When it comes to the Suncoast Parkway, you won’t find a bigger collective supporter than the Citrus County Commission.
Not just the current board, but county commission majorities have enthusiastically backed the parkway into and through Citrus County for over 20 years.
Commissioners are giddy about the parkway’s expected opening to S.R. 44 in January, and the work that’s expected to follow – parkway to C.R. 486, then to U.S. 19 near Red Level.
So, all cheer for the parkway.
The Florida Turnpike extension? Not so much. And that’s where it gets tricky.
The state wants to extend the turnpike from Wildwood to either the Suncoast Parkway or U.S. 19. It has proposed four potential routes – two generally go through Marion and Levy counties, and the other two generally go through Citrus, slicing near Inverness and Hernando, into Citrus Springs.
Two public meetings are set this week at the College of Central Florida – Tuesday in Chiefland and Thursday in Lecanto. I haven’t heard a soul in Citrus County who thinks this is a good idea so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of reaction state transportation folks get at these meetings.
Also interesting is the county commission’s silence.
Bill Hunter, a recent resident of Pine Ridge, attends the county commission meetings regularly. Near the conclusion of last Tuesday’s meeting, during the public comment portion, he got up and asked commissioners their views on the turnpike extension. Are they for it or against it?
He received the political version of the deer in the headlights look. Commissioners talked in generalities and Chairman Ron Kitchen Jr. noted the board hasn’t taken a position. The county administrator said he would schedule an agenda item for commissioners to do that.
The truth, though, is county commissioners want nothing to do with this turnpike issue.
Citrus County has become known as a team player for regional transportation issues. Our commissioners and county staff are well versed in the numerous state studies that have taken place the last 10 years trying to create a regional toll road network in these parts.
Even as the Suncoast Parkway took on different roles – 486 interchange yes! 486 no! 486 yes! – Citrus County has supported whatever Tallahassee has in mind for the parkway. That’s because the parkway routes have existed for years. A deviation here and there, but few people can say the parkway caught them off guard.
Not so for the turnpike. The parkway connects Citrus with Tampa Bay. The turnpike connects Citrus with Wildwood. You see the difference.
I’ve heard commissioners say their view on the turnpike and other toll roads is immaterial, that the state will do what it wants. Actually, that’s a cop out because the exact OPPOSITE is true. The state will not build a road without local support in the form of backing from the local government.
That’s why the state has had such difficulty sending the parkway north out of Citrus. While Citrus County eagerly awaited its turn as the toll road connected Hernando and Pasco counties to Tampa, the same eagerness does not exist north of us. Levy and Marion counties, in particular, generally do not support new highways through their vast open spaces.
Yet, the state Legislature wants a report by the end of next year on the best way to connect the turnpike to U.S. 19 or some who-knows-where spot on the parkway. Two of the four proposed alignments cut through Citrus County, particularly Citrus Springs.
Citrus County commissioners support the parkway and all the political advantages that go with it. They don’t want to mess with that on the turnpike, but you can bet they’ll soon start hearing from constituents about a map showing asphalt and guardrails where their front yard is now.
Where does the county commission stand on the turnpike extension?
Between a rock and a hard place.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 35 years.