Driving up to the College of Central Florida campus Thursday night for the turnpike meeting I had the feeling I had been here before.
And I had – more times than I can count.
Can anyone keep track of the Florida Department of Transportation public meetings on road projects? In the past few years, I’ve attended dozens and they all follow the same theme.
This latest salvo is resurrecting an idea decades ago to extend Florida’s Turnpike from Wildwood to some part west, probably U.S. 19 between Crystal River and Chiefland. The idea is the future Suncoast Parkway will skirt U.S 19 and then skip around towns and communities, reaching I-10 in Jefferson County.
Thursday night, yet another room full of concerned citizens wanted to know if this turnpike idea, which is seriously on no one’s radar, is really going anywhere. Like through their front yard.
The likely answer: Maybe.
The turnpike was the surviving project of three studied by M-CORES, yet another state highway idea brought by politicians who seem to have little regard with spending millions of dollars on projects that have little chance of survival.
Not saying that’s the turnpike’s fate. Just saying we’ve been here many, many times.
Citrus County seems to be the epicenter for the state’s toll road future. With the Suncoast opening in early 2022 at S.R. 44, and legislation now in place to move it further along to U.S. 19 at Red Level, the state has had various plans to move it further north in some direction.
But it faces a political reality that didn’t exist in Citrus, which has longed for the Suncoast Parkway since it was a gleam in the eye of Tampa Bay lawmakers many years ago. It made sense from an economic standpoint to connect Citrus with the Tampa area, and the parkway does that.
The state, though, has found less willing partners north of us. And therein lies the problem, so to speak.
The Legislature and governor can say they want a new road, but the law requires local support. Sure enough, the FDOT maps for the four propose turnpike routes already have the city of Dunnellon up in arms and the city council there has come out in opposition.
Based on past attempts – I-75 Relief Task Force, M-CORES, Coastal Connector – the state has found very little support in counties to the north to ram an expressway through their rural land.
Gotta give FDOT folks credit though. No one runs a better public information meeting, probably because they’ve done it so often.
So what’s going to happen with the turnpike? The law requires a report to the governor and Legislature by end of next year. Senate President Wilton Simpson said he expects the state to put turnpike plans into a work program, but the priority is extending the Suncoast.
In other words, don’t get too frantic now.
Several people have wondered where the county commission is on this. That’s a fair question, but rather than ask commissioners if they support or don’t support the turnpike extension, let’s have a conversation over how we feel about being connected via high-speed toll roads to Orlando. What’s the economic benefit for us then?
Fortunately, there’s plenty of time. Our experience with FDOT tells us not to get too excited one way or another about the turnpike extension. Maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t. Hate to think of transportation planning in that way, but welcome to Florida.
Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.