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Thursday, Aug 16, 2018
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Corps wants more information on Ridge Road extension plan

LAND O'LAKES - Pasco County won't be getting an answer on its permit request for the proposed Ridge Road extension anytime soon. The Army Corps of Engineers this week sent the county a six-page letter asking for additional information — including a new analysis of alternative routes. "We've done the alternatives analysis four or five times," said Michele Baker, chief assistant county administrator. "It's very frustrating, but we want this permit. So we'll do it again." Ridge Road's eastern end is at Moon Lake Road-De Cubellis Road. Pasco County has proposed extending the road east by eight miles to the Suncoast Parkway and later to U.S. 41. The county has been seeking a permit from the corps for 12 years, and that's one of the problems, said Kevin D. O'Kane, chief of the Tampa permits section. "The analysis is now outdated, as it relies on the 2025 Long Range Transportation Plan and does not account for road improvements that have occurred since 2003," O'Kane wrote.
Project manager Tracy Hurst asked Pasco to do further study on an alternative that would include a two-lane Ridge Road extension in conjunction with a new Tower Road extension between Starkey Boulevard and U.S. 41. The county's 2035 Long Range Transportation Plan includes Tower Road as a four-lane divided roadway between Gunn Highway and U.S. 41 with an overpass at the Suncoast Parkway. "The county does plan on building that road in the future," Hurst said. Baker said the county has never seriously considered Tower Road as an alternative to Ridge Road because it doesn't connect to the Suncoast Parkway. The toll road, which opened in 2001, was built to accommodate a Ridge Road interchange at the halfway point between State Road 54 and State Road 52. The Florida Department of Transportation already has budgeted $38 million to build a 3-mile road and interchange. A second phase would extend the road farther east to U.S. 41. Baker said Tower Road "has its own set of environmental issues." "But we'll go back and look at it again," she said. "I don't believe we've ever looked at Ridge Road as a two-lane road. We know the number of lanes we need to move people east and west, and a two-lane road doesn't get us there." In all, the Corps of Engineers listed 22 issues for the county to readdress. For example, the corps disagreed with the county's analysis regarding whether Ridge Road would be more effective as a hurricane evacuation route than simply adding the same number of lanes to existing roads. The county's analysis "states that a new lane added to an existing roadway does not have the same vehicle capacity as a new roadway." The county assigned all the Ridge Road alternatives the highest possible score while giving all other options a zero. "The Corps finds this analysis arbitrary, as any road improvements would be expected to provide some improvement in hurricane evacuation," O'Kane wrote. He also took issue with the environmental study, noting that it considered the proposed roadway's effects on wetlands but not on streams. Opponents view the proposed road through the 6,000-acre Serenova Tract as an intrusion into a delicate wildlife area and a vehicle for overdevelopment in Pasco. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended denial of the permit, saying it would have "substantial and unacceptable adverse impacts" on an aquatic resource of national importance. Hurst said the corps wants Pasco County to consider elevating the entire 2.1-mile segment of road that traverses the Serenova Tract. "That is the area of most concern," she said. The corps received about 1,600 letters regarding the Ridge Road project during the public comment period last winter. Hurst said the letters were pretty well divided, but more were "slanted toward being against the project." The county has 30 days to respond to the corps' request for information. "I think we have all the data," Baker said. "It's just a matter of pulling it together."

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