Ridge Road Extension granted modifications, added funds

The Pasco County Commission has approved a revision to the Ridge Road Extension project – to provide additional funding and services connected to the project.

The board approved a change order on Aug. 6 to pay for post-design assistance from the project engineer, and to analyze possible impacts to gopher tortoises.

The county also is allocating an additional $1.4 million toward the first phase of construction, which extends Ridge Road from Moon Lake Road in New Port Richey east to Suncoast Parkway. Phase one also includes modifications to the Parkway Interchange.

Plans are still underway to extend Ridge Road beyond its intersection with Moon Lake Road to U.S. 41. The new corridor will create a new east-west connection for motorists. (Brian Fernandes)

The second phase of the project extends Ridge Road from the Suncoast Parkway to U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes. That has not yet been funded for design or construction.

The revision approved in the change order requires that during the post-design phase, the engineer oversees any issues that arise with the construction plans or its documentation, while keeping the county informed of these matters.

The engineer also will be responsible for the project’s computer-aided design and drafting files. This software is vital to the construction phase and may be subject to changes, per county request.

The engineer also must address any changed conditions to construction in a “timely manner” and review changes proposed by the contractor, according to the county.

The change order also includes the surveying, permitting and possible relocation of gopher tortoises.

“The tortoises that are identified to be within the construction area, including those within the (Starkey Wilderness) Preserve, will be relocated based on guidance from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,” said Sam Beneck, Pasco County project manager. “The tortoises must be relocated to an approved relocation site.”

These animals are protected by law and this process is usually included in the construction contract.

But, in an effort to accelerate the timetable for completing the extension, the process will be handled by the project’s design and permitting team.

However, the tortoises cannot be relocated until a permit has been obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Construction cannot commence, either, without clearance from the Army Corps.

“The funding has not been the holdup for the project,” Beneck explained. “It’s really been the permitting issues.”

Pasco County and the Army Corps have been trying to reach an agreement for years.

Various options have been considered and the one that has been selected calls for partially elevating the Ridge Road Extension, as well as adding 16 bridges, curbs, guardrails and fencing to protect wildlife.

Beneck estimated that these measures will reduce impacts by nearly 83 percent to the wetlands in the Serenova Tract of Starkey Wilderness Preserve.

Environmentalists have battled the road extension, citing the negative impacts it will have on the Serenova Tract.

The current design shows a two-lane road opening from Moon Lake Road to the Suncoast Parkway before the 2021 hurricane season.

The road would be expanded to four lanes the following year, and possibly to six lanes in the future, Beneck said.

When the Army Corps issues its permit for the project, it will be for both phases of the extension, Beneck said.

Published September 11, 2019

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