INVERNESS: On a recent Tuesday I sent 500 cyclists to Crystal River.
And why not? What we try to do at Bike Florida’s annual spring tour is show our riders the very best this state has to offer.
And Crystal River is a treasure. A cluster of 50 springs that discharge 64 million gallons of water daily, it is refuge for all manner of wildlife. It plays host to hundreds of manatees and draws fishermen, kayakers and snorkelers by the thousands.
Still, I had some doubts about sending my cyclists there. And not because I thought Crystal River itself would disappoint.
No, it was having to send them through 20 miles of suburban dreck that gave me pause.
Because we – Floridians and snow birds alike – have larded Crystal River with subdivisions and strip malls and fast food restaurants and gas stations and motels and condos. Now you can barely see the water for all the steel and concrete.
And we let pesticides, fertilizers and the detritus of “civilization” wash into those crystal waters.
And we wonder where the algae blooms come from.
And we suck up vast amounts of groundwater to keep our lawns green.
And then wonder why the mighty Crystal River doesn’t seem quite so mighty anymore.
We are loving this Florida treasure to death. And I fear the ecological havoc is irreversible.
So why bring it up?
Because the main driver of all this ugly sprawl is a network of high-capacity highways that tie into the Suncoast Parkway and I-75.
The Suncoast is a money-losing toll road and I-75 is habitually congested. (Our staff went into near panic the previous Sunday when a pile-up on the interstate spilled thousands of trucks, trailers, SUVs and pickups onto the rural Hernando County road that we had just put our cyclists on.)
The movers and shakers in the Florida Legislature say the way to “fix” this traffic mess is to build still more of the same. More high-speed, toll-financed interstate-scale highways up and down the western side of the state. The better to tie the Suncoast and the Florida Turnpike and I-75 together all the way from Collier County to Georgia.
And to justify it they are pleading public safety.
Just in case we ever need to evacuate Florida in case of hurricanes.
Because the best place to be during a hurricane is in your car. Storm-hardened shelters are way too dangerous.
This is a scam, people.
It’s a greed-driven scheme to spawn more sprawl, sow more subdivisions, subsidize more strip malls, fuel more car dealerships and create more condos up and down vast stretches of the most rural and unspoiled (read “developable”) lands Florida has left.
Which brings me back to Crystal River.
Personally I think it’s too late to save it. But it’s not too late to save Wacissa, Aucilla, the Suwannee and Wakulla (the only Florida spring cluster larger than Crystal River).
It’s not too late to save Steinhatchee or Cedar Key or St. Marks or Fakahatchee or Big Bend or the rest of Florida’s out-of-reach-out-of-mind rural treasures.
You want to see The Villages to stretch all the way from Ocala to Cedar Key? Build those new highways.
You think we need to bail out the billionaire who bought half a million acres of land in Dixie, Taylor and Lafayette counties? Lay down that asphalt.
But don’t tell us it’s good public policy. It’s just more taxpayer subsidized despoliation (toll roads don’t always pay for themselves).
We may be gullible but we’re not stupid.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun and route coordinator for Bike Florida.