Outlining a road map to tackle Pasco traffic problems

Pasco County’s residential and commercial growth is causing more traffic headaches on the area’s roads.

At an Aug. 21 session, residents had a chance to learn about what’s planned to tackle the area’s congestion during The Pasco County Transportation Summit.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis and Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore hosted the event at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter Campus, in Wesley Chapel.

A project that would ease traffic congestion on Wesley Chapel Boulevard, also known as County Road 54, is scheduled in fiscal year 2018. Planning calls for widening the road from two lanes to four lanes, from State Road 54/56 to Progress Parkway. (B.C. Manion)

Other panelists included David Gwynn, District 7 secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation; Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles; and, Hope Allen, chief executive officer and president of The Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, which recently merged with The Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce.

The meeting focused on project updates for east Pasco and Wesley Chapel.

Audience members submitted written questions to the panel.

Their queries centered on current and future road projects; public transit; new technology, such as self-driving vehicles; and, passenger rail on CSX rail lines.

Charity Henesy-Brooks, who lives in the Meadow Pointe subdivision, said she came away with information she didn’t know before. “It’s good to know they are trying to get ahead of the (traffic) problem,” she said. “At least they have these goals.”

For Moore, the basic issue is how to build the right infrastructure to support economic development and meet residents’ needs.

Anyone who drives in the county knows the frustration of long waits in traffic, he said. “Relief is on the way. There are a lot of things on the way, but these things won’t come to fruition over night.”

At least one project has been sped up.

Construction of the diverging diamond interchange at Interstate 75 and State Road 56 will begin in 2018, about two years ahead of an initial start date. The unique engineering pattern eliminates left turns and most traffic signals, to quicken, and ease, traffic flow.

The interchange is at the epicenter of a growth boom in Wesley Chapel that includes Tampa Premium Outlets and Cypress Creek Town Center.

“It’s miserable. I get it,” said Moore. “I’m with you.”

Bilirakis said local governments will have federal funding available for their transportation projects.

President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise of $1 trillion in shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Congress is waiting on a specific proposal from the White House, Bilirakis said.

“The infrastructure piece is very much alive,” he said. “It’s a priority for the President, and it’s a priority for us in Congress. It’s a bipartisan effort and, God knows, we need that today.”

Bilirakis said he expected Congress to address tax reform early in 2018, and “then, we’re going to get to infrastructure.”

He also said the Ridge Road extension will benefit from an expedited review process implemented by the White House.

Pasco has lobbied for the extension for nearly 19 years as a necessary east-west road for hurricane evacuations. A permit is needed from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Environmentalists have opposed the project, which would cut through a portion of the Serenova Preserve. But, Bilirakis said, “We’re really moving the ball forward on this project.”

Lots of projects are on the horizon
The state department of transportation currently has a slate of road projects under construction, in design or in planning. In the past five years, the state agency has invested more than $640 million in Pasco, Gwynn said.

By late 2017, work on widening Interstate 75 from four lanes to six lanes from County Road 54 to State Road 52 will be completed, along with a redesign of the interchange.

To the west of I-75, work to widen State Road 52 from two lanes to four lanes, from Bellamy Brothers Boulevard to Old Pasco Road, will be done by summer 2018.

State Road 54 from Curley Road to Morris Bridge Road will go from two lanes to four lanes by fall 2020. A shared use path and sidewalks also will be built.

Work recently began on a four-lane extension of State Road 56 from Meadow Pointe Boulevard in Wiregrass Ranch to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills. Completion is scheduled by spring 2019.

Two projects are in design and scheduled to begin in 2019. One will widen State Road 52 from two lanes to six lanes, from west of Suncoast Parkway to east of U.S. 41, with a shared use path.

A second will realign State Road 52 from Uradco Place to West Fort King Road. A new four-lane road will run from Uradco Place to Prospect Road. From Prospect to Fort King, the existing road will widen from two lanes to four lanes.

A third project, with no construction start date, would widen State Road 52 from two lanes to four lanes from U.S. 41 to west of Bellamy Brothers Boulevard.

There are two unfunded projects in design stages that would both realign and widen Gall Boulevard in Zephyrhills.

Bicycle lanes and sidewalks are being designed for County Line Road from Northwood Palms to west of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2018.

Also, planning is underway on two projects to widen U.S. 301 from Fowler Avenue to State Road 56, and from State Road 56 to State Road 39.

A major reconstruction of the State Road 54 and U.S. 41 intersection is on hold while a local task force reviews options and makes a recommendation to the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Pasco has 48 road projects slated from 2017 to 2021 at an estimated cost of about $426 million. Almost all will be in east and central Pasco, Biles said.

The county will fund about half the cost, with the remainder coming from state and local funds, he said.

The expansion of Wesley Chapel Boulevard from State Road 54 to Progress Parkway, from two lanes to four lanes, is scheduled in fiscal year 2018. Sierra Properties, which is developing Cypress Creek Town Center, completed the initial segment of the project, and built an entrance into the mall from the boulevard.

In addition to increasing road capacity, the county is exploring options with new technology. For instance, adaptive traffic signals can be adjusted based on real-time conditions monitored via cameras a centralized command post.

This technology is being used in some areas of U.S. 19, and Biles anticipates that in the next five years it would be installed along other roadways.

Bilirakis is a fan of self-driving vehicles, which is an evolving technology. He is supporting federal legislation to ensure that such vehicles are adaptable to needs of seniors and disabled veterans.

The Congressman also agreed that partnerships with Uber and Lyft can enhance public transit by helping people reach bus stops.

Self-driving vehicles appeal to Land O’ Lakes resident Kelly Smith as a means of providing ride-sharing opportunities.

That would get more vehicles off the roads and lessen the need for parking, and potentially mean fewer roads would be needed, she said.

But, Smith, who is running against Moore for a seat on the Pasco County Commission, said, “I’m concerned that we’re not looking into the future.”

In response to a question about buying CSX rail lines for passenger service, Moore said he favors rapid bus transit.

“CSX does not give their lines away,” he said. “It’s very costly. Bus transit is more economical.”

Published August 30, 2017

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