You Paid For It: Pasco road to nowhere has cost $15 million so far
Also on YouTube: Pasco County Wastes $19 Million Taxpayer Dollars
By Mark Douglas
Published: February 27, 2017, 12:07 pm Updated: February 28, 2017, 2:19 pm
PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — Pasco County Commissioners are hoping an all-out lobbying blitz in Washington D.C. today will finally resolve a road dispute that’s been taking millions of dollars out of your pockets for the past two decades.
“We’re going to get to the finish line,” said Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker. “There is an end in sight.”
Congressman Gus Bilirakis wrote to President Trump last month urging him to help remove roadblocks for the project, and the President himself recently issued an executive order calling for the fast-tracking of infrastructure projects across the nation.
“The bottom line to getting this road done is through the Whitehouse,” said Pasco Commissioner Jack Mariano. “The Commander in Chief can drive this project.”
The Ridge Road Extension dispute pits Pasco leaders pushing for the project as a critically needed hurricane evacuation route against environmental groups who are bent on saving a sensitive wetlands area known as the Serenova Preserve. The proposed highway would bisect the Serenova between new Port Richey, the Suncoast Parkway and US 41.
Pasco County officials have so far allocated nearly $15 million on land purchases, planning and permitting and you paid for all of it.
The trouble is, after 19 years of bureaucratic gear grinding that road is still on the drawing boards and hasn’t received permits from the Army Corps of Engineers. If it ever does get built, the cost of construction for the 8.5 miles east-west Ridge Road Extension will be almost twice as much as originally planned with the estimated price tag at well over $100 million. That’s in addition to the $15 million already spent.
Whatever the coast, Mariano, who is part of the delegation twisting arms in Washington this week, is undeterred. “I’m not going to quit fighting for it,” Mariano said.”Such a crucial project to the economy will help the transportation network of this whole area and it makes sense to get this done.”
“I’m not going to quit fighting for it,” Mariano said.”Such a crucial project to the economy will help the transportation network of this whole area and it makes sense to get this done.”
Does $15 million spent without nothing concrete to show for it sound like a raw deal for taxpayers? Longtime homeowner Joe Holmes sure thinks so. “It’s not too good,” Holmes said. “Not too good.” Holmes still wants the road but can’t understand why it hasn’t already
“It’s not too good,” Holmes said. “Not too good.” Holmes still wants the road but can’t understand why it hasn’t already happened after so much expended time and money. “I want it built for my children,” Holmes said.
“I want it built for my children,” Holmes said.
Pasco County says you can blame the Army Corps of Engineers and pesky environmental groups like the Audubon Society that keep throwing up roadblocks to the extension. Audubon Director of Advocacy Charles Lee calls the project a “boondoggle” and insists that’s why the Army Corps has already rejected the proposal three times. “This preserve was created to provide mitigation for the Suncoast Parkway,” Lee said. “The development industry in Pasco wants to build that road to spur more development.”
“This preserve was created to provide mitigation for the Suncoast Parkway,” Lee said. “The development industry in Pasco wants to build that road to spur more development.”
Like Mariano, Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker insists it’s a battle worth fighting at almost any cost for safety during hurricanes. “If we give up and stop today then Pasco County residents, 178,000 people who live here in the evacuation area, are potentially trapped forever,” Baker said.”All of this grown that is occurring is inevitable and those people need to be accommodated.” Baker claims
“If we give up and stop today then Pasco County residents, 178,000 people who live here in the evacuation area, are potentially trapped forever,” Baker said.”All of this grown that is occurring is inevitable and those people need to be accommodated.” Baker claims
Baker claims there is a need for 20 lanes of evacuation traffic during a hurricane and there are currently just ten on state road 52 and state road 54. Both of those roads run east and west. The proposed Ridge Road Extention would be located equidistant between them.
Lee claims the Ridge Road project is the least viable evacuation route alternative. He says county leaders could easily widen State Road 52 and State Road 54 instead of building another east-west evacuation route linking New Port Richey residents to the Suncoast Parkway and US 41 at the expense of the Serenova Preserve.
Baker insists the latest design now under consideration by the Army Corps includes several elevated sections that would allow water and wildlife to pass through and under the roadway. Baker claims the redesign will allay environmental concerns and lead to a compromise that allows Pasco to move forward with the project. But the Audubon Society remains resolute in its opposition.
“I don’t think the mitigation comes close,” Lee said.
Lee calls the Ridge Road Extension a “boondoggle” promoted as an evacuation route when the real motive is to accommodate land developers.
“The development industry in Pasco wants to build that road to spur more development,” Lee said.
Whatever the motive, you’ve already paid $14.6 million and will have to fork out at least $100 million more even if the Army Corps of Engineers agrees to grant an environmental permit.
Pasco Commissioner Mike Moore has stated he wants to pull the plug if there’s no approval by May. But the commission recently voted to hire some high-powered and expensive Washington lobbyists to keep pushing forward on a month to month fee basis, without any deadline set to kill the project.
“The quality of life is going to improve dramatically by getting this road built,” Mariano said.
He’s counting on the executive power of our new President to make it happen.
You Paid For It: Pasco Road to Nowhere now runs through the Trump White House
By Mark Douglas
Published: March 28, 2017, 1:09 pm Updated: March 28, 2017, 5:53 pm
PASCO COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) — After running through millions of dollars of your tax money, Pasco’s proposed Ridge Road Extension, also known as the “road to nowhere,” now runs through the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee all the way to the White House, all without so much as an an inch of pavement for the movement of cars and trucks.
Project backers hope political pressure from Governor Scott and President Donald Trump is just what they need to build that eight mile long hurricane evacuation road between Moon Lake Road in New Port Richey and U.S 41 in Connerton after 19 years of failed attempts to win approval from the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I think we are very close,” Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker said. “I think we are at the end.”
One way or another, let’s hope so. Pasco leaders have spent 19 years of their time and at least $15 million of your money pushing this third east to west roadway that would essentially provide a third evacuation route from the Pasco Coast Midway between State Road 52 and State Road 54 during a hurricane threat.
But environmentalists from the Audubon Society, Sierra Club and other groups decry the roadway as a betrayal of trust when county leaders set aside the Serenova wetlands preserve years ago in order to gain permission to destroy wetlands crossed by the Suncoast Parkway.
“How is something in preservation for perpetuity if you can put a road through it,” said Clay Colson who works with a group called Citizens for Sanity. “We’ve spent 19 years formulating a record that will allow us to go to court and challenge any permit that’s issued over this.”
Whatever merits either side has in their arguments, there are now some much bigger players involved in this controversy. Congressman Gus Bilirakis (R) of Tarpon Springs has been clamoring for months for construction of the roadway and now Governor Rick Scott has sent a letter to his political ally President Trump asking the President to place this project on his infrastructure priority list — essentially moving it to the front of the line when it comes to Army Corps consideration for approval.
Quest continues for Ridge Road permit
By Kathy Steele
Published: March 15, 2017
Pasco County officials are hoping a letter of support from Gov. Rick Scott, and an executive order from President Donald Trump, could finally lead to a permit to build the Ridge Road extension.
For 19 years, the county has pursued the permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for an approximately 8-mile road extension that would cut through a portion of the Serenova Preserve. The road extension is a high priority for the county to give residents an additional evacuation route during hurricanes.
But, critics of the project vow to fight an extension of the road.
Clay Colson, chairman of the nonprofit Citizens for Sanity Inc., said development, not a hurricane route, is behind the county’s efforts to extend Ridge Road through the preserve.
“The county had this idea of entitlement,” he said. “They think they are entitled to the permit.”
A county delegation, including Pasco County Administrator Michele Baker and Pasco County commissioners Kathryn Starkey and Jack Mariano, went to Washington D.C., in early March, to lobby for the project.
During an unexpected meetup with the governor, Baker asked him to write a letter supporting the project.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis also wrote a letter of support and sent it to President Trump.
According to the president’s executive order, the White House Council on Environmental Quality would have 30 days to respond to the governor’s request for priority status for Ridge Road.
Scott’s office has not responded to The Laker/Lutz News to inquiries about the letter.
The president’s executive order directs federal agencies to give priority to longstanding infrastructure projects with pending environmental reviews.
“The wheels are definitely moving to try and get it finalized,” Baker said, during the March 7 county commission meeting in Dade City.
Besides running into Scott, the group also met Ted Boling, the acting director of the White House’s council on environmental quality.
While the county may be making progress toward obtaining the permit, opponents of the road say construction of the road should not be about political pressure from letters and executive orders.
“They (federal agencies) are supposed to do their job,” Colson said.
His group and others will file a lawsuit, if the permit is granted, Colson said.
The county initially submitted its application for Ridge Road in 1998. The road dead-ends at Moon Lake Road in New Port Richey. The extension would provide a link to U.S. 41, with a connection to Suncoast Parkway in Land O’ Lakes.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reviews permit applications to determine if projects meet regulations within the Clean Water Act. If approved, projects should do a minimum of damage to the environment.
About 58 acres of the 6,000-acre Serenova Preserve are under review. The land was set aside years ago to mitigate about 200 acres of wetlands lost due to construction of the Suncoast parkway.
An elevated road design to limit environmental damage is among potential alternatives for how the road extension would be built.
Over the years, environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society, have opposed the Ridge Road project, saying it would destroy wildlife habitat and degrade water quality.
Pasco commissioners hired Washington D.C. consultants with Dawson & Associates in 2016 to lobby for the permit. The county is paying the firm about $28,000 a month.
The costs expended on the project so far, including land acquisitions and consultants, is about $19 million.
1st and foremost the Serenova Preserve was to mitigate the destruction of more than 220 acres of wetlands during the construction of the Suncoast Parkway, the preservation was to be in perpetuity, forever, for future generations. It along with 2 additional parcels were added to the Starkey Wilderness Preserve to create 19,000 contiguous acres of Florida’s natural flora and fauna in the heart of Pasco.
The number one method of proper land management is by controlled burns, a process which cannot be duplicated by mechanical means (info from Kevin Love former land manager for SWFWMD. A road bisecting the preserve would prevent controlled burns due to the safety hazard created by smoke. Certain plants require fire to regenerate and to maintain viable habitat.
The justification that the RRE would provide a viable Hurricane Evacuation Route (HER) is patently absurd for a number of reasons which the media refuses to illuminate, as well the true purpose for the road is never addressed in the media.
The reason that the permit review process has dragged on for 19 years is Pasco’s failure to properly respond to Requests for Additional Information (RAI) which are generated based on valid, relevant comments to the project, also the county has avoided illuminating the practicable alternatives already on long range transportation plans as they would undermine their justification of need.
A permit application for the RRE should be based solely on the merits of the application and not political pressure to issue an unwarranted permit that violates the very nature of preservation in perpetuity.
Environmentalists still opposing Ridge extension
Pasco officials hope stalled project gets priority
By Carl Orth: Suncoast News assistant editor
Published: March 22, 2017
NEW PORT RICHEY — Approaching two decades of debate, the saga to build the Ridge Road extension could soon take more twists and turns.
After a recent lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., Pasco County commissioners commented this month about their optimism over chances of jump-starting the stalled project. They insist it’s needed as a third hurricane evacuation route.
However, opponents still strenuously object to the possible impact to the wildlife and environment if the road is built. Clay Colson, a board director and water issues chair for Citizens for Sanity, also thinks a Ridge extension would only encourage overdevelopment here. And he challenges notions of the value of a Ridge extension for evacuations.
Colson has corresponded with federal regulators several times since February to renew objections.
After President Trump issued an executive order to hasten evaluations of high-priority infrastructure projects, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, wrote a letter to the president to urge him to include the long-delayed Ridge extension. Plus, commissioners were told last month that regulators are expediting reviews.
Originally proposed in November 1998, the Ridge extension would continue the east-west road past the point where it ends now, at Moon Lake Road and DeCubellis Road, east of New Port Richey, to the Suncoast Parkway. A possible second phase would extend Ridge Road farther to the East, to U.S. 14.
However, routes have passed through sensitive wetlands of the former Serenova Tract, which has been the major stumbling block during reviews by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps of Engineers has regulatory jurisdiction over the Ridge Road extension under the federal Clean Water Act.
Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service raised doubts about the necessity for the new road during an Army Corps comment period in 2013.
Audubon Florida rallied all its members to voice strong opposition as well. Audubon volunteers counted 69 species in the Serenova tract in a December 2011 count. The Ridge Road extension would pass through the Serenova Preserve, a sprawling tract that is home to many wildlife species.
“Public need over corporate greed,” Colson wrote at the end of his Feb. 6 letter to Col. Donald Jackson, commander of the South Atlantic Division of the Army Corps, based in Atlanta, Georgia.
Colson believes Bilirakis’ letter is “fraught with error and misinformation.”
Many practical alternatives exist to the Ridge Road extension, Colson argued, such as a proposed elevated version of S.R. 54 and 56, the Tower Road extension and the widening of S.R. 52.
Colson challenges the value of the Ridge extension as a hurricane evacuation route, which he believes would only create bottlenecks on U.S. 41 at S.R. 52 and 54.
“This has been the longest running permit application in the Corps history,” Colson commented, for which he blames Pasco officials for surveys and studies that are now outdated. “The county should be held to the present-day standards and review,” Colson argues.
Federal fish and wildlife regulators have deemed the wetlands of the Serenova preserve as an Aquatic Resource of National Importance because of their value to the watershed, Colson pointed out.
“Finally, the extension of Ridge Road is not necessary or needed, whereas the continued preservation of Serenova in its pristine state is tantamount to our quality of life and water resources,” Colson concluded.
Since Pasco has promoted itself with the slogan “It’s Only Natural,” Colson advises Pasco officials to heed the words of former Gov. Ruben Askew, a Democrat, who said, “Ecological destruction in Florida is nothing less than economic suicide.”
Our waters: Destroyed in the name of the law
By Dan Hilliard
Special to the Chronicle
Sunday August 11, 2013
There will be a hearing before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection secretary at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, at the SWFWMD headquarters in Brooksville, at 2379 Broad St., because local residents and organizations are challenging ineffective water management policy.
You are invited to attend the hearing and lend your support for our most valuable resource. Public input will be heard beginning at approximately 2 p.m.
Kayakers paddle along the Chassahowitzka River last month. Local residents unhappy with the flow rate set for the river by the Southwest Florida Water Management District will be challenging the rate at a hearing at the district’s Brooksville headquarters. The meeting will be at 8:30 a.m. Sept. 10 at 2379 Broad St.
This is for those of you who still do the 40-hour work week and manage a budget to pay for groceries, housing, clothes for the kids and a car payment or two.
Preoccupied as we are all with keeping up with the myriad chores of modern life, many have not noticed that Florida’s water policies and laws have failed to a large degree.
Our planet is about 75 percent covered by water. Of this vast quantity of water, only 1 percent to 2 percent is fresh water, and with few exceptions, only those portions found in the aquifer are of sufficient quality so as to be potable without treatment.
We are wholly dependent upon a resource that can be preserved and maintained, but under the cover of law, in Florida, it often is not. Water is our lifeblood. We depend upon it each and every day of our existence. Our surface waters are transportation conduits and powerful economic engines. We use the water in our aquifer for residential water supply, irrigation, agriculture and industrial applications with hardly a second thought.
We are past the point where a second thought is glaringly necessary.
Florida promotes development as an economic enterprise. Development is defined by Florida Statute 380 as “the carrying out of any building activity or mining operation, the making of any material change in the use or appearance of any structure or land, or the dividing of land into three or more parcels.” Such activities are dependent upon water, and 80 percent of Florida’s water supply currently comes from our aquifer. We are already using aquifer water faster than it is being replenished. We have allowed our freshwater aquifer to become contaminated with salt water, nitrates and other pollutants.
The Central Florida Water Initiative is currently attempting to identify possible water sources to supply the area’s future needs through 2035. Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) Director of Resource Management Mark Hammond was recently quoted in the Orlando Sentinel saying “Our preliminary finding is that traditional groundwater sources can meet some, but not all projected needs.”
The year 2035 is fewer than 22 years away, less time than it will take to develop alternative supply sources. Until then, we will keep pumping ground water at a furious pace, thus continuing the slide which puts us deeper in the quagmire of impaired waters. Be they springs, lakes or an estuary, much of our economy is dependent on maintaining their health.
All Citrus County coastal river systems are predominately spring-fed, and all are designated as Outstanding Florida Waters. All are also now on the EPA Impaired Waters List. Removing that smudge from waters which contribute nearly $100 million per year to Citrus County’s economy will be expensive, but it must be done. It is reasonable to defend these waters if only for the economic contribution to our lives and future generations. The foolishness must stop.
Here’s the message: Your children will carry the burden of decisions and water policies administered today, and tomorrow, by the state of Florida. Your failure to recognize and react to policies which threaten the well-being of your offspring renders you complicit in the condemnation of their future. Though the threat is more subtle than an invasion, its magnitude is no less.
What can you do? Well, get involved and argue in defense of your water so that it will be a legacy and not a liability. Join other concerned citizens and make your voice be heard.
SWFWMD sets minimum flows and levels (MFLs) standards by formulating rules in Florida Administrative Code. In setting MFLs for the Homosassa and Chassahowitzka Rivers, SWFWMD determined tripling the current level of flow reduction is acceptable despite current use and resultant pollutant contributions, which have led to their status as impaired waters. This rationale was supported by deferring Clean Water Act requirements from the rule development analysis to permitting review at a later date. The merit of that policy is worthy of challenge due to its manifest failure to protect our waters.
There will be a hearing before the secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10, at the SWFWMD headquarters in Brooksville because local residents and organizations are challenging ineffective water management policy.
You are invited to attend the hearing and lend your support for our most valuable resource. Public input will be heard beginning at approximately 2 p.m.
Dan Hilliard a director with Withlacoochee Area Residents Inc., which was organized in 1984 in response to quality of life threats posed by activities that have a high potential to degrade groundwater and surface water quality.
Hidden Secrets of Florida Springs,
Equinox Documentaries’ latest film
There are over 1,000 freshwater springs in Florida, more than any other region in the world. Native Americans worshiped them as sacred, while many visitors today regard them as enchanted. Not only do these springs fuel rivers and nurture a wonderland of plants and wildlife, they flow from an aquifer that provides drinking water for 90 percent of Floridians. Their value for recreation, real estate, and potable water is measured in billions of dollars. Florida would suffer an enormous aesthetic — and economic — loss if its springs were degraded.
In their forthcoming film, Hidden Secrets of Florida Springs, Equinox Documentaries will explore the mysteries of these springs with rare footage — revealing labyrinthic limestone chambers, rare and endemic animals, and prehistoric fossils of mastodons and other Ice Age animals. But it will also bring to light more treacherous “secrets” that show how the flow of major springs has been steadily declining over the last 50 years, and why the once pure waters are often clogged with nitrates. The most closely held secret is that humans may have done more damage to our magical springs in the last half century than others have done in the last ten thousand years.
Group resolves to protect county’s water resources
Wednesday, July 31, 2013 at 10:02 pm
THE ISSUE: Water management district plan ignores Outstanding Florida Waters law.
OUR OPINION: Support the springs interest groups mounting a legal challenge.
Some important community issues suffer from being so wrapped in regulatory doublespeak and arcane science that only a handful of citizens actively focus on them.
Water quality is one of them. Fortunately, several local citizen groups work hard to inform the rest of us about critical water quality issues and the regulatory initiatives that affect them.
There’s a new coalition of water-interest groups, called Save Our Springs — NOW. The coalition includes the Save the Homosassa River Alliance, the Chassahowitzka River Restoration Committee, the Rainbow River Conservation, Inc., the Withlacoochee Area Residents, and the Save the Manatee Club.
This coalition is mounting a legal challenge to Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD). Here’s the issue, according to a coalition member: “(T)he Homosassa, Chassahowitzka, Crystal and Withlacoochee rivers are designated as Outstanding Florida Waters (OFW) by law and as such have special restrictions on any activities that lower water quality or otherwise degrade the body of water. But SWFWMD set the OFW law aside in the Minimum Flows and Levels Program in order to maximize the consumptive withdrawal target.”
This is a new kind of water war, and we need to pay attention.
State-designated Outstanding Florida Waters are worthy of special protection according to the law. They are of exceptional recreational or ecological significance and provide environmental, social and economic benefits, the law states. Their water quality must be protected.
Well, it’s too late for that already. In a 2010 watershed assessment report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared all four of our OFWs to be impaired — which means that due to certain tracked pollutants, the waters do not meet standards that protect human health and aquatic life. The EPA requires that measures be developed, adopted and implemented to clean them up.
At the same time, though, SWFWMD is establishing “minimum flows and levels” — which are the limits at which further water withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area.
Here’s the flash point: SWFWMD says that a certain additional amount of degradation of our river waters is acceptable; the citizen group says absolutely not; It’s gone too far already. Save Our Springs — NOW contends that the OFW law should prevail, which will support the goal of recovery and restoration of the local rivers and springs.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has set a hearing for Sept. 10 at the water district office in Brooksville to consider this legal challenge. The full-day session begins at 8:30 a.m. The citizen group gets two hours, the water district gets two hours, and after lunch, public presentations are accepted.
Can’t make it to the full-day session? You still can be involved. The comment period will remain open for two weeks.
Send comments to ChassHomosassaMFL@dep.state.fl.us.
This is important. Make your voice heard to support the protection and restoration of our most precious natural resource, our waters.
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