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Going To The End Of The Suncoast Parkway Toll Road - At Least For Now

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a bill that would mandate construction of a new toll road and extend two others through relatively untouched parts of the state. So WUSF took a drive to the end of the Suncoast Parkway  - at least for now - to see what we would find.

I drove  north on the Suncoast Parkway, State Road 589, from where it begins in northern Hillsborough County to its terminus at U.S. Highway 98 on the Citrus-Hernando county line. There wasn't much traffic once I got north of State Road 50, in Hernando County. At the end, where it joins U.S. 98, I get out of my car. Not much here, but a lot of crickets.

But a look to the left, to the west, and there are three giant construction cranes. They're building an extension of the toll road that will go north to State Road 44 in Citrus County.

I drove west on U.S. 98 to the first subdivision I saw - Oak Village at Sugarmill Woods. I stopped to talk to the first person I encountered in the mid-morning heat. Allison Tsai was watering the garden at her house, one of a few studded among the gently sloping piney hills along a winding two-lane main street.

"Well, you can have a lot less traffic on 19," Tsai said of her reason for favoring the Parkway's expansion.

Tsai moved here 23 years ago, when there were just a couple of houses. Still, she says a few more houses wouldn't be such a bad thing.

"Well, I don't want it to be like New York City." she said. "But its a good thing. It's improvement. It's progress."

I then traveled further west on U.S. 98 to the first shopping center I saw - a Publix at the corner of U.S. 19.

There, a flock of chirping birds stood guard while I took an informal survey of how residents feel about the Parkway expansion..And most of them seem to want it, for one reason.

"Two years ago, when that Irma came through, at 4 o'clock in the morning, I could not get out on that highway. I mean, it was terrible," said John Kenzora.  He says he's read the Parkway expansion would help people evacuate to the Georgia state line.

"Yeah, I think it's a good idea, since they're going to go all the way to Georgia," he said. "And I don't know why people are complaining about it. I really don't. "

"I think it's a good idea, since they're going to go all the way to Georgia. And I don't know why people are complaining about it." - John Kenzora of Chassahowitzka

The bill signed by Gov. DeSantis authorizes a task force to extend the Suncoast Parkway all the way to the Georgia state line. But Georgia officials have gone on record as saying they don't know anything about it. It would connect to the Florida Turnpike, which runs north from Miami and ends at Interstate 75. Another toll road would run directly through the middle of the state, connecting Polk and Collier counties. It's basically a resurrection of the Heartland Parkway, which two previous governors blocked.

The toll roads are the brainchild of new Senate President Bill Galvano. The Bradenton Republican says it would help with hurricane evacuation, as well as spur development in rural regions. But there have been no studies saying it's needed. No traffic surveys. Nothing. Including how much it will cost - and who will pay for it.

The Parkway extension would split the Chassahowitzka and Citrus Wildlife Management Areas. Farther north, it would cut through some of the last remaining undeveloped areas in the Florida peninsula.

"We will mount the most massive campaign Sierra Club has ever done in Florida in our history to stop those toll roads." - Frank Jackalone of the Florida Sierra Club

Sierra Club Florida director Frank Jackalone issued this declaration during an Earth Day news conference in St. Petersburg: "If this bill is passed, we will declare war on all of those who have sponsored it," he said. "We will mount the most massive campaign Sierra Club has ever done in Florida in our history to stop those toll roads."

Back at the Citrus County Publix, Kenzora says he understands the concern, but he could stand a little more development.  His wife grew up on a farm and she wanted to move here from Hudson. He just wants a place to go for a good cup of coffee with friends.

"For the animals, it isn't good," he said. " But we've got to start doing things around here. I mean, I've lived here 13 years and there's not much going on."

And then, locals like Debbie Sachs are split about the road's impact. She operates a nearby Circle K, so she would welcome more traffic. But she moved here from the congested Washington D.C. suburbs in Maryland, so she's not crazy about the idea of more traffic.

"I don't know what it's going to do," she said. "It might bypass us totally. I'm not certain what that's going to bring. I still haven't gotten a grip on what's going to happen. Are people going to get off and come here? "

Sachs remembers the gridlock on U.S. 19 during Hurricane Irma, too.

Suncoast Parkway
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
A sign of things to come at the Suncoast Parkway's northern end on U.S. 98

"There's a lot of people that are very conscious of not taking the road because of the tolls," she said. "I really thought it was all about evacuation. That they needed something in case of emergency, that people have a way to get out and I thought that was the whole purpose of it. Is that right? That's what I thought."

Backers of the toll roads say they will promote development. Development has already come to where the Suncoast Parkway currently ends, There, in an area that was nothing but pine trees, is a sign heralding the future entrance of 3,100 units for Seville Communities of Hernando County.

Suncoast Parkway
Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF Public Media
WUSF Public Media
Not much traffic on the Suncoast Parkway, either ahead or behind

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.