Bowing to community pressure, the Florida Department of Transportation announced Thursday it will halt the northern turnpike extension project at least temporarily.
The department announced it has completed an alternative corridor evaluation study without a recommendation for a specific corridor and “will not pursue the project any further until options can be reassessed to address concerns of the department and the community.”
Instead, the department will focus on improving Interstate 75, according to an FDOT news release.
“The goal of every project is to ensure all needs are met, environmental concerns are addressed and community characteristics are protected,” said FDOT Secretary Jared W. Perdue. “The region and local community should be assured that as we continue to refine and develop viable corridor concepts for this area, it will include extensive engagement with community leaders and the community as a whole.”
The turnpike extension plan generated an outpouring of opposition after FDOT kicked off a study late last year.
Residents of Royal, a historic black community in Wildwood, and Tillman’s Hammock, a small rural community in northwest Sumter County, joined forces to keep the extension from passing through their communities. They repeatedly lobbied county commissioners to support a no-build resolution.
The FDOT plan called for extending the turnpike from Wildwood and through Citrus County where it would connect to the Suncoast Parkway, which then would extend 150 miles north to the Georgia border.
Several counties, including Citrus, Marion and Levy, opposed the plan and endorsed no-build resolutions.
In a joint letter, Sumter County Administrator Bradley Arnold and Wildwood City Manager Jason McHugh wrote turnpike officials in February asking them to co-locate the extension with I-75 or build it west of County Road 475 to protect Royal.
Cliff Hughes of Royal, who was among those who spoke against the project at county meetings, said Thursday that the FDOT’s action will allow local residents to focus on other issues, including proposed industrial and residential developments that he said will harm the community.
“It’s a good thing today,” he said of the FDOT announcement. “A pause does not mean that it’s permanent. I’m looking for them to come back.”
Maria Dempsey of Tillman’s Hammock, who also opposed the extension at a Sumter County meeting, said the project would harm wildlife habitat and the water supply.
Dempsey said she and husband used to live in South Florida and witnessed the damage that growth can do.
“I’m glad they put a pause on it because their mapping routes didn’t make any sense,” she said. “They’re going to come back.”
Michael McGrath of the Sierra Club, also an extension opponent, said the department is keeping the project web site open, an indication the plan is not dead.
“Until FDOT makes its position crystal clear, we will remain vigilant and involved,” he said.
A turnpike extension has been rejected several times since 1999, when a proposed 49-mile, $500-million extension was scrapped after local governments opposed it.
The current extension plan was enshrined in state law with an expectation it would be completed by 2030. When a 2020 task force report suggested a turnpike extension as an option, Sumter County commissioners vowed to lobby against it.
Sumter County Commission Chairman Craig Estep offered his thoughts in the wake of FDOT’s announcement.
“I treasure our agricultural strengths and natural beauty, our Tillman Hammock area and our historic community of Royal. I was elated to hear of the completed Alternative Corridor Evaluation (ACE) Study for the Northern Turnpike Extension without recommending a specific corridor, as well as not pursuing the project any further until the reassessment of options to address the concerns of FDOT and our citizens. I was also very pleased to hear that Secretary Purdue is dedicating Department resources to prioritize improvements on the Interstate 75 corridor,” Estep said.