There I was on a recent Monday morning, headed west on State Road 54 on my way to one of the several part-time jobs that occupy me since the demise of the Tampa Tribune.
And, it was all good.
I had my podcast going on. I was making good time. The consumption indicator in my car’s computer reported I was cruising at more than 40 miles per gallon. As much as a 60-something guy not on his way to play golf on a weekday could be, I was content.
Then, seconds past the railroad crossing at Land O’ Lakes Boulevard, there it was: a sea of glowing brake lights announcing a three-lane parking lot stretching around the gentle bend leading to Oakstead.
Ahead, a Pasco County Sheriff’s deputy’s patrol car sat broadside to the stopped traffic near a break in the median. And beyond, past another half-mile of stopped traffic, by the landmark sign for Stonegate, flashed the lights of a rescue vehicle.
We sat like that for 20-odd minutes, until the deputy whose car blocked our path began directing us through the median cut that ordinarily was off-limits to westbound travelers.
I can’t say how long traffic was blocked, or how long it had been stymied when I came upon it. Neither the sheriff’s office nor the Florida Highway Patrol could produce a record of the incident.
But, while I am left to guess at the duration, I’m certain about the rest: For at least an hour, if not longer, on that recent Monday morning, all of Pasco County east of U.S. 41 was one incident on State Road 52 from being cut off from the western half of the county, including Sunlake High School, the Suncoast Parkway, the west-side government complex, Trinity, U.S. 19 and the Gulf.
What would it have taken? Another gas leak, like the one that shut down State Road 54 near Starkey Boulevard in late June, would have done it. Another manhunt like the one in early June near Safety Town. A mishap in a construction zone. Something going wrong at the CSX crossing. A sinkhole.
That morning it was westbound traffic under threat. Tomorrow it could be eastbound, or, with just the right confluence of misadventures, all traffic in both directions.
Clearly, two east-west thoroughfares, separated by a dozen miles, are no longer sufficient for a county of nearly 465,000 extremely mobile residents, and who knows how many more passing through. If only Pasco planners had some sort of strategy to address this looming concern.
Oh, wait. They do.
It’s called the Ridge Road extension, an 8-mile, multi-lane, limited-access highway that, while splitting the difference between state roads 52 and 54, would provide a vital third link between New Port Richey and Land O’ Lakes.
It’s been part of the county’s comprehensive transportation plan since before we knew about Monica and Bill, before the dot-com bubble, even before smartphones. The Ridge Road extension plan has been around so long, biker jackets and real estate had time to be cool, fall out of favor and become cool again.
And, with certain construction caveats, building it ought to be a no-brainer.
Which is where Margaret Smith and Sam Beneck, a couple of affable civil engineers who love making things work better, come in. Smith, as director of engineering services for Pasco County, is Beneck’s boss. Beneck, 31, a Virginia Tech graduate who cut his transportation teeth trying to improve the commuting nightmare around Washington D.C., is the Ridge Road extension project manager.
Everything that worries me about having just two east-west thoroughfares concerns them, too, but they absolutely obsess about what happens when everybody living along the U.S. 19 corridor waits (as you know they will) until the very last moment before fleeing for high ground in the face of the inevitable Big One. Or the Sort-of-Big or even Medium One, given how much of the coast, from Palm Harbor north, is floodplain.
As Beneck explains, by the time the first bands of a serious tropical event arrive, “The Courtney Campbell Causeway is going to be underwater. Everybody in northern Pinellas is going to be coming north.”
On a good day, there’s not enough space on State Road 54 to accommodate everybody, even if authorities converted all of it to one-way eastbound. When the bad day happens — engineers don’t deal in “if” — Pasco will need another eastbound artery.
As my recent Monday scenario demonstrated, Pasco already does.
Environmentalists reliably push back, claiming any number of things that either aren’t necessarily true, or authorities could prevent.
For instance, the Ridge Road extension would go through the Serenova Preserve, which was set aside as mitigation for the Suncoast Parkway. Why put a highway through a mitigation zone?
Because the Serenova agreement anticipated the extension; proof is in the expensive overpass at the Suncoast’s Mile Marker 25.2, precisely where the extension is projected to emerge from the Serenova and link up with the toll road before plunging ahead toward Land O’ Lakes Boulevard.
But, it will be disruptive to wildlife. Yes. Preserving human life, or simply making it more convenient, sometimes is. Still, highway planners are not heartless. Lots of them — I can cite at least two — love long bicycle rides on paths otherwise set aside for nature.
“That’s why I live in Land O’ Lakes,” Smith says. “I’m never more than 10 minutes from a park.”
Accordingly, the project calls for at least eight wildlife crossings and two bridges, and, according to Smith and Beneck, a rather spectacular bicycle path.
Well, it’ll certainly lead to more development. Well, not in the Serenova. And, if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — whose approval stands between the planners and groundbreaking — stick to its limited-access guns, not much will spring up on the Suncoast-to-U.S. 41 stretch.
All that remains, apparently, is a proper tweaking of the route with an eye to the least possible impact at the best possible construction price. The money is set aside. The time has never been better.
Twin disasters a dozen miles apart is not unimaginable. And, every day that passes without it happening is a day closer to the day it will.