Work on the Ridge Road extension is pushing ahead even as legal action from the Sierra Club to halt construction remains active.
Attorneys for the Sierra Club recently filed a motion to add U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a defendant in a lawsuit that was filed in February against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The approximately 9-mile corridor would link Moon Lake Road in New Port Richey with the Suncoast Parkway, and eventually will reach U.S. 41 in Land O’ Lakes.
The extension cuts through the Serenova Tract of the Starkey Wildlife Preserve, which has been a point of contention.
Environmentalists say the road will destroy sensitive conservation wetlands and wildlife habitats. They believe the motive for the road extension is to support more growth and development.
The lawsuit alleges that Fish and Wildlife in its “biological opinion” violated the Endangered Species Act and failed to properly assess harmful impacts, specifically to the Eastern indigo snake. The lawsuit also claims the Army Corps failed to complete a legally required comprehensive analysis on impacts to the Florida scrub blue jay and the red-cockaded woodpecker.
“They are causing damage to the best preserve in Pasco County,” said Tim Martin, chair of the Sierra Club Florida’s conservation committee.
County officials say the road extension will add a vital east/west evacuation route during hurricanes and other emergencies. The route and construction seek to do minimal damage to the preserve, they say.
The Serenova Tract is part of a 1990s settlement agreement reached during litigation over construction of the Suncoast Parkway. About 200 acres were set aside to mitigate wetlands damage. Ownership transferred from the Florida Department of Transportation to the Southwest Water Management District, but preserved the right to extend Ridge Road.
Battle lines over the proposed route put county officials and environmental activists on opposing sides for more than 20 years. But, in late 2019, the Army Corps granted a construction permit.
In March, a federal judge denied a Sierra Club motion for an emergency injunction to temporarily block road construction until the lawsuit’s conclusion. The decision cited “monetary harm” to the county if work were halted.
Roadwork moved ahead.
And, in November, Pasco County commissioners approved approximately $2.7 million to purchase wetland mitigation credits due to “unavoidable wetlands impact.”
Last summer work crews completed a road segment linking Ridge Road and Town Center Boulevard, an access point for River Ridge Middle and High Schools.
Next up is building a two-lane segment between Town Center and the Suncoast Parkway, with an expected completion in summer 2021. The two-lane roadway later will be widened to four lanes by summer of 2022.
Construction is expected to begin in 2021 on the Ridge Road extension between Suncoast Parkway to the future Suncoast Boulevard. The final step would be extending Ridge Road from the boulevard to U.S. 41 at the intersection with Connerton Boulevard, the main entrance into the master-planned community of Connerton.
Construction on this segment would begin in 2022.
County officials hope to open the entire Ridge Road extension by the end of 2025.
In addition to the roadway, as many as 16 bridges will provide overpasses along the length of Ridge Road. There also will be pathways, upland wildlife crossings and fences to provide habitat connectivity, and prevent roadkill of the numerous species living in the preserve.
The initial phase of the project is estimated at $93.2 million, including incentives to finish early. About $11.3 million will pay for ramps and toll equipment at the Suncoast Parkway interchange. The final phase of construction is about $36.1 million. However, county officials said the design and cost estimate of that phase will be updated by the end of 2020.
Martin said the county is moving aggressively to complete construction. If the Sierra Club prevails in its efforts to permanently stop the road extension, Martin said, “We want them to restore it to its natural state.”
Sierra Club attorney Sarah Hayter said the goal is to have the permit revoked. Though the county is spending millions, Hayter said the courts could require Pasco to restore what it has done.
A federal judge must determine if Fish and Wildlife can be added to the lawsuit, said Hayter. Representatives for Fish and Wildlife, and the Army Corps, agreed to the amended lawsuit, she said.
However, Hayter said she understood that Pasco officials planned to file an objection.
Pasco isn’t a defendant in the lawsuit, but the courts granted a request for the county to intervene on behalf of the Army Corps.
County officials declined to comment on pending litigation.
By Kathy Steele
Published December 30, 2020