Leaders, public rail against ‘Coastal Connector’

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Commission workshop draws packed house

David Davis

For the Riverland News

If anyone was in favor of the proposed Coastal Connector going through Marion County, none made it known Friday during a County Commission workshop.

The proposed turnpike would connect Tampa to Jacksonville and go through the heart of horse country.

One person after another spoke for two minutes each during an hour set aside for public comment. All spoke in opposition to the toll road after Florida Turnpike Enterprise project manager Rebecca Bolan gave an overview of where they are in the process and how they got to that point.

Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said the project is still in the early stage, “and it would be a great time to stop it.”

He said there are no meetings scheduled in Gainesville or Alachua counties. He urged the commissioners to stand up against it and not waiver.

“I would urge the consultants to find a different route because this is the heart and soul of Marion County,” Guinn said about horse country. “We talk about it being the horse capital of the world, then come through the middle of it and destroy it. They keep talking about 20 or 30 years from now; it doesn’t matter. I would urge the commission to do a resolution and absolutely say you are against this and I hope the city council will be doing the same resolution.”

Dunnellon Mayor Walter Green said they are currently working on a resolution saying they want the project stopped.

“We have not seen an issue that is uniting our people in opposition to anything like this particular item,” he said, suggesting FDOT take it to Red Level as initially designed, then going north on U.S. 19.

“You’ll pass 20 cars between Lebanon Station and Chiefland,” he added. “It is the best designed divided highway in the state. You have wildlife there in the middle and you don’t even have to dim your lights, but you’re not dimming them anyway because there is no one on the other side of the highway. The point is, we have a corridor the state currently owns that is under-utilized.”

Green said anyone who went to Jacksonville during Hurricane Irma made a big mistake.

“You don’t go from one coast to the other in the State of Florida to get away from a hurricane,” he said.

Commissioners could not take any action Friday afternoon during a workshop on the Coastal Connector study presented by the Florida Department of Transportation.

The non-voting meeting attracted more people than the 235 maximum capacity allowed in the room. All of them who spoke were against building a turnpike through Marion County in general and horse country in particular.

Bolan said Friday afternoon the process is still in the very early stages of data gathering.

“I want you to know we are listening to you,” she said. “We’ve heard you and that’s where we are today. We’ve shown you some things and we’re listening and adapting, moving, changing, eliminating and that’s why we’re here.”

Bolan, an engineer with the Montgomery Planning Group, said they were planning for the future to provide for a safe transportation alternative for future generations.

“The DOTs (Florida Department of Transportation’s) mission is to provide a safe transportation system that ensures the transportation of people and goods, enhances prosperity and preserves the quality of our environment and our community,” she said.

The study area is in Marion and Citrus counties because this is the start of the overall connection between Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. At the end of the study, she said they “may” have a recommendation to move forward, “but maybe not. We may decide we don’t want to study it anymore and maybe we do. Maybe we find something agreeable to everyone and move to the project development and environmental stage.”

She said a “no build” recommendation is always an option.

“Currently, at this time, there is nothing funded from the Florida Department of Transportation in the five-year work program for any of the phases after the planning study,” Bolan said.

The engineer said they typically look 20 to 40 years into the future.

The study began in the fall of 2016 and had a public kick-off meeting in October 2017. At that time, Bolan said all they had was a blank slate, “and we said, what things do you think we are going to need in the next 20, 30 or 40 years. Where do you think we should go?”

David Davis is the editor for the South Marion Citizen, a sister newspaper of the Riverland News.