NEW PORT RICHEY — As he has on more than one occasion, U.S Rep. Gus Bilirakis has written a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers urging a decision on approving the Ridge Road extension be expedited and confirmed by early next month.
The request from Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, came a little less than two weeks after the project’s estimated approval date, Sept. 23, came and went. This is not the first time Bilirakis has urged the Corps of Engineers to expedite its review of the Ridge Road extension project.
The Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over Pasco County’s request for a permit to extend Ridge Road to the east, to the Suncoast Parkway toll road, under the federal Clean Water Act. Most of the proposed route of the Ridge Road extension runs through the Serenova Tract, a 6,500-acre preserve managed by the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Sept. 23 was the date the Pasco County Commission was given in early April for a permit decision from the Corps of Engineers. At the time, the Ridge Road extension project manager, Sam Bennett, told commissioners the objections to the project that had been filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service had been withdrawn and consultation with Fish and Wildlife and a statement of findings were expected on Sept. 9.
The current route of Ridge Road runs east from U.S. 19 in Port Richey to Moon Lake-DeCubellis Road, in the River Ridge area.
The timeline Bennett gave commissioners in April also anticipated a permit being approved by the Corps on Sept. 23. Pasco County has been seeking a permit to construct the Ridge Road extension for some 20 years.
The letter to the Corps of Engineers from Bilirakis, dated Oct. 3, is confirmation the agency had not made a decision by the anticipated date.
“I have been advised that you have allocated an unprecedented amount of staff time to this project, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your efforts,” Bilirakis wrote to Col. Andrew Kelly, the Jacksonville district commander of the Corps of Engineers. “As we discussed during our recent meeting, this project has already been delayed numerous times in the past. I urge you to take the necessary steps to ensure a decision is rendered in early November.”
Bilirakis, whose House district includes all of Pasco County, wrote that any further delays “would negatively impact the public safety of our community” citing the prevention of the emergency hurricane route from being operational at the start of the 2021 hurricane season.
Opponents of the Ridge Road extension say the county is overstating the proposed roadway’s usefulness as an evacuation route and ignoring alternatives that would have less of an environmental impact. They have pledged to launch a court challenge if the Corps of Engineers were to approve a permit for the Ridge Road extension project.
County officials have said they have taken numerous steps to lessen the impact of the Ridge Road extension on wildlife and other parts of the environment.
According to Brendan Fitterer, Pasco County public information officer, the Corps of Engineers “continues to review the materials we have submitted.”
Fitterer added: “Pasco County is providing any revisions, additional information, or other assistance as it is requested. Pasco County remains committed to delivering this project as soon as possible.”
Fitterer noted the county has already advertised a Request for Statement of Qualifications for construction and engineering services as well as a construction contract which includes incentives to meet the following schedule:
• July 28, 2020 — Completion of a full four-lane section of Moon Lake Road to east of Town Center Road, providing additional access for existing schools and neighborhoods.
• May 31, 2021 — Completion of one eastbound land and one westbound lane east of Town Center Road to west of Suncoast Interchange and a full four-lane section west of Suncoast Interchange to east of Suncoast Interchange, providing additional hurricane evacuation route and capacity.
• May 31, 2022 — Full four-land section east of Town Center Road to west of Suncoast Interchange and completion of overall project, providing additional hurricane capacity.