SUMTER COUNTY, Fla. — After months of protests and pleading, rural Sumter and Marion County residents won a partial victory Thursday after FDOT leaders announced the indefinite pause of the Northern Turnpike Extension project.
The project would have pushed the highway past I-75, where it currently ends, from Sumter County to Levy or Citrus counties. It has been proposed, off and on, for years as a way to provide another evacuation route and develop some of the least built-up areas of the state.
However, the project’s progress hit boulder-sized problems the moment proposed routes were released. Maps showed all four possible alternate corridors cutting through Royal, a historically Black community located close to the intersection of the Turnpike and I-75. The community had already been severed once when the interstate was built decades ago.
After community members went public with their problem, opposition to the extension picked up steam. Residents of other Sumter, Marion and Citrus County communities began organizing against the road. Local governments wrote to Tallahassee in opposition, and activism groups lent their support.
Then, the announcement became official.
“The Florida Department of Transportation… will not pursue the project any further until options can be reassessed to address concerns of the Department and the community,” an FDOT spokeswoman wrote. “Based on feedback received from across the four-county study area, significant concerns were identified with portions of all four initially proposed corridors.”
FDOT’s announcement left the possibility of the road being built one day on the table, though with a different route that would likely impact far fewer significant sites like homes.
While that open-endedness was a slight downer to some community members who don’t want the road at all, most people in the area were sighing with relief.
“I think it’s really commendable, DOT and FTE coming out and listening to our story and taking it to heart,” Beverly Steele said. Steele’s 100-year-old mother’s house was in the path of the proposed project.
Five miles up the road, Gay Lynn Light rubbed her mare, Lady. Light’s home wasn’t directly in the path of the proposed extension, but it would have run over the borders of her farm and cut off access to some of her favorite riding trails.
“Let’s face it. It’s a useless idea [and] it’s a big expense,” Light said. “They need to put the money that they had allotted for this new project, put it in the expansion of I-75.”
FDOT officials had a similar idea in mind. While the Turnpike extension is on hold, officials said they planned to explore increasing the capacity of the interstate to achieve some of their goals and clear up traffic problems in the region.
“The foundation of every FDOT project is to balance evolving transportation needs with the community vision for the region and the local area,” officials wrote. “Conducting evaluations in early planning states like the [Alternative Corridor] study specifically seeks to thoroughly review any impacts… and is precisely why we have processes like this.”
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