Kevin Thibault interview

FDOT Secretary Kevin Thibault answers a question for The Florida Channel during the initial M-CORES Task Force meetings in Tampa in August 2019. 

It could go here. It could go there. It could go anywhere.

Or nowhere.

All options for extending the Suncoast Parkway north from Citrus County, and connecting the Florida Turnpike into it somewhere along the way, are on the table now that task forces have wrapped up their work, Florida Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault said.

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The three task forces created with M-CORES — Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance — finished their work last week. Thibault spoke to reporters via remote news conferences.

Final reports from the groups are scheduled for delivery to Gov. Ron DeSantis by Nov. 15.

Thibault said he would expect studies that could lead to proposed corridors, along with determining whether the projects are economically or environmentally feasible, are expected to start early next year.

Even though the M-CORES legislation calls for construction to start on the projects — extending the Suncoast to Interstate 10 in Jefferson County; extending the turnpike to as yet an unknown point on the Suncoast; and a Central Florida connector unrelated to Citrus County — by 2022, Thibault said the “no build” option always exists.

“No-build options are still part of the process,” he said. “We’ve got to follow the statutes. We can’t go with the main phases, like construction for example, without getting those tests and studies completed.”

Task forces were convened to help FDOT officials prepare corridors by pointing out areas to avoid, such as springsheds, farm land and development clusters. While the groups were not tasked with recommending whether or not to build the roads, both the Suncoast and Turnpike task forces suggested the state use existing roadways rather than build new ones.

Thibault said that could mean rural portions of U.S. 19 will be used as they are while the state builds new sections to avoid congested areas.

“FDOT will look at all the different options available to us from Citrus County north,” he said. “Whether it be an existing corridor, like U.S. 19, or some portion of a new corridor. It could be a hybrid of both.”

Contractors for the state are now extending the Suncoast Parkway from U.S. 98 in northern Hernando County to State Road 44 in Lecanto, with completion expected in early 2022. The state then plans to continue the roadway another 3 miles to County Road 486.

Asked if a drop in state revenue, including gasoline taxes and tolls, due to COVID-19 could affect the construction timeline of the S.R 44-C.R. 486 section, Thibault said it could.

“Right now that’s still our plan,” he said. “If we need to make an adjustment to that plan, it could move the project out a few months or a year at the most.”

Thibault said he’s also heard from Citrus County commissioners and residents of the Pine Ridge community who want the road continued to U.S. 19 at Red Level, as were part of the state’s original plans for what was known as Suncoast 2.

He said that’s possible but not if it doesn’t fit with the entire project.

“We don’t want to build something that we end up having to tear up,” he said. “We don’t want to waste those moneys and those funds just to do interim connections.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com. To view more of his stories, go to www.tinyurl.com/y3bakm6w.