By Kyle LoJacono
A little more than 20 months ago the most expensive road project in Pasco County history began — the widening of SR 54 through Wesley Chapel.
The $105.2 million job was recently completed months ahead of schedule and brings with it the promise of a more connected county.
“It’s just part of what we’re trying to do to bring opportunities home,” said Pasco Commissioner Pat Mulieri. “We’ve been working to improve the roadways to get more people and goods moving from either side of the county. We’ve had businesses like T. Rowe Price who told us they’re coming to Pasco because of road projects like this one.”
Pasco Chief Engineer James Widman said all the actual construction was completed about a week ago.
“All that’s left is a little bit of cleanup and removing cones and things like that,” Widman said. “Really it’s faster than we expected and there weren’t any major issues with the job.”
The county’s Chief Project Manager Robert Shepherd added, “They got ahead of schedule fast and stayed ahead of schedule. It was as smooth as a major road job can be.”
The project was completed by Pepper Contracting Services, the same company that performed the widening of West Lutz-Lake Fern Road in front of Steinbrenner High in Lutz. Pepper had until April to finish the widening, but Widman said their people wanted to finish before then as they just received a contract for another job in Hillsborough County.
The newly improved roadway is now six lanes from I-75 to Curley Road, a stretch of about 3.2 miles.
The overall construction and planning/design was only $31 million, but cost to buy land along the state road cost Pasco an additional $74.2 million. Mulieri said the land was very expensive because several businesses had to be bought out to complete the job.
“We’ve learned from that mistake and now we have a new row-acquisition policy,” Mulieri said. “Development has to stay farther away from roads to account for future widenings.”
County workers and citizens alike can now smile at the freshly improved roadway, but several strange turns happened along the way to completion.
The project for a week closed the entrance to Curley from SR 54, one of the main routes toward Wesley Chapel High.
Another twist in the construction was the closing of all the gas stations within the 7-mile span of SR 54 from Morris Bridge Road/Eiland Boulevard in Zephyrhills to I-75 in Wesley Chapel.
Two of the stations had to be permanently shut down because of the widening, while the Hess near Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and Citgo on Boyette Road had to close for several months because of the safety hazard created by the large construction equipment near the gas tanks.
The project also caused the reduction in the speed limit on SR 54 from 50 to 35 mph through most of the construction zone, along with the general slowing of traffic during the last year and a half because of barricades, heavy equipment and stop/slow signs carried by workers.
Residents may be pleased to see the last cones and workers exiting the construction site, but more work is on the horizon for SR 54.
Mulieri said there are plans to widen the state road to six lanes all the way to US 301 in Zephyrhills. She said that project would likely cost much less because there are fewer businesses that would have to be bought out, but the actual size of the job could cause it to take longer than its recent predecessor.
“It’s about 10 miles, so our people have said it would just be a larger project to finish,” Mulieri said. “It is needed to continue that goal of making Pasco a bigger player economically in the region and the state.”