By the end of 2022 the state Department of Transportation will begin laying long, long ribbons of asphalt through some pristine parts of Florida that have managed to avoid “growth management” as we tend to practice it in the Sunshine State — meaning we tend to grow, or overgrow, first and fret about the management later.
The state plans three new toll roads, the brainchild of Republican Senate President Bill Galvano, who believes hundreds of miles of new highway slicing through farms, pastures and citrus groves will “revitalize rural communities.” Oddly, FDOT relates that this trio of expressways through areas where next to nothing now exists also will enhance or protect wildlife corridors, environmentally sensitive areas, springs protection zones and farmland preservation areas. We can save these villages by paving them.
According to FDOT plans, the shortest of these projects — the Northern Turnpike Connector, or NTC, stretching about 30 miles — will link the Florida Turnpike-Interstate 75 merge point to the eventual northward extension of the Suncoast Parkway. As with the others, the FDOT has assembled a task force to plot its route. The panel includes some Marion County officials.
The Marion County Commission shared with FDOT that sharing some opinions about the project was as far as it wanted to go. Instead, FDOT included Marion County as part of the study area for the proposed route.
“We were under the impression we were just on the task force. We wanted to make sure that we were there and apprised of everything that was going on. We wanted to be a watchdog for our community,” Commissioner Kathy Bryant recently told the Star-Banner. “We did not want to be considered part of the study area.”
One might think that after FDOT witnessed how hard Marion County fought the so-called Coastal Connector — a proposal spiked in the face of staunch opposition a year ago — the agency might have thought better of adding Marion to the mix of possible routes.
Nonetheless, this is where the County Commission is, even if it doesn’t want to be.
Perhaps, though, this is a blessing in disguise.
Looking at a map, and considering that straight lines make for the shortest distances, one can see that paralleling State Road 44 through Citrus County might make the most sense for the NTC.
But economic development and improving “trade” and logistical services are among the supposed benefits of these highways. Some interests might be persuaded to argue that can be achieved best by nudging the highway northward — along a path that brings it closer to Marion Oaks, across the growing SR 200 corridor and nearer to Dunnellon.
That also covers some of the same ground that FDOT wanted to pave with the Coastal Connector.
So, including Marion County in the study area — instead of making the community just a bystander — now gives the County Commission a way to rally folks against the NTC, or at least its direction.
At this point, the road itself seems like a done deal. But the task force is charged with figuring out where it goes. Ultimately, the best way to keep it out of western Marion might be to remind local residents that the FDOT may again be eyeing the region.