CHIEFLAND – If the Florida Department of Transportation and the state legislature were dentists, there is no doubt they have hit a nerve during their research mission to extend the Florida Turnpike to the northwest, from Wildwood to U.S. 19.
On Tuesday, about 1,000 people attended a public meeting to look at large displays and PowerPoint videos that detailed why the northern turnpike extension was needed and more details about where the road may transverse if approved by lawmakers.
But what this "Northern Turnpike Extension Public Kickoff Meeting," as it was billed by Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, revealed is that the issue is still divisive. No one wants it in their backyard and only a few see the benefits in relieving traffic congestion.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, which falls under the Florida Department of Transportation, unveiled four possible routes several weeks ago. Three of those routes touch southwestern Marion County, though not as intrusively as a plan ditched in 2019.
That older plan riled Marion County officials. The plan was to build a parkway right through the heart of Marion County, through horse farms that have put Marion on the map as the "Horse Capital of the World." Local officials fended off that plan.
On a beautiful Tuesday evening at the College of Central Florida's Jack Wilkinson Levy Campus on U.S. 19, five miles north of Chiefland, mostly Levy County residents came out by the carload, many with signs declaring they don't want the new road.
All available parking spaces were filled and some vehicles were turned away because parking had reached capacity.
The meeting had an open house format. Florida's Turnpike Enterprise had a large staff on hand to cordially listen to residents and show them charts and graphs on easels.
There were no formal discussions. Residents had no microphones to speak their minds. Instead, people wandered throughout the immaculate campus, sharing how one route or another would destroy their land and/or neighborhood.
There were many people concerned with the environment, others about the hundreds of millions in cost. News of the impending meeting even led to an impromptu discussion earlier in the day at the Marion County Commission meeting.
During that conversation, Commissioner Michelle Stone talked about how the turnpike could help with traffic congestion in southwest Marion, while Commissioner Kathy Bryant said she does not want it at all in Marion.
In the end, Tuesday night was just the first of many meetings planned to get input from residents. On Tuesday, and again Thursday night at CF's Citrus County campus in Lecanto, residents filled out, or will be able to fill out, comment cards for researchers to read.
Angela Starke, director of communications for Florida's Turnpike Enterprise, said Tuesday that the agency is conducting research, as requested by the state legislature, which passed Senate Bill 100.
The bill states that Florida Department of Transportation will conduct a study to determine the best route from "its northerly terminus in Wildwood to a logical and appropriate terminus," which has been identified as U.S. 19.
Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is working on gathering information on the four routes. Florida Department of Transportation is expected to present a completed study and recommendation to the legislature by late 2022.
"This is the beginning of the early stages of this process," Stake said on Tuesday. "So tonight we are looking at collecting comment cards from people, talking with people, getting public input and public feedback about this project."
She noted that the agency has identified four alternative potential corridors.
"And by identifying those corridors will allow us to figure out which one might be best to move to the PD process," she said.
Mostly Levy residents attended Tuesday's event north of Chiefland
Dan and Linda Evans stood in the large lobby of CF's Levy campus building and shared how one of the routes, dubbed Alternate Corridor North A, would come close to their Levy home in Steeplechase Farms subdivision in Morriston.
Northern A route crosses south of Marion Oaks and then across State Road 200, just north of the Withlacoochee River near the Florida Highlands. It then heads north and connects with Southwest 140th Avenue.
Southwest 140th Avenue is just east of the Marion County Airport. The route would cross State Road 40 and then head west into Levy County, skirting the Goethe State Forest. It would then head north west of Bronson and hit U.S. 19 just north of Chiefland.
Linda stood directly in the middle of the lobby, holding two signs. One had "Not This" printed on top of an enlarged Star-Banner photograph of Interstate 75 traffic. The other sign said "This," which unveiled scenic wildlife photos from her area.
Her husband, Dan, also held a sign that read in part: "No Toll Roads."
Alex Reis, who also lives in Steeplechase Farms, said the "northern A option is not the best option to take because it will be 65 to 70 miles long, from Wildwood to Chiefland."
"The cost of construction is $10 million to $15 million per mile, which means it will be nearly $1 billion to build," said Reis, adding that the Alternate Corridor North B is the shortest route and therefore more cost effective.
North B route skirts to the west of Marion Oaks and passes near the intersection of SR 200 and County Road 484. It then heads north and curves west across SR 40 and U.S. 41 and then heads southwest to U.S. 19 just north of Yankeetown.
"Option B could be $700 million cheaper to build," he noted.
Stewart Leland and his wife, Karen, also walked around the campus looking at signs.
"It will only be a few miles from our house," said Karen Leland, who added they just retired in Pennsylvania and purchased their forever home. "A lot of our neighbors say it will got through their property and they would have to move."
One unidentified woman, who said she lives on many acres in Levy County, said that the previous Suncoast Parkway study came to the conclusion in 2018 that Interstate 75 should be expanded to solve traffic woes.
That proposed parkway would have went though much of Marion County.
"Our state roads are already so unkempt," she noted. "Why build another one when they haven't maintained I-75?"
Marion commission has short turnpike discussion and decides to revisit issue later this month
Earlier Tuesday, the Marion County Commission considered sending the FDOT a letter about the proposed turnpike extension, but instead decided to wait until its next meeting to address the issue.
By then, commissioners agreed, county staff will have attended the public meetings and be well prepared to report on how the proposed routes might affect Marion.
Commissioner Bryant originally sought faster action, suggesting the commission ask FDOT to follow the M-CORES task force's previous recommendations, which would protect Marion County.
"It (the proposed extension) doesn't have to come through Marion County," Bryant said.
But Commissioner Stone noted that Marion has traffic trouble, especially in south county, and she doesn't want the commission to signal complete opposition to a turnpike extension on local soil.
"Let them (the FDOT) go through the process," Stone said.
Bryant said the commission has been "inundated with emails" about the matter, and noted that while commissioners serve countywide, they also represent districts – and her district, which is No. 2, covers west Marion, where the road would run.
Commission Chairman Carl Zalak is skeptical that the FDOT will give great deference to local governments this time around, since the Florida Legislature has directed the state agency to find a path for the road.
Still, he is willing to have the discussion – just not so soon. Commissioner Craig Curry echoed that sentiment, noting that he needed at least a week to study the issue.
The topic was not on the commission's agenda for Tuesday; rather, the issue was raised by several residents during public comment.
"Today's not the day" to take formal action, Zalak said.
Meetings will continue through much of 2022, officials said
The Florida Department of Transportation map for the proposed turnpike extension shows routes stretching from where it ends near Wildwood northwest to, or near, where the Suncoast Highway (Florida 589) is expected to connect to U.S. 19 north of Inglis.
The FDOT slated the two meetings, the one Tuesday and the one in Lecanto on Thursday, to unveil the four proposed routes. Beside northern A and B, there are "Central" and "South" routes.
Those two routes are more westerly, though the "Central" route does head through southern Marion County. It will cross SR 200 just north of Withlacoochee River. It would connect to U.S. 19 just north of Crystal River.
The "South" route brings the turnpike west through Sumter County along power line right of way along State Road 44 and then turns north of Inverness and connects to Central plan and heads west to just north of Crystal River.
Back in 2016, FDOT had planned a costal connector highway through Marion, Levy and Alachua counties. The plan was abandoned a few years later after local officials pushed back. Marion officials vowed it would cripple the horse industry.
Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida, said a few weeks ago that it is "our hope" that state leaders will drop the northern routes out of the running pack.
'No Roads to Ruin Coalition' adds to turnpike extension debate
Also in attendance on Tuesday was Michael McGrath, a spokesman for the "No Roads to Ruin Coalition." He handed out a statement from the agency's steering committee.
“Although Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance (M-CORES) was technically repealed by SB 100 last legislative session, not all of the threats were vanquished – chief among them the proposed Northern Turnpike Extension," the joint statement noted.
This extension was "a disastrous idea when it was proposed in 2019 under the M-CORES banner, and it remains so today," the release stated.
"If built, this extension would destroy large swaths of Florida’s last remaining rural lands, threaten waterways with pollution, endanger iconic wildlife, disrupt farmlands, and promote unsustainable sprawl," the release stated.
It also noted that "It is no surprise that of nearly 10,000 comments submitted to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) regarding proposed M-CORES toll routes, 93% were opposed."
Though the route may be opposed by many, the need is great for easing traffic backups on I-75. In southwestern Marion, where 25,000-plus homes and several thousand multi-family units are poised to be built, the turnpike extension could ease congestion.
"We do look at where population is increasing," Starke said of the many factors that the Florida's Turnpike Enterprise will be reviewing in the study process.
Managing Editor Jim Ross contributed to this report. Joe Callahan can be reached at 352-867-4113 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JoeOcalaNews.