Is the Ridge Road Extension the only answer?
I took a little walk through the Serenova Tract the other day for the first time and I fell in love. See just a few of the pictures I took above. To have such an amazing spot so close to home to be able to hike and explore is incredible. It's a treasure. But that's not the only reason why the Ridge Road Extension through the Serenova is a bad idea. The Serenova is more than just a beautiful place to explore.
What is the Serenova?
The Serenova Tract is one of 3 tracts of the Starkey Wilderness Preserve. The 3 tracts consist of the Starkey Wilderness Park, Serenova Tract, and the Anclote River Ranch Tract. In total, there is approximately 18,000 acres of conservation land and 6,000 acres of a wetland ecosystem. Several hundred acres were donated for preservation in 1975 by Jay B. Starkey, Sr., whom the park is named after, for the purpose of protecting the land and resources for future generations.
Why is it Important?
The wetland ecosystem is home to various plants and animal species. In 2016, a bald eagle was even released into the preserve. It is an area that is prime for various species to thrive.
Additionally, the preserve acts as a natural buffer for the Pithlachascotee River (one of the areas main freshwater sources) by acting as a natural filter as water flows though the area and into the river. It is also a component in the supply system for water to the Greater Tampa Bay area.
Preserves also act as floodplains helping to decrease flooding in the area. There is no doubt that Pasco has issues with flooding.
Impact, Necessity, and Alternatives
Putting a road, even partially elevated, will have an impact on the wildlife. Species will be displaced and their food supply disrupted. There will be an impact on the floodplain and the question becomes "how much more flooding will occur as a result of this?"
This extension has been on the books since 1998. The fact that this is one of the oldest projects awaiting approval demonstrates the many issues this extension has. The Army Corps of Engineers has not simply been picking on Pasco County, they have expressed concerns about the impact to the area. A preliminary approval was finally granted for a partially elevated road last year but final approval has not been given.
It has been argued that this road is necessary for the safety of West Pasco residents in evacuation situations. If you evacuated, or attempted to evacuate, the area from Hurricane Irma last year you know that there are many issues when it comes to evacuation routes. Cars were virtually parked on all northbound routes. Obviously we need improvement. By creating another east-west route, it's been suggested that all we are doing is bottlenecking the north-south routes.
Think about it this way- have you ever been stuck in a parking lot after a large event? Every aisle dumps into one center road to head to the exit. When each car allows one car to exit the aisle, the rear of the lot is stuck. If cars do not allow someone from the aisle to enter, the front is stuck. Normal road flow isn't dictated by the same type of "honor system" as parking lots. Lights determine who gets to go. If you've ever been stuck sitting at a green light because cars ahead of you are backed up all the way to the light (I'm looking at you I-75 and SR-56 junction), you understand how this works. Adding additional east-west routes will not necessarily fix this issue.
At a cost of over $100 million for the extension, and over $15 million spent already with nothing to show for it, one has to wonder if there isn't a better use for those funds.
Expanding existing roads and improving existing intersections would go a long way in relieving gridlock and assisting in evacuation. Our roads are not equipped to handle daily traffic volume. Current expansion plans don't tend to account for additional growth and are slow to be completed. First priority should be granted to improving what we already have before investing over $100 million on a road that may not be needed once existing routes are improved.
The need to improve roadways and make it easier to travel east-west is a valid point. The execution, however, is what's up for debate. If this road is allowed, does it open the doorway for developers to seek permission to build on the preserve? Would it be beneficial enough for the residents of Pasco to justify the high price tag? Are we being coerced into thinking this is a good idea because of greed? Are there alternatives that don't destroy the Serenova that haven't been explored? At this point, even after almost 20 years, there are far too many unknowns to consider the Ridge Road Extension a good decision for the people of Pasco.