When a regional task force was charged with recommending a plan for relieving traffic on Interstate 75, state officials encouraged it to look at, among other things, building a new cross-state highway that would provide a new connector between Tampa and Jacksonville and pass through Marion and Alachua counties. Using what it called “guiding principles” — conservation, countryside, communities and corridors — the 21-member task force recommended against building a new highway through the region, and instead urged the state to expand I-75, as well as U.S. 301 and 41, and implement safety steps such as truck-only and express lanes.

It took two years of meetings and public hearings for the task force to reach that conclusion and issue its report to the Florida Department of Transportation and Gov. Rick Scott in early 2017. Then came Irma. Hurricane Irma led to the biggest evacuation in Florida history and caused massive traffic tie-ups along I-75. A state House of Representatives task force that met in the hurricane’s wake urged extending the Suncoast Parkway from Hernando County to the Georgia line and DOT is once again resurrecting the idea of a new highway from Citrus County up through Marion and Alachua counties to Jacksonville.

As we have said in this space before, the day will come when population growth, continued tourism expansion and increasing freight movement will demand new highways hereabouts. But it is those circumstances, not a single seminal event like the Irma evacuation, that should drive any decision to build a major highway through what is largely rural, agricultural regions of North Florida. Building such a road would not only be costly and impact sensitive wetlands and waterways like the Withlacoochee River and Rainbow Springs and tens of thousands of acres of current farmlands and open greenspace, but it would undoubtedly change the character of entire communities.

We believe the task force’s recommendation to enhance existing roads is a serious and substantive start that deserves a chance. U.S. 301 from Marion County to Jacksonville is far from capacity, and U.S. 41 from Citrus County to Lake City is also under-utilized.

Enhancements to I-75, which is statistically one of the state’s most dangerous super highways, are also prudent moves that can be achieved more economically and more quickly than a massive highway project.

What the task force discovered is that on typical weekdays, I-75 has an acceptable level of congestion, but on weekends, holidays and during special events like University of Florida football games, congestion becomes a problem.

FDOT has been up front about its vision — that is, a new road is inevitable in the “distant” future. As Florida’s and Marion County’s population continues to grow, we have no doubt such a highway will be needed. But the fact that all 21 members of the task force voted unanimously against building a new highway right now indicates the citizenry wants to preserve as much of our existing lifestyle and quality of life as possible for a long as possible.

Yes, the day will come when we need a new super highway to relieve I-75 traffic. But before it goes about damaging environmental assets and changing entire communities by creating new development and urban sprawl that we all know follow new highways, the state should implement some of the task force’s recommendations. One unique hurricane event is not cause to alter the entire look, feel and character of a region. The day will come that necessitates such drastic action, but that day is not yet here — even after Irma.