SR 54 work closes once-busy pumps at interchange
By Kyle LoJacono
The project to widen SR 54 has forced the closing of several Wesley Chapel businesses, including multiple gas stations. Drivers looking for fuel are out of luck from I-75 east all the way to Morris Bridge Road/Eiland Boulevard, a stretch of about seven miles.
“It hasn’t really been a problem for me because I make sure to fill up either in Zephyrhills or in Land O’ Lakes,” said Vonnie Mikkelsen, who frequents the road. “I imagine it could be a problem for those who drive it less frequently and don’t know where the stations are.”
Mikkelsen, executive director of the Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, is one of an estimated 38,000 drivers who travels through that 3.5-mile construction zone each day, a drive that, until recently, took her past four gas stations. The Hess at SR 54 and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard removed its pumps this month.
But drivers will not have to worry for long, according to station manager Luz Breton.
“We are only shutting down for about two months from selling gas,” Breton said. “We’ll be selling gas again Aug. 1. We had to close because of all the construction going on. It wasn’t safe for customers with all the big equipment and with us being so close to the road.”
The Hess station was still opened for snacks as of June 24. Shepherd said the Citgo, Hess and Race Trac were being compensated by the county, but did not elaborate as to how much.
Pasco Chief Project Manager Robert Shepherd said, like Hess, two of the other gas stations are expected to resume fuel sales in the future, including the Citgo gas station at SR 54 and Boyette Road and Race Trac at SR 54 between Wendy’s and Walgreens. While Citgo remains open as a convenience store, Race Trac is boarded shut. Shepherd was unsure of plans for the Shell station on the north side of SR 54, the first of the four to close.
Gas stations are not the only businesses affected, as the county spent $74.2 million acquiring land for the long-awaited expansion of SR 54. A total of eight businesses had to move in order to complete to project, according to Pasco project manager John Chiarelli.
Heritage Ford, 928739 SR 54 W., did not have to move or redesign its facility, but the project did change one facet of the business, at least for now.
“We had an account with the Hess station to fill up cars we’re selling, but now we are using the Circle K west of I-75,” said Heritage general manager Rich Dearborn. “It was a little inconvenience, but nothing major.”
Dearborn said the problems have been minimal: “Really things have been business as usual for us at Heritage Ford. It’ll make things better once it’s done and the construction guys have been very accommodating. There’s good communication and they are trying very hard not to hurt business.”
The SR 54 project, which began March 29, is expected to take 21 months to complete. Add David West to the list of people who will happily endure the delay. West is executive director of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce.
“I haven’t heard from people really complaining about it, but it is harder to pull into and see some of the businesses with the construction going on,” West continued. “They’ve put up signs for the businesses which helps, but it’s still sometimes hard to see them…In the end all the businesses will be better off once the project is finished and more people travel on State Road 54.”
And even if Mikkelsen cannot stop for gas on the torn-up stretch of road between work in Zephyrhills and home in Land O’ Lakes, the inconvenience is a small price to pay for the larger reward.
“I’m for connectivity of east Pasco. Zephyrhills has a fast growing economy and improved roads will bring businesses and clientele to this side of the county,” she said.
In the meantime, drivers can find gas on the west side of the interstate.
After $74.2 land buy, county plans ahead for future work
It cost the county $74.2 million to buy the land for the project, mostly because of the number of businesses on the property. The construction, which is being completed by Pepper Contraction Services of Clearwater, comes at a $28 million price tag while planning and design was $3 million.
The total project cost $105.2 million to complete, a record high for a Pasco County project, according to Pasco County Project Management Division. The project, which will make SR 54 six lanes from I-75 to Curley Road, is about 15 percent complete and is a little ahead of schedule.
“Row acquisition was expensive,” said Pasco commission chairwomen Pat Mulieri. “We’ve learned from our mistakes. We have a row preservation board now that requires row be given when business come in. In the future this will reduce costs.”
Mulieri said as development continues along, SR 54 will be widened further east toward US 301 in Zephyrhills. Future cost to widen the road should be reduced as future businesses along the highway will have to follow the row preservation ordinance and because development near the road east of Curley is light.
“Hopefully (it will) bring in jobs so people can work, live and play in their immediate area,” Mulieri said. “It will help us realize our mission, ‘bringing opportunities home.’”