Op-Ed by Ralph Massullo | Citrus County Chronicle
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak with one of the lifelong residents of Citrus County. His family is so entrenched in our history that a good bit of the central portion of our county bares their name. I was in awe listening to his stories about the “old days” when most of our highways were little more that dirt paths wide enough for a farm truck.
He said, “… I remember as a boy whenever more than 10 to 15 cars traveled between Crystal River and Inverness in a day there was either a parade or a big fire somewhere.” It’s amazing how things have changed and they have changed in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that the population of Citrus County before 1970 was less than 20,000 people. In 1987 it more than quadrupled to over 83,000. Today we are bordering on 144,000 people living in our beautiful county and we are still growing. While that growth is exciting, it brings challenges to our elected officials with respect to planning for the increased population and preserving, protecting and where appropriate enhancing the environment and ecology that are so vital to all of us.
One critical aspect in planning for growth is providing for adequate transportation. It takes years to envision, design, permit and construct our roads. The task is daunting and often frustrating for the public particularly if the information flow lacks periodic progress updates. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) works diligently in conjunction with the state legislature, the federal government and local authorities to ensure Florida’s transportation system is as good as it can be and hopefully one of the best in the country. Budgetary imperatives often change from year to year, sometimes based on legislative priority shifts and sometimes based on natural disasters as we have seen with Hurricane Irma, but overall FDOT tends to eventually accomplish the tasks set before them.
Most of us are very interested in the Suncoast Parkway (SR 589) and how it will traverse through our county. To date the final permit for phase 2 from U.S. 98 north to State Road 44 has been received and construction will begin very soon. Once construction commences an amendment to the permit is planned to be filed extending the terminus from SR 44 to County Road 486 and hopefully construction to that point will continue uninterrupted. Phase 3 or the recently named “Coastal Connector” is still in the envisioning phase and several years away from permitting. Rest assured, eventually our county will not just be on the end of a cul-de-sac, but rather a premier destination off a major north-south corridor on the west coast of Florida.
U.S. 41 has long been in need of upgrading. Recently the Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), which is a federally mandated transportation policymaking organization, named upgrading U.S. 41 as one of their top priorities. Currently, adding lanes and rehabilitating pavement on U.S. 41 from SR 44 to south of the Withlacoochee Trail Bridge is tentatively slated for funding of right of way (ROW) acquisition in Fiscal Years (FY) 2019-2022 with construction to begin in 2023. A subsequent portion of U.S. 41 for improvement from East Arlington St to north of State Road 200 is funded for advance acquisition in FY 2020-2021.
While our roadways are a major priority, our bike trails are also important as we grow. They serve as a great source of recreation and fitness training for our residents and promote our ecotourism nationwide. The Withlacoochee-Dunnellon Trail connector from the current north end of the Withlacoochee trail to the south end of the Dunnellon trail is fully funded for construction to begin in FY 2019 with a spectacular bike bridge eventually over U.S. 41. It will be a beautiful addition to the Sun Trail system which will someday connect all corners of our state together. Also U.S. 19/U.S. 98/S.R. 55 South Suncoast Boulevard from the Hernando County line to West Green Acres Street in Homosassa is slated for resurfacing and having a bike path/trail with right of way acquisition beginning in FY 2019 and construction tentatively funded to begin in FY 2020.
While it seems like all these projects are years away from completion, we need to maintain the vision of the beauty and utility they will provide and have the patience to stay the course until they are completed. Growth is never easy and well planned, controlled growth takes time and enormous resources. If we continue to work together we can make Citrus County even a better place to live, work and play. As far as the time required, in the words of my friend the lifelong county resident, “it goes by in a blink … you’ll see.” I have no doubt.
Dr. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, is the state representative for District 34