NEW PORT RICHEY — If you want results, go straight to the top.
That’s what U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis did last week with a letter to the desk of newly inaugurated President Donald Trump.
Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is vice chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, had a much more local issue on his mind: the Ridge Road extension.
In 2014 Bilirakis accused the Army Corps of Engineers of “stonewalling” Pasco County’s effort to win approval for the Ridge Road extension construction project.
As the owner of the historic Mara Lago estate in Palm Beach, the newly installed president is no stranger to the Sunshine State, where Gov. Rick Scott was an early supporter. And he is now abreast of an issue regarding a six-mile stretch of Port Richey and New Port Richey asphalt.
“For the last eighteen years, this important project has been stuck in a quagmire of federal regulations and repetitive procedures in the Army Corps [of Engineers] review process,” Bilirakis wrote in the letter to Trump that is viewable on his website, www.bilirakis.house.gov. In 2014, Bilirakis suggested the Corps of Engineers’ environmental permit review process was outmoded and needed upgrading.
The Jacksonville District office of the Corps of Engineers and environmental groups have been expressing concerns about proposed routes for the Ridge Road extension that would run through the Serenova Tract, which is part of the Southwest Florida Water Management District-owned Starkey Preserve. The Serenova Tract, once slated for development as a large planned community, was set aside to mitigate the environmental impact of the Suncoast Parkway toll road.
Pasco County has spent nearly two decades trying to get the Corps of Engineers to approve its plan to extend Ridge Road from its current end at Moon Lake Road-DeCubellis Road to the Suncoast Parkway. A possible second phase would extend the road farther east, to U.S. 41.
The Corps of Engineers has regulatory jurisdiction over the Ridge Road extension project under the federal Clean Water Act.
Pasco officials and other backers of the project say the Ridge Road extension is needed to improve the overall transportation system in West Pasco and provide a third major east-west evacuation route. Opponents say there are alternatives that would do less environmental harm, such as improvements to the two existing main east-west corridors, State Road 54 and State Road 52.
Bilirakis’ letter to the president came in response to Trump’s recent executive order, “Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals for High Priority Infrastructure Projects.” The initiative is intended to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of designated infrastructure projects by eliminating or streamlining bureaucratic review processes viewed as cumbersome or unnecessary by the new administration.
As detailed in Bilirakis’ letter, he is requesting the extension of Ridge Road be designated as a “high priority” project. Section 2 of the executive order gives governors and elected state officials the opportunity to submit projects to the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Within 30 days of a project’s submission, the chairman will decide whether an infrastructure project qualifies as “high priority.”
Besides the nearly 20 years of inaction on Ridge Road, Bilirakis stresses the project’s importance in relation to residents’ overall well-being during the state of emergency. He cited the more than 2,600 battered homes and $89 million worth of damages Pasco County suffered last year during Hurricane Hermine to emphasize the project’s importance.
“Unfortunately, during a flood event, people are limited in their roadway options to evacuate the area, putting their lives at risk,” Bilirakis wrote. “Over twenty years ago, Pasco County diagnosed this concern and proposed an eastward extension of Ridge Road, which is expected to facilitate the evacuation of 178,000 people who live within two miles of the road and have no other timely egress from coastal waters.”