THE ISSUE: The Suncoast Parkway.

OUR OPINION: Compromise proposal makes sense.

The need for a "north-south" limited-access highway along the west coast of Florida has been discussed for more than 40 years. Those discussions have resulted in the construction of the Suncoast Parkway from Tampa on the south all the way to State Road 44 in the middle of Citrus County.

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The goal has always been to move traffic all the way up to I-10 in North Florida. We all know that I-75 and I-95, the two existing limited-access highways in the state, are overcrowded to the extreme. When hurricanes hit south Florida, as they have done in recent years, the traffic fleeing the southern counties has come to a stand-still on I-75, U.S. 19 and all roads going north.

An alternative is desperately needed.

As Citrus County residents know, the Suncoast Parkway extension is now under construction from U.S. 98 at Sugarmill Woods to S.R. 44 in Lecanto. The next phase of the project, from S.R. 44 to County Road 486 near the entrance of Pine Ridge is in the planning stages.

The guiding philosophy just last year was that the Suncoast would be constructed through the rural counties of West Central Florida all the way to I-10. Like everything else in our world, the COVID pandemic has turned the plans upside down.

Revenue sources for the state have been slammed by COVID. Most of the state and federal dollars available are being used to fight off the economic and health crisis caused by the pandemic.

At the same time, there has been opposition to build the new parkway from environmental organizations. Some local governments in the northern counties are fighting to protect the rural way of life enjoyed by their residents.

Fortunately, Sen. Wilton Simpson is president of the Florida Senate right now and he knows a good compromise when he sees one. Sen. Simpson has offered his vision for a Suncoast Connector route that completes the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus County where it would connect with existing portions of U.S. 19.

Sen. Simpson’s plan would greatly reduce the cost of the project going north and would make use of existing state right-of-way along U.S. 19. For those who currently travel north to Levy County along U.S. 19, those improved four-lane highways are underutilized at this time.

Bypass plans would be developed to move traffic around the small towns such as Chiefland and Cross City.

In our view, the compromise strategy makes good sense. While lots of details need to be worked out, the proposal would provide an efficient way to move traffic with a lower cost and a minimum impact on the environment.

Coincidentally, the idea of making use of U.S. 19 was the key proposal made 40 years ago before the federal government got involved in the process.

There are some legislators opposed to spending any dollars on the Suncoast Parkway because they would prefer that all resources be used to solve problems in the booming metro areas. Stopping the Suncoast where it now ends, in the middle of Citrus County, would be an absurd abandonment of proper planning.

For the record, if transportation dollars are not spent to solve the problems in this part of Florida, our traffic problems will end up like Miami’s in the decades to come.

Florida can’t give up on the Suncoast Parkway. We urge Sen. Simpson to continue to move his compromise proposal forward.