Northern Turnpike Extension remains in FDOT plans
Horse Farms Forever conservation summit hears update on controversial highway proposal
A cross section of horse farm owners, developers, real estate agents, county residents, government staffers and elected officials convened at the Horse Farms Forever annual conservation summit held Nov. 14 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company. When guest speaker Jared Perdue, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, said the Northern Turnpike Extension is still in the agency’s plans, an audible response came from some audience members.
“We got a lot of feedback from communities,” said Perdue to muttering, groans and laughs from the audience, which he acknowledged. “We embrace our communities,” he said, but “we know we have to do something. We know it connects to I-75.”
In the face of determined opposition from environmentalists and other entities, the FDOT announced in August it was pumping the brakes on four proposed routes that would extend Florida’s Turnpike from its terminus at Interstate 75 in Wildwood northwest to U.S. 19 in Levy County. Instead, the agency would focus on improving Interstate 75.
Work on the proposed extension, Perdue said, will start up again in the “next year or so” with the agency re-engaging the potentially affected communities.
“We know we need to do something,’’ he said. “We want that something to preserve your farmland, to fit the growth patterns that are occurring. We want that something to continue to provide the needed transportation while embracing and maintaining the character of your community.”
The Northern Turnpike Extension project is not going away, Perdue confirmed.
“Is something needed between I-75 and the west coast?’’ he asked. “We believe something is needed for the future of Florida.”
He reminded the audience that Florida’s population and development will only continue to grow.
Perdue also acknowledged the congestion and other issues with I-75 through the Marion County area, noting that he drives it himself regularly and he never really knows how long his drive might be.
“I-75 is not a reliable facility now,’’ he said. “Even a vehicle just stalled on the shoulder can cause a five-, six-, 10-mile backup. I-75 is absolutely a priority for the local DOT district here, and we’ve been coordinating on what needs to be done.”
Perdue discussed two phases of the I-75 master plan that will affect Marion County: additional lanes on I-75 in each direction between State Road 44 and State Road 326, and interim modifications of the SR 326 and State Road 40 interchanges to help alleviate the regular congestion.
Moving from statewide to more local transportation issues, Assistant County Administrator Tracy Straub spoke about scheduled traffic projects coming up quickly in Marion County, including improvements needed to take some of the strain off of State Road 200.
“No one likes to drive State Road 200!” she said to audience approval.
Some of the major planned projects include:
A flyover from Marion Oaks via Marion Oaks Manor east over I-75, ending at SE Highway 42.
Making County Road 484 four lane east to SR 200.
Extending SW 49th Avenue from the Marion Oaks area to the SW 42nd Street flyover just east of the Market Street at Heath Brook shopping center on SR 200.
The expansion to four lanes of SW 80th Avenue from SW 95th Street Road to U.S. 27 going past On Top of the World, the new developments on SW 80th Avenue, Stone Creek, West Port High School and north over SR 40 and past the World Equestrian Center and Golden Ocala.
Extending the four lanes of NW 70th Avenue to the new NW 49th Street extension that will connect the east side of I-75 with its warehouse complexes (Chewy, AutoZone, Amazon, etc.) to the northwest side of the county with a new four-lane street. This new 49th Street will also meander eastward, curving to become NW 35th Street and ending at NE 58th Avenue.
Straub also showed a slide of the I-75 and County Road 318 area, the subject of extensive discussion at BOCC meetings in the past. Two major developments have been approved on CR 318: the WEC Jockey Club and the Sunny Oaks development. As of the summit’s date, Straub said, “The county has nothing going on at County Road 318,” she stated. “Nothing!”
No additional submittals have been received or nor any requests for permits from either project, she said. If the projects move forward with 100% build-out as currently proposed, the county has projected the need for traffic improvements at “well over $60 million.” One challenge, she said, is “We don’t know if both projects will come in at the same time.” The developers would be responsible for 98% of the road and intersection(s) costs.
In addition to transportation information, the HFF team also awarded their Acorn Conservation Award to John and Leslie Malone,owners of Bridlewood Farm, a thoroughbred breeding and training facility. The award is given to those who “have made a significant contribution to the preservation of horse farms in Marion County.” Bridlewood General Manager George Isaacs accepted the award.
Lonny Powell, CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association, said, “It was great seeing a legacy farm like Bridlewood Farm accepting the Acorn Conservation Award today. It was equally rewarding to see the farm’s longtime general manager and FTBOA President George Isaacs onstage to accept the award on the Malones’ behalf. That farm and that land is meaningful to him.”