Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Proposed Tampa beltway could threaten bobcats, other wildlife

Groups Gear Up To Fight Beltway
By RICH SHOPES The Tampa Tribune
Published: Aug 18, 2006

TAMPA - Environmental groups are lining up to fight a proposed beltway around Tampa after a working draft showed the road crossing wildlife preserves, parks and other environmentally sensitive areas.

"We're talking with other groups and there will be a coordinated effort to fight this," said Ryan Bose, conservation chairman for the Sierra Club's Tampa chapter.

Opponents of the 100-mile toll road linking Manatee, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties say the highway ignores commuter rail options, promotes suburban sprawl and does not address gridlock on roads into downtown Tampa.

Officials with the Tampa Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, the agency proposing the beltway, say the road would help relieve congestion and provide an alternate north-south route for the thousands of people moving into the eastern and southern parts of the county.

Now the fight is taking an environmental turn with the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society and others saying they are preparing to fight the project, even though the Expressway Authority says the path is preliminary and that it is willing to move it.

Beverly Griffith, chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Tampa group, said she plans to enlist help from environmentalists to lobby state and local officials to block the beltway plan.

An official statement could come next month after the group consults the club's Florida chapter. Also, it could work with the Audubon Society.

At issue is the proposed route through Cypress Creek Wellfield in Pasco; Brooker Creek Preserve in northern Pinellas; and Little Manatee River State Park, Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve, Alafia State Park, and Hillsborough River greenway, in Hillsborough.

"It's uncanny the number of environmentally sensitive areas this thing seems to target," said Ann Paul, coordinator for Audubon Society's West Central Florida region.

Environmentalists are concerned that runoff from the highway and pesticides from landscaping could taint pristine areas and threaten wildlife, such as scrub jays, gopher tortoises, bobcats and coyotes. The long-range potential, they say, is increased development that wipes out sensitive lands.

They said a separate state plan to build a regional expressway purposely avoids parks and wildlife preserves.

The state Department of Transportation's plan, which has been under study for the past year, is conceptual, too.

It shows a swath of uplands, 30 miles wide in some places, running north-south and much farther east than the beltway. The DOT eventually will narrow the path to 2,000-feet to accommodate a highway, a rail system, or both, said Bob Clifford, a DOT project planner. "What we're doing is looking at the bigger picture," said Clifford. "Right from the start we wanted to avoid swamps and wellfields, and all those kinds of things. We also wanted to avoid heavily developed areas."

In contrast, the Expressway Authority's proposal seems to cross or at least skirt several wetlands and preservation areas. Included are preservation lands purchased by Hillsborough County under a mandate from voters.

Ed Turanchik, former Hillsborough County commissioner who fought to create the Balm Boyette Scrub Preserve, which could be affected by the highway, called the authority's idea a "very bad plan."

"I think it reveals a bankrupt transportation and growth-management strategy at the county level," he said and identified about a half-dozen environmentally sensitive areas the highway could affect.

A spokesman for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which has jurisdiction over wellfields and other water sources, said the Expressway Authority has not approached the district about crossing Cypress Creek or Brooker Creek. The two preserves contain wellfields that supply water to Hillsborough and Pinellas residents.

Getting permits to cross the wellfields is possible, but only if no other route is possible and the project is proven necessary. "Going through something like that is an absolute last resort," spokesman Michael Molligan said. "It has to be unavoidable, and almost nothing is unavoidable."

Ralph Mervine, executive director of the Expressway Authority, said environmental worries the groups have are overblown because the project is still in its infancy.

The working draft is preliminary and was intended to show possible corridors. The highway's final path could change dramatically from what is now proposed, he said.

"Our engineers have looked very briefly and in a preliminary way at a very broad, potential route, and they have absolutely avoided areas of environmental concern," he said. "However, as we move forward in the environmental process, if we have overlooked something, it will be dealt with at that time."

Reporter Rich Shopes can be reached at 813-259-7633 or at rshopes@tampatrib.com.


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