It was a chilly day in March 2009 when the state announced a stoppage of plans to extend the Suncoast Parkway into Citrus County.
The news was somewhat expected: Florida’s economy was spinning into recession and the state could no longer afford to spend millions on planning a toll road.
Still, it was a rough time for Citrus County’s community and political leaders who had long counted on the parkway to spur economic growth well into the future.
Turns out it was just a speed bump.
Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed into law Senate Bill 100, which lays the groundwork to complete the Suncoast Parkway to U.S. 19 north of Crystal River, send it farther north alongside U.S. 19 to Interstate 10, and allows the state to begin planning a route to extend the Florida Turnpike from Wildwood to a yet unknown point along U.S. 19 or the Suncoast.
The demoralization of 12 years ago was replaced Thursday with certainty and hope.
“This pretty much sets everything in stone,” said Josh Wooten, president and chief executive officer of the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce. “We haven’t had that clarity for 25 years.”
DeSantis had planned on a public bill signing Thursday morning at the parkway construction site near State Road 44 in Lecanto, but was diverted instead to Miami to visit the location of a deadly condominium building collapse that occurred early Thursday morning.
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said DeSantis signed the bill Thursday evening.
Simpson said he understood the significance of completing the parkway through Citrus.
“I heard very loud and clear even before I represented Citrus County ... they needed to have that finished,” Simpson said.
The state has had various approaches to extending the Suncoast since the section between the Veterans Expressway and U.S. 98 in northern Hernando County opened in 2001.
Design, plans and buying right of way for what was known as Suncoast 2 — the 47 miles between U.S. 98 and U.S. 19 at Red Level — continued thereafter even though nothing was budgeted for construction.
The state’s shutdown of the project for financial reasons in 2008 kept it on hiatus for five years when then-Gov. Rick Scott announced a plan to extend the parkway to S.R. 44 as a regional effort to connect northwest Florida to Tampa Bay, and reduce congestion on I-75 near Gainesville.
That led to creation of the I-75 Relief Task Force which, after a year of meetings, concluded the better plan was to increase the capacity of the freeway and other roads rather than build new roads.
The state followed that with “Coastal Connector,” a Suncoast extender to I-75 meant to relieve Ocala traffic. It was widely panned by local governments, and the state removed it.
Former Senate President Bill Galvano in 2019 proposed M-CORES — Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance — to prepare construction of three roadways: Suncoast north to I-10; turnpike extended to Suncoast and another toll road connecting Polk and Collier counties. The Legislature passed the bill and three task forces met for over a year — some in person, some virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic — and all three recommended expanding capacity on current roads before building new ones.
Meanwhile, Citrus County asked the state to consider an interchange at C.R. 486. Though not in the original plans, state transportation officials did just that. Work on that 3-mile section between S.R. 44 and C.R. 486 is expected to start soon after the current parkway project concludes later this year.
Senate Bill 100 replaces M-CORES. It eliminates the Polk-Collier road, keeps in place the turnpike extension and requires any northern extension of the Suncoast to start at U.S. 19 and incorporate the highway in the toll road’s design.
And, unlike M-CORES’s strict deadline of having the entire projects designed and built in 10 years, the bill DeSantis signs gives the Florida Department of Transportation until 2035 to develop the project.
Simpson said that gives FDOT plenty of time to develop a route to extend the Suncoast north of Citrus County.
Commissioner Holly Davis said the certainty that comes with the bill should take a lot of guesswork out of planning.
“It allows us to catch up and plan with confidence what the future will bring,” she said. “The worst case scenario was them stopping in the middle of the county.”