Task force discusses I-75 relief

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By Mike Wright
The I-75 Relief Task Force wrapped up its work Friday with a recommendation that the state upgrade the freeway and current road networks before it thinks of extending the Suncoast Parkway.
The group met at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion in Ocala.
The group, represented by officials and others from six counties appointed by Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold, was charged with finding a long-term solution to Interstate 75 congestion issues between Gainesville and Wildwood.
Transportation officials say accidents routinely clog the freeway, especially on holidays or Saturdays during home University of Florida Gator football games.
And, looking further ahead, the state wants a transportation connector between Tampa Bay and the Jacksonville area.
Task force members said the state’s emphasis should be on improving and upgrading I-75 to include truck-only lanes and tolled express lanes.
The next priority, they said, should be improving U.S. 301 and U.S. 41 to potentially handle traffic off I-75 between Columbia and Hernando counties.
Levy and Alachua county commissioners said their communities oppose both extending the Suncoast Parkway and turning rural U.S. 41 into a traffic reliever.
Citrus County’s representative on the task force, Commissioner Scott Adams, also recommended adding State Road 24 to that list, providing the Suncoast Parkway is extended from U.S. 98 in Hernando County to U.S. 19 north of Crystal River, as was the state’s original plan.
The state is expected by the end of this year or early 2017 to start the four-year construction on the parkway from U.S. 98 to State Road 44 in Lecanto. Citrus officials are trying to convince the state to move the end from S.R. 44 to County Road 486 near Pine Ridge.
Residents who spoke Friday said they feared an eroding quality of life if the state extends the parkway or widens U.S. 41.
“This road will be damaging in so many ways,” Alachua County resident Cathy Hill said.
 “It’s not built for the local people.”
Inverness resident John Wade said I-75 doesn’t need relief.
“The road has a lot of capability on it,” he said. “It’s capable of handling the traffic on it now and capable of handling a lot of traffic in the future.”
But Beverly Clemo, a Citrus County resident who is a member of the Citrus Hernando Municipal Planning Organization’s citizen advisory committee, said the state should accelerate plans for I-75 relievers.
“If we continue to wait and not do anything the cost will escalate,” she said.
The report to Boxold has three main components:
* First, upgrade I-75.
* Second, upgrade existing roads that could be freeway relievers as well.
That would include working with city and county governments on local roads that, if upgraded, could be  used as freeway relievers as well.
* Third, look at new corridors that would extend the Suncoast Parkway from central Citrus County to an I-75 point near Gainesville.
“This is going to be a work in progress for a long time,” Adams said. “I have no doubt this is just the beginning.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Mike Wright at 352-563-3228 or mwright@chronicleonline.com; or follow on Twitter @mwrightcitrus.