NEW PORT RICHEY — It takes a big event to attract all five county commissioners and the county administrator.
But, when several of their predecessors show up along with a U.S. representative and heads of the Pasco County Economic Development Council, Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce and school district it becomes more than an event.
It becomes where vision meets reality.
All of those current and former county officials and dignitaries were given the chance to grab a shovel Jan. 13 and move the first earth to construct the Ridge Road extension.
The ceremony took place where Town Center Road comes to a dead end.
“It’s another great day in Pasco County,” remarked Commission Chairman Mike More as he began the ceremony.
He was joined in making remarks by his County Commission colleagues, Ron Oakley, Kathryn Starkey, Mike Wells and Jack Mariano.
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, also stepped to the podium to comment on the project’s history and the steps to reality. Bilirakis had on several occasions accused the Army Corps of Engineers of taking too long to review the county’s application for an environmental permit for the Ridge Road extension project under the federal Clean Water Act, a process that took some 20 years.
All of the morning’s speakers noted the long road which had to be taken in order to start the journey allowing for the extra miles to be added, eventually ending at U.S. 41 by the time the second phase of the $90 million project is completed, in 2025.
The Corps of Engineers gave its stamp of approval to the plan Dec. 20, and issued the permit that allows work to begin.
Although area environmentalists and wildlife groups have opposed the Ridge Road extension, there were no protestors observed within the area of the groundbreaking site. Much of the 8-mile length of phase one of the Ridge Road extension runs through the Serenova Tract, part of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve, which is under the control of the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Another focus of the morning was how the new east-west connector will aid in hurricane evacuations.
“This means a safer way out of town during hurricane emergencies,” New Port Richey Mayor Rob Marlowe said prior to the start of the ceremony.
State Route 54, the county’s main east-west route across the southern part of Pasco, would be “useless” during a disaster evacuation because a million people coming from Pinellas County would turn onto S.R. 54, Marlowe said, adding, “This gives us another option.”
“It’s going to be big for us,” said Pasco Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning. “This will provide another in and out for River Ridge Middle-High School. Right now, we have continuing traffic issues at arrival and dismissal times. So, this is a very big deal for us.”
The River Ridge school complex is on Town Center Road, which is a dead end.
Pasco Economic Development Council President and CEO Bill Cronin sees another positive for the county.
“This opens up development in a whole new area in a positive way,” Cronin said. “We have developers working together with land owners to make things happen, as well as providing another corridor for east-west access.
“This helps not just for hurricane evacuation, but moving people to and from their jobs and just doing the things we all do on a regular basis such as going to the market. The more we have ‘live, work and play’ in the same area, the less people will get on the roads every day.
“People hopefully will be getting on the road with less people going to Tampa, Pinellas and Hillsborough, as we retain and create more jobs here,” Cronin said.