By summer, motorists could take their first spins along the initial segment of the Ridge Road extension from Moon Lake Road/DeCubellis Road to Town Center Boulevard.
“We’re hoping we open that leg by the start of August, for the start of the school year,” said Sam Beneck, Pasco County’s property manager. “They are pulling out all the stops to get it done. It’s going to be a real challenge.”
The roadwork is expected to ease traffic for River Ridge high school and middle school along Town Center.
This short jog forward is the beginning of a two-phased road project, with a final completion date in 2025. By then, the approximately 8.6-mile extension of Ridge Road, from west to east, is expected to cross over Suncoast Parkway and come out at U.S. 41, opposite an entrance into the master-planned community of Connerton in Land O’ Lakes.
Pasco County officials celebrated the kick-off to Ridge Road’s extension in January. It was the culmination of more than two decades of pushing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue a permit that would allow the new road to cut through sensitive environmental land in the Serenova Tract of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve.
For years, county officials identified the east/west route as an essential evacuation route during hurricanes and other emergencies. They expect it to take pressure off existing east/west routes of State Road 52 and State Road 54, and cut evacuation times down by hours. In addition, traffic capacity is expected to increase by 10%.
“It’s really to improve traffic capacity and east/west access to improve hurricane evacuations,” said Beneck. “We really, really see it as a significant evacuation improvement with multi-hour benefits in reaching our evacuation goal and traffic capacity. There was never another alternative that provided these benefits.”
Environmentalists suggest that the north/south route of U.S. 19 makes more sense for evacuations, and would avoid harm to the Serenova.
“We need to maintain our natural systems and forests to mitigate against climate change,” said Tim Martin, conversation chairman for the Sierra Club Florida. “We just need to leave our natural systems and keep our preserves preserved.”
Sierra Club Florida Conservation filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps in February in the U.S. Middle District of Florida. However, a judge denied an emergency injunction to stop the roadway. Pasco County, which is not a defendant in the lawsuit, was granted permission to intervene in the case.
The Sierra Club alleges that the Army Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act and failed to adequately evaluate the harm to threatened and endangered species within the Serenova, and to their habitats and wetlands.
Martin said county taxpayers need to understand they could be the losers if the lawsuit is successful and Pasco is ordered to restore wetlands that the roadway is destroying.
Beneck said the county is sensitive to the impacts to the Serenova. County staff and the Fish and Wildlife Commission have provided guidance on mitigation efforts, including relocating gopher tortoises found on site.
The court date is pending.
When completed, the roadway through the Serenova will have 16 bridges that cross over wetlands, and wildlife crossings at 15 of those bridges.
Landscaping and multi-use paths will be installed with nature overlooks that allow for relaxation and observation.
The total estimated cost of the project is more than $149 million, with the largest share – about $93.2 million – paying for phase one from Moon Lake to the Suncoast. Suncoast to Sunlake is estimated to cost about $12.7 million. Funding sources for the $44 million final segment from Sunlake to U.S. 41 are identified and will be budgeted in the fiscal year 2023, based on revenue estimates and projections, according to county officials.
The Florida Turnpike Authority will fund the new interchange at Ridge Road and the parkway.
The interchange and surrounding land are attracting new development.
Lee Moffitt Cancer and Research Institute recently purchased about 775 acres for a future research hub near the interchange.
Lennar, which sold land to Moffitt, is proposing a master-planned community of Angeline, formerly Project Arthur, that would transform a former cattle ranch and pine plantation into a residential and commercial community. The property is located south of State Road 52 and east of Suncoast. Both Ridge Road and Sunlake Boulevard cut through the property.
Environmentalists say these types of projects are the true reason for extending Ridge Road.
“Now, it’s pretty obvious all along they had bigger plans for opening central Pasco,” said Martin. “A lot of this is bad growth and sprawl.”
One design change in Ridge Road could add as many as seven signalized intersections to the phase two, at-grade construction of roadway from Suncoast to Land O’ Lakes boulevard.
While this segment initially had limited access, county officials later designated it an arterial roadway in acknowledgement that private property owners might develop land adjacent to Ridge Road.
However, Beneck said Pasco planned for Ridge Road based on the county’s long-range comprehensive plan, not any specific development projects. “We really hadn’t heard of any development plans.”
It would be up to private developers to seek any necessary permits, he said.
“Private developers would be responsible for doing all of their own mitigation,” Beneck said.
Published July 1, 2020