All five of the proposed routes meet again at U.S. 27 near Fellowship and west of Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club.
State road planners on Thursday revealed a spaghetti map of possible routes for the proposed “Coastal Connector” highway project — including one that could bring a new interchange at Interstate 75 in north Marion County.
The plan is in its earliest stages and the current study is only gathering public input. The highway would connect north Central Florida with the Tampa area and run through Citrus and Marion County. The new road, likely a toll road, would reduce the strain on Interstate 75 with the goal of keeping up with growth and improving transportation and future emergency evacuations.
The project is decades from fruition with no construction expected before 2045, according to Harry Pinzon, an environmental engineer with the Florida Department of Transportation.
The five routes unveiled on Thursday all start at the end of State Road 589 (Suncoast Parkway) which is now set to end at State Road 44 in Citrus County but could go as far north as County Road 486 in Citrus. From there, the routes split off and would cross over the Withlacoochee River at one of four points between Lake Rousseau to the west and near State Road 200 to the east
All five of the proposed routes meet again at U.S. 27 near Fellowship and west of Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club. The road would continue north and would either follow the current path of State Road 326 east to U.S. Highway 441 or would continue north and exit just south of the U.S. 441/U.S. 301 split. The more northerly route would not mirror an existing road and would need a new interchange at I-75.
While still in the very preliminary stages, Randy and Sally Keller came out to a public meeting held in Crystal River on Thursday evening to see where their property sat in relation to the routes. A similar meeting is set for Ocala on May 1 at the Hilton Ocala, 3600 SW 36th Avenue at 4 p.m.
Turns out their 5-acre lot is only a few hundred feet away from one of the proposed routes.
“It’s kind of scary,” said Sally Keller. “Now I know why we’ve gotten six letters from people wanting to know if we wanted to sell. I knew something was up.”
The Kellers live in Brooksville and their property near Dunnellon is raw land.
But dozens more attended the meeting and many huddled around several big screen monitors to try and pinpoint their homes. Some routes do overlap existing home sites.
For Sandra Marraffino, who lives in Dunnellon, none of the proposed routes crossing the Withlacoochee are ideal.
“That is all very sensitive land from an ecological standpoint,” Marraffino said.
Tens of thousands of birds nest on islands on Lake Rousseau and the route closest to State Road 200 would cut through Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, home to a population of Florida Scrub Jays. The dwindling species is only found in Central Florida. In between, there are other bird habitats including burrowing owl, said Marraffino, a member of the Marion Audubon Society.
Her suggestion for a route crosses the Withlacoochee further west and takes the road through Levy County and into Alachua County.
Despite some misgivings, all those approached at Thursday’s meeting agreed that a new road is necessary given the state’s growing population and the bottlenecks formed during Hurricane Irma evacuations last year.
“We are really open to what’s going on,” said Nancy Huff, who also lives near one of the routes. “But it’s going to take so long, who knows what it will really look like.”
• Watch the state presentation about this possible new road at http://www.coastalconnector.com/onlinemeeting2/. The site also has links to a map of the proposed corridors.
• See documents about the study at http://www.floridasturnpike.com/coastalconnector.html#resources