Eiland Boulevard is undergoing repaving between its intersections with Handcart Road and Fort King Road in Zephyrhills.
The project, which began the week of May 13, is a result of studies showing the road’s need for resurfacing because of crevices.
“We evaluated the condition of the pavement,” stated Ainsley Caldwell, chief project manager of Pasco County. “We did some ratings on [a] number of roads and we selected that (Eiland Boulevard) for repaving.”
Construction consists of shaving off 3 inches of damaged asphalt, then repaving it with two coats of new liquid asphalt, Caldwell explained.
The work schedule will run Sundays to Thursdays from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Message boards, flag crews and law enforcement are on site because the road closures result in opposing traffic having to share one lane.
No detours are planned on Eiland Boulevard, the project manager added.
Construction has begun on the eastbound lane. The westbound land will be resurfaced next.
The $3.4 million development is expected to be completed by mid-June.
More than a year since the Parkland school shooting claimed the lives of 17 students and faculty members, ensuring school safety remains a forefront priority for Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning.
Browning discussed that, and a number of other school issues, as the featured guest speaker at the North Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce March breakfast meeting at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel.
“Parkland kind of rocked our world,” Browning said, during the breakfast meeting. “It really shook everybody’s core about the magnitude of what our responsibility is about making sure that our kids are safe in our schools.”
Browning said Pasco Schools have made a number of sweeping changes to enhance school safety, in the wake of the February 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida.
Among the most noteworthy, Browning said, was the district hiring around 60 armed school safety guards to place in elementary schools — in addition to school resource officers at all middle and high schools — to comply with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, also known as Senate Bill 7026. The district’s safety guards are required to have a minimum of 10 years of experience in the military or law enforcement.
Browning explained the safety guards have quickly made a positive impact on school campuses, by taking on a mentoring relationship with students, which, in turn, has led to fewer discipline referrals districtwide.
“These men and women are kicking it,” Browning said. “Just having that presence on the campus has been significant, has been incredible for this district, and also provides a sense of security, and, it does provide security.
“We’re much more tight about who’s on campus. If you don’t have a (identification) badge on, they’re going to ask you where you are from or what you’re doing on campus.”
As another safety measure, Browning said district schools are getting upgraded door locks, thanks in part to a security grant from the Florida Department of Education, whereby classroom doors can lock from the inside when they are closed.
“There’s no getting back in that room unless you have a key,” said Browning. “Whether teachers or principals like it or not, those doors are going to lock, and you better have a key on your body if you want to get back in a classroom, because your kids need to be safe and they need to be protected.”
The school district is also “installing a lot more (security) cameras,” Browning said.
Browning also mentioned there’s a districtwide policy requiring gates and classroom doors to be locked and secured during school hours.
Browning said the policy — put into effect a week after the Parkland shooting — received pushback from some teachers and administrators, who called it “inconvenient” at the time.
“I don’t want to hear about how inconvenient it is that you’ve got to wear a key on your lanyard to get back into your door,” Browning said of those complaints. “It would be inconvenient for me to have to stand before a bank of national TV cameras explaining how someone got onto our campus, and worse yet, got into your classroom. That’s what’s inconvenient to me.”
He continued, “Kids needs to be safe in our schools. Parents need to have the expectation when you drop your child off at our school that they’re going to be safe.”
Besides addressing school safety, the superintendent offered an update to some new school projects in East Pasco, including the new Cypress Creek Middle School being built next to Cypress Creek Middle High School, which opened in 2017.
“We have broken ground. We are tearing ground open. We are putting walls down at Cypress Creek Middle School,” Browning said.
The new middle school is set to open in 2020.
Once complete, the approximately 185,000-square-foot to 195,000-square-foot middle school will become Pasco’s largest middle school. It will serve more than 1,600 students in grades six through eight.
Related to that, Browning said the school district is set to undergo another redistricting either later this year or early next year, whereby students from Seven Oaks Elementary will likely be zoned to the Cypress Creek schools — a measure to reduce overcrowding at John Long Middle and Wiregrass Ranch High schools, respectively.
Browning also said moves are being made to bring a technical high school to East Pasco.
“We’re getting ready to break ground. We’re in the design stage now,” Browning said.
The superintendent explained that district officials are leaning toward having the unnamed technical school built on the recently purchased 104-acre Kirkland Ranch property, situated at the southeast corner of Curley and Kiefer roads.
The district has also considered the technical school for a 125-acre tract along Handcart and Fairview Heights roads.
Browning, however, said the Kirkland Ranch property may present a more desirable location once the new Interstate 75 interchange at Overpass Road is completed.
“It’s a good shot from Zephyrhills, a great shot from Wesley Chapel, and a great shot from Dade City,” Browning said.
Either way, Browning said a technical school would help relieve overcrowding concerns at Pasco, Wesley Chapel, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills high schools.
“It will lower the numbers again in those schools, but also give kids in this area a technical education if that’s what they want to do,” he said.
Elsewhere, the superintendent touched on teacher salaries — and finding ways to boost them.
Browning said he’s having ongoing discussions with district staff about the possibility of holding a millage election “solely for the purpose of paying our teachers more money.”
“The mission we have in Pasco is paying teachers,” Browning said. “We’ve got to make an investment in our teachers.”
The Pasco County School Board has selected Hepner Architects Inc., to provide architectural services for the design of the new east-central Pasco technical center the district plans to build.
The facility, which has a construction budget of $48 million, is planned for the northeast corner of Handcart Road and Fairview Heights Road, in Wesley Chapel.
Hepner’s fee includes architectural design, civil engineering, structural engineering and other services for a total fixed basic fee of $2,880,000.
The agreement also includes not to exceed confirmed additional services allowances in the amount of $403,570, and a not to exceed reimbursable allowance $30,000.
Hepner was selected from a short list of three architectural firms that the school board approved in November, and it was ranked No. 1 during the interview process.
The center will be designed for 900 students in grades nine through 12, although the district may opt to incorporate post-secondary programs, according to documents included with the board’s agenda item.
The center is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022.
Fostering educational opportunities in Pasco County was the primary focus of the second annual Zephyrhills Economic Summit.
Doing that begins with beefing up the Pasco County school district’s career and technical education programs, said Kurt Browning, superintendent of Pasco County Schools.
“We need to put our career academies on steroids,” said Browning, one of several guest speakers at the Oct. 24 summit, at the new Zephyrhills City Hall, that brought together local education, business and government stakeholders.
Based on the region’s business profile, Browning said there needs to be greater emphasis on teaching trade skills — such as roofing and carpentry, plumbing, HVAC technicians, electricians and more.
“One of the things that we keep hearing a lot about is the trades. I’m continually amazed of the number of people that stop us and say, ‘I just need young men that can get up there and lay roof,’” Browning said.
To meet those demands, he called for increased state funding and greater collaboration with the Florida Department of Education to create industrial certifications for those fields. The district also needs to ensure opportunities for students, not destined for college, to have a chance to learn trade skills that can translate to high-wage job right out of high school.
Browning put it this way: “What we need to do is have training programs that meet the needs of all of our students, so if you’re going to be a plumber, you be the best plumber you can be.”
Browning also said the school district needs more input from local business leaders on the types of labor needed for the present and future.
“We need to do a better job of communicating, and we need to create a better relationship with our chambers, because the chambers are the ones that are really connecting, letting businesses know what we do and creating dialogues to help build that need,” the superintendent said.
Preparing tomorrow’s workforce Browning was upbeat about some of the career and technical academies the district presently offers.
He pointed to Zephyrhills High’s aviation academy and Wesley Chapel High’s automotive technology academy, along with academies at other schools ranging from health and finance, to cybersecurity and culinary arts.
“I think we’re on the right path,” Browning said. “We’re working tirelessly trying to make sure our programs are relevant to meet the employment needs of our employers in Pasco County. We’re not perfect, and we’re not where we need to be. We’re still trying to figure out how to address the trades issue.”
Browning also mentioned the district is designing a technical high school in east Pasco that would likely open by 2022.
The district’s only two technical offerings — Marchman Technical College and Wendell Krinn Technical High School (which replaced Ridgewood High this school year) — are located in New Port Richey.
Plans call for the new school to be built on a 125-acre, district-owned tract of land along Fairview Heights and Handcart Road in the Dade City area.
It will help relieve overcrowding at Pasco, Zephyrhills, Wesley Chapel and Wiregrass Ranch high schools, Browning said.
“It’s going to be uniquely situated in the right place, right spot, offering technical career education students are clamoring for,” he said.
The technical school is also something the manufacturing industry is pushing for, according to Tom Mudano, AmSkills executive director, another guest speaker at the summit.
Mudano said a tech school based in east Pasco could help lure more manufacturing business to the region, to follow in the footsteps of companies such as Mettler Toledo and TouchPoint Medical, which he said have already brought a combined 700 jobs to the county.
“We truly believe that we need a facility on this side of Pasco County,” Mudano said. “If you’re looking at bringing jobs here, having a workforce is important.”
Mudano pointed out Tampa Bay has the most number of manufacturers in the state. And, he said that many of those companies have expressed a great need for additional skilled and semi-skilled workers.
“A lot of people don’t even realize that there’s a lot of (manufacturing) opportunities out there,” he said.
Mudano also assured that those types of trade jobs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
He cited information from the National Association of Manufacturers that projects there will be about 3.4 million jobs over the next 10 years, yet only 1.1 million of them will get filled.
The summit also featured a lengthy presentation from state Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Thonotosassa. Much of his talk centered on the state’s education system and the strides made during the last several years.
He pointed to the advent of charter schools and various opportunity scholarship programs as key reasons for boosting the state’s public education system on the whole.
“Everybody is more on their game today than they were 20 years ago. We have a rising graduation rate, better testing scores,” said Lee, who represents parts of Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties in District 20.
He added: “We have created some competition for the public education system, and the public education system has responded well.”
Meanwhile, Lee suggested that going forward, the state legislature should “back off some of the micromanagement” of county school districts. He said school boards should instead have more control over district budgets and educational programs to “best meet the needs of the individual student populations of the schools.”
Lee also advocated for creating “fair competition” and “leveling the playing field” between public schools and alternative charter schools.
One way to do that, he said, includes loosening up some of strict building requirements of new public schools, called State Requirements for Educational Facilities (SREF), that cost school districts exponentially more than their charter school counterparts. He asked: “Why is it costing public education system 20 percent more to build a public school than it is a charter school?”
Other speakers at the summit included Dr. Keiva Wiley, Pasco County Schools director of Career and Technical Education; Angie Stone, Zephyrhills High School principal; Dr. Stanley Giannet, of Pasco-Hernando State College; Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley; Maria Reza, Career Source Pasco/Hernando business services consultant; Seta Ruiz, Florida Hospital Zephyrhills director of clinical services; and, Dr. Randy Stovall, Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce president.
The Zephyrhills Economic Development Coalition presented the summit, in partnership with the City of Zephyrhills and The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce.
Pasco County officials are lauding a new traffic signal in Zephyrhills — for making a busy intersection a little less dangerous.
The fully operable traffic light at Eiland Boulevard and Handcart Road was installed in time for the 7 a.m., start of the school year on Aug. 13.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore said the project has been “a main priority” for Zephyrhills and the county since he stepped into office in 2014.
“It was much-needed,” Moore said. “It’s a life-safety issue, so that’s what’s most important. We have to think about our citizens’ lives and their safety, and this is obviously done to stop potential accidents.”
It, too, has been on fellow County Commissioner Ron Oakley’s radar for some time.
He explained: “I’ve been here my entire life, so I know so many different people that this light affects. Before this light was installed, many accidents were happening.
“I can’t tell you how many people I’ve run across and said, ‘Thank you for getting that light.’”
Pasco County engineering services director Margaret Smith called the traffic signal “a definite, definite need” for Zephyrhills — labeling it “a good intersection control project.”
“Just watch (traffic) coming through compared to the craziness it was before — it totally controls the intersection,” she said.
Smith pointed out previous struggles for motorists to make left-hand turns east from Handcart onto two-lane Eiland Boulevard.
“I’ve been there all kinds of times of day, and it was very difficult. I think they needed to slow it down a little bit,” Smith said.
Such turns were also something Oakley experienced, as a nearby resident: “You can take a right turn here fairly easily, but you take a left turn and you’re taking a chance,” he said.
Along with the traffic signal, Eiland and Handcart had other improvements, including guardrails and road resurfacing.
Reflective pavement markings also will be installed at the intersection in about a month, officials say.
The Pasco County Commission approved the design plans for the project in 2016. Construction began in March 2018.
Before construction, the county completed a 30-day traffic operations study at the intersection to collect traffic data.
The analysis showed the traffic signal was warranted “based on Handcart (Road) southbound approach volumes and the amount of left turn vehicles turning east onto Eiland Boulevard.”
The study also found that two crashes occurred from Jan. 1, 2013 to Dec. 31, 2013. The crashes “may have been prevented with the installation of a traffic signal,” the study found.
From Jan. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2014, the study also documented two angle crashes that occurred at the intersection.
Meanwhile, other traffic signals are coming to Zephyrhills.
A new signal is expected to be operating at Eiland and Geiger Road by late November.
A third is planned at Chancey and Coats roads. That signal will be operating in late October.
Oakley noted each of those signals are necessities to keep up with increasing traffic patterns: “The reason for these (roads) being so busy is our growth in our county. I mean, that’s great growth we’re having, and it’s a managed growth, so this is part of that management — managing traffic because it’s gotten bigger and bigger with the schools and the communities here.”
Nancy Massey Perkins made a decision on Mother’s Day two years ago that it was time to buy a horse.
“I bought her sight unseen, except for the video I watched on the Internet,” said Perkins, the daughter of two Zephyrhills’ pioneer families. “I thought she was cute and moved really good.”
Her instincts were right about the 2-year-old mare.
You Bet Your Roses, at age 4, is now a two-time reserve world champion after an impressive showing at the 53rd annual Pinto World Championship in Oklahoma, in June.
The world championship is one of the largest gatherings of Pinto horses, miniatures and ponies. Riders and horses come from around the world, including Sweden and Canada.
Competitive categories include Western, English, driving, pleasure, halter, roping, and special events and trials.
Perkins, at age 66, is one of the oldest amateur competitors in her age 50-and-older class.
However, You Bet Your Roses – also known by the barn name Sierra – is an up-and-coming youngster in the horse world.
With little more than a year of training by Perkins, Sierra showed her mettle in the show ring. She shone in a competition against horses with more experience.
“She competed with world champions and former world champions,” Perkins said.
You Bet Your Roses and Perkins earned a reserve world champion, or runner-up, in the walk/trot trail class, among 26 competitors. They finished just shy of first place.
Perkins and You Bet Your Roses also won a reserve world championship in a halter competition among 3- and 4-year old horses; a third place in English showmanship; and 10th in another halter competition.
Perkins’ favorite is the trail class, where the rider and horse navigate an obstacle course with precision, control and timing.
It is much more involved and complicated than showmanship, said her husband, Donald “Dusty” Perkins.
“She is very capable of coming out with a win,” he said. “Nancy knows how to get them to be sharp. It’s her personality with the horse.”
Perkins said she banked on training and Sierra’s willingness to listen to her.
“It had to be a team approach,” Perkins said. “Sierra trusted me, and that to me was the highlight of my whole trip, really that my horse came through, and she listened.”
From their first meeting, Perkins knew she had a special horse.
“She’s laid back, highly intelligent and really sweet,” she said. “She loves people.”
Her first two years were spent in Oklahoma on the Osage Indian Reservation.
When Sierra arrived, Perkins contacted owners of Red Hawk Ranch in Wimauma to do a Native American blessing.
“I felt the need to do that, since she grew up on an Indian reservation,” Perkins said. “I felt the need to honor the culture.”
Perkins is no novice in the horse arena.
She has a trophy case filled with ribbons, belts and accolades from more than 40 years of international horse shows aboard the quarter horses she has raised and trained.
She was honored as “amateur supreme champion” by the American Quarter Horse Association, with her horse, League Magnum Force. He went by the barn name of Bubba.
You Bet Your Roses, aka Sierra, is registered with the American Paint Horse Association and the American Pinto Horse Association.
She has the color pattern of a tobiano pinto horse, with white across her withers and hip.
Her sire is Gentlemen Send Roses, who is fourth on the American Paint Horse Association’s Performance Sire list for 2017. Her dam is a full-blooded quarter horse.
“She’s the spitting image of her daddy,” said Perkins.
Perkins’ father, Boyd “Bud” Massey, bought Perkins her first horse at age 11.
She knew pretty quickly she wanted to show horses.
So, at age 16, Bud Massey, gave her a choice of a used car or a horse. She took the horse.
But, she didn’t get her first choice of an Appaloosa.
Instead, her father bought a registered quarter horse.
She has been a passionate, and award-winning, horsewoman since.
Perkins traces her roots back to Pasco County’s pioneer days.
Bud Massey cut hair at his Zephyrhills’ barbershop for more than 52 years. It was the longest continuously operated barbershop in Pasco.
Massey Road is named for the family.
Before marrying Perkins’ father, her mother — Hazel Richburg — grew up on Handcart Road in Zephyrhills.
“They were actively involved as my cheering crew all my life,” the horsewoman said.
Perkins worked as a teacher for 35 years in Pasco County schools. She is still a substitute teacher to pay for her “hobby.”
She is unusual in being both an owner and a trainer. Most owners hire trainers, and in some cases, might not see their horse except at horse shows.
Perkins is strictly hands-on.
Horses learn by your body language, she said.
Her years teaching students also taught Perkins something about patience.
“Nothing is learned under harsh treatment,” she said. “You’ve got to adapt to every class. It taught me patience. You can’t push things. You have to wait for (Sierra’s) ‘ah, ha moment.’”
She credits trainers, such as Kim Beilein, with encouraging her, and in advising her about what’s right and wrong with her performances.
“I’ve forged some great relationships with trainers who have really helped me out,” Perkins said.
Practically no education-related topic was off limits during Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning’s recent visit with The Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce.
At a recent breakfast meeting at the The Edwinola, Browning touched on everything from teacher pay and performance standards, to acceleration programs and school safety.
“We live in a crazy day and time in education,” said Browning, addressing dozens of chamber members.
Browning praised the district’s teachers as a whole, saying they’re “busting their tail ends trying to educate the kids.
“Being a teacher today is tough, tough work, and it is patience, particularly when you look at the schools. Every district has schools that range on one end of the spectrum to the other — from the low socioeconomic to the very affluent schools,” Browning said.
The Pasco County school district encompasses about 73,000 students across 90 schools, making it the state’s 11th largest district. Its annual operational budget is about $1.2 billion.
A call for more state funding Browning mentioned he’s been visiting schools throughout the county to gather input from educators on “what’s right, what’s not right, what needs to be fixed, what’s working.”
In the same breath, he said there won’t be salary increases for teachers and other school base staff next school year.
That’s because any additional state funding for education has already been earmarked for school safety, mental health services and classroom supplies, he said.
“Once you take those three things out of there, there’s not a lot of flexible spending. So, when you start talking about pay raises…I can’t do it. I can’t do that next year because there’s not the money there for us,” Browning said.
“You’ve seen the reports on the national news about teachers walking out of classrooms, demanding more money, and I can sympathize with them on what they’re doing. But…in Florida we can’t do that, and I will advocate that,” he said.
Related to teacher pay, Browning stressed the state legislature “has got to get serious about how we’re going to fund education to the levels that it needs, so that we can address all the issues that we’re having to face.”
Browning also blasted the Florida Standards Assessment, the state’s accountability system, and the idea of assigning grades to schools and districts.
Though Pasco is labeled a ‘B’ district, Browning acknowledged the school system “has a lot of ‘C’ schools, fewer ‘B’ schools and even fewer ‘A’ schools.
“I am not sold on the idea that we tag a school with an ‘A, B, C, D or F’ — and that is going to really set the course for that school,” Browning said.
“Realtors, they will sell property based on the grade that school is given. It’s grossly unfair. I’ve asked realtors, ‘Please do not sell homes to folks, No. 1, based upon a school grade; and secondly, they think that is the school they’re going to attend.’”
Browning also criticized the state’s evaluation system for teachers.
It doesn’t add up that approximately 98 percent of the district’s teachers are graded “effective or highly effective” yet the school district still has a ‘B’ grade, he said.
“A lot of it’s based on student outcomes, student data, which some of it should be. But, we’re still arguing about how we come up with a system that truly evaluates instructors, teachers and district staff for that matter,” Browning said.
Some type of measure is needed to truly delineate great teachers from subpar ones, Browning suggested.
“I want great teachers, and I want to keep great teachers in our schools.,” he said. “Our kids, our communities do not need mediocre teachers in our classrooms.”
Rigorous academies, technical programs Meanwhile, Browning proudly discussed the district’s school acceleration and technical programs.
He highlighted the success of the “high rigor” Cambridge International Programme in place at five schools — Pasco Middle and Pasco High since 2014; and this year introduced at San Antonio Elementary, Paul R. Smith Middle and Anclote High.
Pasco County Schools was recently awarded the District of the Year — Medium Sized Cambridge District. The district was recognized for expanding access to Cambridge exams by more than 100 percent and achieving a pass rate of 76 percent. The district also had 31 students who received a Cambridge Learner Award.
The Cambridge curriculum can be compared to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate curricula, whereby students in the high school program can earn college credits and an international diploma. Those who earn the diploma also qualify for a Florida Bright Futures College scholarship.
“If you set the bar high, those kids will achieve it,” Browning said, later adding he will continue to “press hard” for more rigorous academic programs district-wide.
Additionally, Browning was upbeat about the many career and technical academies the district currently offers, such as Zephyrhills High’s aviation academy and Wesley Chapel High’s automotive technology academy, along with academies at other schools ranging from health to finance to robotics engineering, and more.
Said Browning, “We’ve just opened up a lot of choices for kids — getting kids the opportunity to get a taste of what it is in the real world, and make those connections about what they’re learning in the classroom and how that applies to real life.”
He also observed: “When you can make that connection of what it is and how does this really impact you as an adult, then they start seeing.”
Many graduates of Wesley Chapel High’s auto academy are making as much as $75,000 to $80,000 working at local car dealerships, Browning said.
“We know that not all kids in our system are college bound. Does that mean they shouldn’t be successful? No. Does that mean they shouldn’t make good salary? No,” the superintendent said.
The school superintendent also talked about the possibility of a technical high school in east Pasco, noting it’s on the district’s five-year facilities work program.
The district’s only two technical offerings — Marchman Technical College and Wendell Krinn Technical High School (replacing Ridgewood High in 2018-2019) — are located in New Port Richey.
He said plans call for another such school to be built on a 125-acre, district-owned tract of land on Handcart Road in the Dade City area — to serve students living in Dade City, Zephyrhills and Wesley Chapel.
“We are trying our darnedest to find money to build that facility,” the school superintendent said.
Elsewhere, Browning spoke extensively about school safety measures, from the district’s active threat plan to beefing up school security.
He also noted that he’s staunchly opposed to arming teachers and other school personnel.
“There’s something inside me that tells me anytime I introduce a gun in a classroom, on a school campus, it’s just another opportunity for someone to get hurt or killed,” Browning said.
Ongoing road construction translates to “good things” for Pasco County — that was the message that Pasco County Commissioner Ron Oakley brought to The Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce’s breakfast meeting.
Oakley was the chamber’s featured guest speaker on Sept. 19 at Bayfront Health.
Speaking to a crowd that numbered in the dozens, Oakley provided updates on several priority projects.
Among the projects he discussed:
State Road 56 extension: The $65 million four-lane project — which extends from Meadow Point Boulevard in Wesley Chapel, 6 miles east to U. S. 301 and State Road 41 in Zephyrhills — should be complete within the next 18 months to two years, Oakley said. “You can see that it’s already being worked through, and there’s already lime rock at U.S. 301.”
State Road 54 (Curley Road to Morris Bridge Road): This project involves the widening of State Road 54 from Curley Road to east of Morris Bridge Road. State Road 54 will be widened to six lanes from Curley Road to Foxwood Boulevard and to four lanes from Foxwood Boulevard to Morris Bridge Road. Oakley said utilities are underway, with the right-of-way acquisition process already complete.
Interstate 75 and State Road 56 interchange: The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is slated to begin construction sometime next year on a $18.5 million diverging diamond interchange project for the 2.3-mile-long northbound exit. Such projects, according to the website DivergingDiamond.com, are designed to create fewer conflict points when traveling through them, have better sight distance at turns, shorter pedestrian crossings and wrong-way ramps that are extremely difficult to access. “They have one of those in Sarasota now, and it’s working very well,” Oakley said.
Eiland Boulevard: Eiland Boulevard, stretching to Handcart Road, will be repaved, beginning sometime in November. Traffic signals also are coming to the intersections of Eiland and Handcart, and Eiland and Geiger Road.
Oakley underscored the importance of ongoing road projects in one of the state’s fastest-growing counties, particularly for major events like the annual Kumquat Festival in Dade City, which draws more than 40,000 people.
“They have a hard time getting here, and once they get in here, they have a hard time getting out of here. It’s a fact. The roads don’t allow them to get out,” said Oakley, whose district includes the largest geographic area of the county, stretching from south of Zephyrhills to a portion of Shady Hills west of the Suncoast Parkway.
Pasco, which recently crossed the 500,000-population threshold, now has approximately 505,000 residents.
The figure is estimated to grow to 750,000 people by 2030, and more than 1 million by 2040.
Oakley pointed out the U.S. Department of Transportation has already allocated $350 million for countywide road spending.
“The road construction…is coming finally to our area,” Oakley said. “It’s been my entire lifetime we’ve been here waiting on four-lane roads on (State Road) 52 and other roads for a long time.”
He added: “Those roads are coming, and it’s going to be better, but the problem is we’ve got to walk through all this construction and bear with it for a little while longer.”
Oakley also tackled the ongoing traffic congestion at the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54, in Lutz and Land O’ Lakes.
The interim fix for the intersection, through which nearly 100,000 vehicles travel daily, calls for extending the length of turn lanes at a cost of about $1.5 million. The plan, for eastbound State Road 54 motorists, would extend the length of the right-turn lane from 215 feet to 1,050 feet; extend the inside left-turn lane from 350 feet to 750 feet; and extend the outside left-turn lane to 875 feet.
The commissioner served up his own solution: “What needs to be done at (U.S.) 41 and (State Road) 54? It needs 10 lanes. Guess what it takes to get them? All four corners have to be bought in the future, to make that wider, handle that traffic.”
Besides road projects, Oakley updated chamber members on Connected City, a master-planned community in eastern Pasco County that promises the fastest Internet and Wi-Fi speeds in the nation.
At its 50-year build out, Connected City — encompassing about 7,800 acres bordered by Interstate 75, State Road 52, State Road 54, and Curley and Overpass roads — is expected to have more than 96,000 residents within multiple neighborhoods; 37,000 homes and apartments; as many as 7.2 million square feet of employment facilities; and, a role-model reputation for technology innovation.
Oakley said the first phase of Connected City, now being developed on the former Epperson Ranch by Metro Development Group, already has 120 lots finished and 25 families living there, with another 75 lots in the process of being closed.
The initial progress, Oakley said, unexpectedly translated to an additional $2 million in school impact fees for the county this past quarter.
“It’s booming already,” he said of the high-tech community.
“That’s a big infrastructure part of our county. That’s quite a push in the economy and quite a push in homes coming in,” he said.
As Pasco County’s population booms, traffic relief is on the way.
That’s according to Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore, the featured speaker at The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce monthly breakfast on May 4.
The commissioner provided updates to several county road projects, including: extension of State Road 56; widening of State Road 54; and, intersection improvements along Eiland Boulevard.
Those projects are crucial, Moore said, as growth continues.
The county recently crossed the 500,000-population threshold, and stands at roughly 505,000.
The figure is estimated to grow to 750,000 people by 2030, and over 1 million by 2040.
“We’re catching up (to Hillsborough County). We’re one of the fastest growing areas in the nation,” said Moore.
Specifically, Land O’ Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills are “probably the fastest growing…in the state of Florida.”
Knowing that, Moore said county leaders must be “proactive” and “forward-thinking” on “big-ticket items,” including road improvements.
Among the most ballyhooed is the four-lane extension of State Road 56 from Meadow Pointe Boulevard in Wiregrass Ranch to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills.
Construction on the 6.7-mile stretch is estimated to be complete sometime in 2019.
“Relief is definitely on the way,” Moore said. “It’s going to open up economic development opportunities in this area. But, at the same time, it’s going to relieve some of that traffic congestion that we see on (State Road) 54 coming into Zephyrhills or (U.S.) 301 coming into Zephyrhills.”
The county also is working with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) on widening the State Road 54 corridor from four lanes to six lanes, up through Morris Bridge Road.
Though he declined to provide a specific timeline, Moore said the right-of-way acquisition process is complete and the project will start “very, very soon.”
Meanwhile, design studies are ongoing for various intersection improvements along Eiland Boulevard in Zephyrhills.
The intersection of Eiland Boulevard and Geiger Road will feature a traffic signal system and a right turn lane for eastbound traffic from Geiger to Eiland. The existing dual turn lane on Geiger Road will be restriped for left turn movements.
A signalization project also is being planned at the intersection of Handcart Road and Eiland Boulevard, along with the intersection of Eiland Boulevard and Silver Oaks Drive.
“Eiland needs to happen — it’s going to happen,” Moore said.
Besides roads, Moore hit on the county’s ongoing code enforcement efforts.
Over a year ago, commissioners approved a plan to increase code enforcement efforts along major corridors to end blight, and clean up vacant commercial properties.
Moore said code enforcement continues to focus on major corridors, including U.S. 19, U.S. 41 and U.S. 301.
Stings are also planned outside the Zephyrhills city limits, within the next month.
Targeting dilapidated buildings, violators are fined $500 per day for blight like broken windows or damaged doors.
“It’s not fair for the legitimate business owners that live in the neighborhoods behind these buildings,” Moore said. “We know what it does — it brings property values down, it hurts economic development. Additionally, it’s just unsightly.”
Moore noted the blight ordinance “has done wonders for a lot of areas” in the county, since its implementation.
“We’re trying to clean up the area, and obviously increase property values and beautify the area,” he said.
Lastly, Moore addressed various economic development initiatives within the county.
Among the targets: a 440-acre site adjacent to the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport and next to the CSX rail line.
The industrial land is currently undergoing a site certification process, with a boost from Duke Energy through the Duke Energy Site Readiness Program.
The site — once certified — could be a draw for a domestic or international corporation that specializes in manufacturing or distribution.
Within the next decade, Moore said upward of 2,000 to 3,000 jobs could be brought to that area alone, further supplementing the county’s tax base.
“If we can get that site certified, some great things will happen in this area,” Moore said.