Collaboration creates connectivity

The opening of the State Road 56 Extension between Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills has a personal benefit for Alora Butler, a student at Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch.

She said the new road segment will cut her 30-minute commute to school in half.

Greg Lenners, general manager of The Shops at Wiregrass, expects to see an uptick in business, as the extension of State Road 56 over to the Zephyrhills area makes it easier for shoppers to get to the mall. (Christine Holtzman)

It also reduces the time that the Zephyrhills resident spends on the road, to get to leisure activities or do her banking in Wesley Chapel.

The new 6-mile stretch also makes life easier for her husband, too, as he makes his commute to work at a warehouse in Land O’ Lakes.

Butler is just one of the thousands who can now opt for a shorter, or less congested route, to and from the east side of Pasco County.

Kevin O’ Farrell, provost at the Porter Campus, near the intersection of State Road 56 and Mansfield Boulevard, said he thinks the new road will even help students perform better academically.

Less time in traffic means less stress, in O’ Farrell’s opinion. And, because of that, he said, students “are more mentally ready to engage in class, they’re ready to focus more on their coursework.”

Greg Lenners, general manager for The Shops at Wiregrass, 28211 Paseo Drive in Wesley Chapel, expects the mall to experience an uptick in business because of the better access for shoppers coming from the east.

Laura Zimmerman, who lives on Meadow Pointe Boulevard, is happy to have another option for traveling to Zephyrhills. (Christine Holtzman)

Patrons at the mall said they’re glad to see the new road connection.

“I think it will ease the congestion and offer other alternatives,” said Laura Zimmerman, who lives on Meadow Pointe Boulevard and travels frequently to Zephyrhills.

McKenna Alkishawi, who lives in Zephyrhills, said the new route is “definitely 100 percent” beneficial.

Another Zephyrhills resident — Brenda Maass — is happy there’s a new way to get to Morris Bridge Road, where she can then head north at the new intersection.

For Zephyrhills resident John Skidmore, the new connection makes it easier for both him and his mother to get to doctor appointments.

“It’s about time. It’s going to be great,” Skidmore said.

Brenda Maass, a Zephyrhills resident and retiree, now has an alternative route in State Road 56 to visit friends and shop in the Wesley Chapel and Land O’ Lakes region. (Christine Holtzman)

Donna Pacheco, a Wesley Chapel retiree, is pleased to have a more convenient way to get to Zephyrhills, where she goes three to four times a week to visit her brother, son and grandchildren.

“It’s really about time that they did that (extended the road),” she said.

Bill Cronin, president/CEO of the Pasco Economic Development Council Inc., sees other benefits that improved connectivity will create.

“You’ve got the (State Road) 56 extension. You’ve got the potential widening of (U.S.) 301 in the north of the county, as well as the alignment of Clinton Avenue and (State Road) 39, which now starts to make us look a little more connected to Polk and some of those areas that we can access.

“We end up being much more strategically located for distribution activity,” Cronin said.

Numerous sources said the project’s success hinged on the collaboration of elected leaders and staff at the state, county and city levels; private landowners; and involved citizens.

Melonie Monson, executive director for The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, said local efforts played a vital role in securing a four-lane road.

McKenna Alkishawi is a Zephyrhills resident who often travels into Wesley Chapel on her leisure time. The USF student said that the new State Road 56 extension will be ‘100 percent’ beneficial in cutting down her commute time. (Christine Holtzman)

“There were a lot of letters written to legislators, to city officials, to government officials — and everybody decided to work together,” Monson said.

Vonnie Mikkelsen, now president and CEO of the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce in Oregon, recalls those efforts. “It didn’t come top down. It came grassroots up,” she said.

“Honestly, it was a question of: Why hasn’t this happened sooner?” Mikkelsen said.

She credited then State Rep. Danny Burgess for playing a leading role.

“He listened and he understood immediately,” she said.

But, he wasn’t the only one.

“Our local government officials, they understood the importance. Our airport manager at the time, understood the opportunity that it presented. The Pasco EDC (knew, too).

“Everybody really rallied around the idea, even in the context of the first answer being, ‘No. No way.’

“Quite honestly, we thought, ‘OK. That’s not the final answer,’” Mikkelsen said.

“What really sealed the deal were some conversations at the state level.

Kevin O’ Farrell, provost at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, said the extension of State Road 56 will reduce commute times for students and staff traveling to the campus, near the intersection of Mansfield Boulevard and State Road 56. (Brian Fernandes)

“Lo, and behold, there was an opportunity. It required some innovative and creative thinking, and some collaborative partnerships at the local level to make it happen.”

Burgess, now executive director for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, agreed: “The public-private partnership aspect, and the various levels of  governments that were involved in this, was really a huge success story, and an example of what can happen when everybody comes together for the common good of a community.”

The partnership resulted in a $22,750,000 loan for the third and fourth lanes of the project, with the loan to be repaid by private development partners through a mobility fee surcharge and a special assessment, if necessary.

The City of Zephyrhills agreed to reimburse the county for 10 percent of any loan shortfall paid for by the county. The contractor, Cone & Graham Inc., also agreed to include all costs associated with the design, permitting and construction, and other costs within the loan amount.

It’s a success that Burgess said he will savor.

“In the Legislature, and politics, in general, you know — in this line of work — you somewhat have to get used to defeats more than victories, if I’m going to be quite honest with you. You actually have to learn to live with that.

“But, then a victory like this happens. It’s validation. This is why you do what you do. You fight every day, because when you do something this big — this will have a profound impact on your community,” he said.

State Road 56 Extension

  • $59.7 million project
  • Runs from Meadow Pointe Boulevard in Wesley Chapel to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills
  • Signalized intersections added at Morris Bridge Road and U.S. 301
  • Road design is curved, to minimize wetlands disruption
  • Amenities include: 10-foot multi-use path; 5-foot sidewalk; 7-foot-wide bicycle lanes on both shoulders

By B.C. Manion and Brian Fernandes

Published July 17, 2019

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