89 million, plus right-of-way costs of around $4.5 million — a relative bargain given the current cost of land. But those savings don’t justify the long-term impacts of damaging any of the precious little pristine acreage left in Tampa Bay.
What’s more, the state has an alternate plan for extending SR 56 that would leave the conservation areas untouched. That plan amounts to widening existing roads to create a less-direct link to U.S. 98. It has higher right-of-way acquisition costs but lower construction costs, and cheaper wetland mitigation expenses.
Lance Smith, a Zephyrhills City Council member and chairman of Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, favors the alternate route because it would connect to the city’s industrial areas, multiplying the connectivity benefits of a single project. And he pointed out another flaw in the direct-route plan: impracticality. Obtaining a permit to build on protected land is always lengthy and sometimes impossible.
Road construction is an expensive endeavor, and the Tampa Bay region has myriad projects to plan and complete to keep up with growth, maintain quality of life and better connect communities. But saving money by providing the fastest route for cars cannot be the only consideration. Mass transit and land conservation are key priorities too. Pasco’s SR 56 extension — a relatively small project amid massive interstate expansions and bridge reconstruction — illustrates the work of balancing the pressures brought on by rapid growth. In this case, state planners should take the long way.
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