Improvements to a portion of County Road 54 through Zephyrhills are on hold, as the municipality and Pasco County struggle to come to financial terms on the project.
The scope of the project calls for the following enhancements along a 1.31 mile stretch, from east of U.S. 301 to 23rd Street:
- Additional signage and pavement markings
- Left-hand turn lane at the Dairy Road intersection
- Right-hand turn lane and new mast arms at Wire Road, turning onto 12th Street
- Signalized intersection at 23rd Street
- A 10-foot concrete multi-use path on the south side of County Road 54, and a 5-to-6-foot path on the north side of the road, plus associated drainage
How to split the cost of the $6.78 million project is the crux of the issue.
County staffers have asked the city to fund 50% of the project through an inter-local agreement. The roughly $3.35 million would be paid in installments, over three years.
An initial draft of the contract also calls for the city to agree to pay any cost overruns, in full.
For instance, if the project ends up costing, say, $7 million, the city would be responsible for the $22,000 difference from the engineer’s estimate of $6.78 million.
The Zephyrhills City Council balked at the proposal.
Council members called for a better deal, at the board’s regular meeting earlier this month.
Council members and city staff indicated the proposed agreement had come out of left field.
They said there wasn’t much or any input with them throughout the design/pre-engineering process.
The estimated cost was an eyeopener, too.
“I think we all had sticker shock,” Zephyrhills City Manager Billy Poe said.
While the city put forth some money into the project’s design several years ago, council members were under the impression it was for a four-lane road extension, as opposed to turn lanes, traffic signals and adjacent multi-use trails.
Any improvements east of 20th Street are not in the city’s jurisdiction, officials noted, so the city should not be responsible for those costs. They also raised a question about whether those improvements are even necessary.
Another snag: The county had already gone to bid on the project before getting the city’s approval on the final agreement. The county later canceled that bid opening, Poe said.
Poe said the ongoing dilemma is that the project won’t be completed, unless the city participates in helping to fund the project’s entire scope — even the portion outside its jurisdiction.
City could do improvements on its own
The city’s other option is to take on the project itself and determine which areas along the roadway are most pressing for improvements, Poe said.
Council Vice President Jodi Wilkeson said work certainly is needed along the busy stretch of road.
She observed the area north of Zephyrhills High School, and south of Wire Road and 20th Street has “pretty dangerous conditions” with heavy traffic.
“People are riding golf carts and walking on the grass there. People tend to ride on the street there because there is no sidewalk, there’s no bike lanes,” Wilkeson said.
However, Wilkeson, like others, expressed reservation about the project’s cost — “a significant percentage of our annual budget” — while also noting city residents have already been taxed by the county through Penny for Pasco for such infrastructure improvements.
She put it like this: “A million dollars a year (for three years) sounds like a lot of money, but honestly, my bigger concern is what kind of precedent are we setting with the county, if we begin to fund 50% of the projects that they’ve already taxed our residents?”
Councilman Lance Smith said some type of project needs to get done along the roadway, one way or another.
“It’s going to get bad,” Smith said. “That road’s bad at certain times of the day.”
Smith suggested his fellow council members extend an olive branch to Pasco County Commissioners, to direct their staff-level employees to negotiate in better faith.
“They’re just pushing us, trying to get us to sign this thing,” Smith said. “I think we need to reach out to them and tell them, ‘We will participate, but we’re feeling strong-armed into this thing right now, and it’s not what we originally talked about.’”
The councilman added the city has partnered well with the county on countless transportation projects in the past, including State Road 56, the Eiland Boulevard/U.S 301 intersection, Copeland Drive, Kossick Road, Simons Road, plus various frontage and reverse frontage roads.
Said Smith: “We do need to remind them of all these things we’ve helped them with in the past. Maybe we suggest, ‘Look, we’ve been good partners with the county and we want to continue to be good partners with the county, so we need some help. We need you to help us out.’”
With that, Smith is optimistic a deal can be struck.
“It’s going to take a little bit of time, that’s all,” he said.
While concurring with other council members, Council President Charles Proctor expressed frustration with the county for trying to take advantage of the city.
“All of a sudden they’re in this big rush for us to put in our portion and nothing’s even broken ground.
“We do have a good relationship with the county and I don’t want to ruin that relationship by any means, but I think it has to be fair for all involved, and I just feel like this was kind of shot at us real quick and we didn’t have a signed agreement, so I think we need to protect our own and look out for the citizens of our great city,” Proctor said.
Meanwhile, Councilman Alan Knight advised the city to take a “wait and see” approach before jumping into the multimillion dollar project with the county. “I think we have to look at it again, I really do,” he said.
Knight also proposed the city look into possibly taking on the project itself and make desired traffic improvements at the most troubled areas along the mile-plus long roadway — such as the Wire Road intersection.
“We could almost do that intersection just with our own money and not have to jump into three or four million dollars with the county,” Knight said.
In a follow-up interview with The Laker/Lutz News, the city manager said it could take several more meetings before a solution with the county is reached.
“It’s a big price tag, and so the message was relayed to Pasco County, so there’s still more conversations to be had,” Poe said.
Published August 26, 2020