The biggest 2021 story in Citrus County won’t actually take place until 2022.
That’s when the 13-mile stretch of the Suncoast Parkway opens between U.S. 98 in northern Hernando County and State Road 44 in Lecanto.
Citrus County officials have eyed the parkway project ever since what’s known as Suncoast 1 opened in 2001, connecting Tampa Bay through Pasco and Hernando counties practically to Citrus’s doorstep.
And now, with the opening of Suncoast 2 likely just weeks away, Citrus County is wondering just what is coming up that road – and when.
“Traffic is not going to go crazy overnight,” Commissioner Holly Davis said. “It’s not going to be a tsunami. It’s going to take some time.”
Indeed, Florida Department of Transportation traffic projections show a modest bump to Citrus County’s road network – 6,200 vehicles a day at S.R. 44 when it opens and 7,900 a day by 2030.
By contrast, the intersection of U.S. 19 and S.R. 44 in the heart of Crystal River sees 24,000 vehicles a day, according to Citrus County traffic counts.
Citrus County officials have long said they didn’t want interchanges to mirror the commercial density seen at Interstate 75 exits in Wildwood or Ocala. The County Commission on Tuesday is expected to approve an interchange management area study for S.R. 44.
They also hoped to stave off cookie-cutter commercial growth at the Cardinal Street interchange in May by approving a town center-type of zoning overlay that encourages compact, walkable development on what is now a mostly rural stretch of roadway.
Another unknown: When northbound motorists hit the parkway’s end at S.R. 44, are they turning left or right?
Left is toward Crystal River, where officials have already seen significant traffic congestion on S.R. 44 and U.S. 19, leading a push for the state to make improvements to North Turkey Oak Drive as a bypass.
“I’m very nervous about the traffic it’s going to push through Crystal River,” City Manager Ken Frink said.
At the city’s request, the Hernando-Citrus Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, approved a $248,500 consultant study of the bypass and likely traffic patterns that will emerge from the parkway.
State Rep. Ralph Massullo’s budget requests include $20.7 million for Turkey Oak upgrades.
Frink said with the state’s plans to continue the parkway north to County Road 486 and eventually to U.S. 19, the city needs to divert traffic.
“It’s just killing us in the downtown area,” he said.
Another school of thought is parkway motorists will turn right at S.R. 44, heading toward the county’s Central Ridge communities or north to Ocala.
Inverness City Manager Eric Williams said, with the state also pursuing potential routes for an extension of the Florida Turnpike between Wildwood and U.S. 19, that puts his city in the possible crosshairs.
“I do share the belief that with an east-west connector to I-75, a large majority of people exiting Suncoast 2 will be heading east to 75,” he said.
Inverness in November approved a bump in its residential density zoning to encourage the development of affordable apartments and condominiums. While the city faced pushback from citizens who said the city’s road network couldn’t handle higher density, Williams said the city needs affordable housing for its service industry workers.
“We are a service-based economy through and through,” he said. “They need someplace affordable to live. It’s a gap that needs filling.”
Davis said the county might not even notice the parkway’s impact for some time.
“I don’t see a daily deluge of traffic,” she said, “off the Suncoast right away.”