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Pasco gets Ridge Road extension survey deadline reprieve

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NEW PORT RICHEY -

The bumpy, 14-year ride for Pasco County’s proposed Ridge Road extension will continue at least through September.

Environmental reviews have stalled the proposed plan to build the eight-mile extension that would link Ridge Road to the Suncoast Parkway and, later, U.S. 41.

Pasco filed its original application for permits for the project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November 1998. The Corps of Engineers conducts environmental reviews under the federal Clean Water Act.

Pasco County agreed to the most recent compromise, Chief Assistant County Administrator Michele Baker explained last week. Pasco will conduct new wildlife surveys along the suggested extension route, which runs through wetland areas. In addition, the county will study east-west transportation route alternatives, such as widening State Road 54 to 10 lanes.

The Jacksonville office of the Corps of Engineers has agreed to extend the survey deadline to the end of September. The wildlife surveys have to be timed to specific seasons, Baker said.

In late January, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, sent a letter to the Corps of Engineers asking it to speed up resolution of the Ridge Road extension permit issue.

“After sending a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Pasco County received an extension to perform required environmental studies,” Bilirakis said March 20. “We continue to work closely with the county and the Corps in an effort to ensure this project progresses smoothly, and will do so until this project comes to fruition.”

Environmentalists who oppose the Ridge Road extension have criticized Bilirakis’ involvement. The letter he sent to the Corps of Engineers was “fraught with error and misinformation,” Clay Colson, water issues chair for Citizens for Sanity, an environmental watchdog group, has said.

The county has “many practical alternatives” to the Ridge Road extension, Colson insisted in an interview last week. Colson would prefer an elevated roadway along S.R. 54-56, or other alternatives to lengthening Ridge Road.

Baker doesn’t like some of the alternative road projects, such as the Corps of Engineers suggestion of a 10-lane S.R. 54.

“We don’t think some of these are practical,” Baker said. For one thing, the Florida Department of Transportation controls S.R. 54, not Pasco.

Even if the state agreed to 10 lanes, S.R. 54 would not be a good candidate for that sort of limited-access highway because it is “a business route for us,” Baker said.

In addition, she said, the Corps of Engineers has not suggested how an expensive S.R. 54 10-laning project would be financed.

Pasco officials have steadfastly maintained the Ridge Road extension is needed as a third east-west hurricane evacuation route. Colson, however, has said the Ridge Road extension would funnel more traffic to S.R. 52 and S.R. 54, creating bottlenecks during a crisis.

Colson and other Ridge Road extension critics have said the road would have a negative environmental impact on the Serenova tract, a 6,500-acre wetlands area set aside to mitigate for the impact of the construction of Suncoast Parkway.

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