Traffic ‘relief’ coming to Pasco

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.

Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore was the featured speaker at The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce monthly breakfast on May 4. He discussed a wide range of topics, including roads, code enforcement and economic development.
(Kevin Weiss)

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.

Published May 10, 2017

Overpass Road/I-75 interchange under review

About 100 residents had the chance to see the design for a proposal to widen and extend Overpass Road at a public hearing on Dec. 15, but the project is years away from construction.

The project, estimated at $220 million, calls for widening and extending Overpass Road, aligning it with Fairview Heights and Kossik roads, and building a new Interstate 75 interchange.

The nearly 9-mile project is driven by a rapidly changing landscape that developers are tapping into for homes, employment centers and shops.

The proposed plan was outlined at the public hearing at the First Congregation Church of Zephyrhills.

In addition to a new I-75 interchange, the road would be widened to four lanes, or six lanes in some sections, from Old Pasco Road to U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills. Construction on the interchange – the only partially funded phase of the project – is scheduled in 2020.

Pasco County has about $32 million budgeted for the estimated $64 million interchange. Additional state funds will be sought in 2017.

Pasco, with the Florida Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration, is completing a study of the project before committing to its construction.

A no-build alternative also is an option.

A decision is anticipated by spring 2017.

At the hearing, residents could view maps and ask questions. They also viewed a video explaining the project.

During a public comment period, one property owner raised concern about access to property abutting I-75. Others opted instead for written comments, which were accepted by the state department of transportation through Dec. 27.

Many people at the meeting had questions about construction, increasing traffic and future plans to buy right-of-way.

Lorri and David Blommel, who live off Kossik Road, had mixed views of the project.

Lori Blommel had some questions: “How are we going to get out of our little place across four lanes of highway? How’s that going to work?”

But, an improved roadway, with an Overpass extension, also would provide a quicker, more direct route to Wesley Chapel.

David Blommel said a 30-minute trip could be shortened to 10 minutes.

The entire length of roadway is quickly transforming. Vacant land is becoming home to new subdivisions to join existing ones, such as the Villages at Pasadena Hills.

Metro Development Group recently broke ground on a 7-acre manmade Crystal Lagoon on Epperson Ranch at Overpass and Curley roads. The master-planned community will add thousands of homes, as well as employment opportunities to the area as part of the state-approved Connected City corridor.

The state’s 10-year pilot program focuses on about 7,800 acres to encourage development of new neighborhoods and stimulate job growth with cutting edge technology. Total build out is about 50 years into the future.

Currently, Overpass is an east-west road that runs from Old Pasco Road to just less than a mile east of Boyette Road. The road falls between State Road 52 and County Road 54. It crosses I-75, but it isn’t connected to the interstate.

The project would widen Overpass from two lanes to four lanes, from Old Pasco to I-75. A diverging diamond interchange would be built with a connection to Overpass.

In addition, Blair Drive, which currently links to Overpass near I-75, would be closed. A new, two-lane paved road would be built with a connection to Old Pasco.

When the Overpass extension is complete, the road would intersect with Handcart Road. From there, the road name changes to Fairview Heights Road and later becomes Kossik Road. The project ends where Kossik intersects with U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills.

Plans, long range, are to widen Overpass Road from I-75 to Boyette Road to six lanes, plus two auxiliary lanes. From Boyette Road to U.S. 301, the road also would widen to six lanes.

The project dates to 2003 and the Overpass Road Route Study. Since then, the plan has taken shape from additional studies and public workshops.

Published December 28, 2016

Dreaming of a golf league of their own

WESLEY CHAPEL — As a self-proclaimed “range rat,” it doesn’t take much to keep Ron Nelson happy. Give him a bucket of balls, room on the practice tee and a game on the radio for company, and he’s set.

“It’s golf heaven,” he says.

It is insufficient to call the 69-year-old Nelson a regular at Pasadena Hills Golf Driving Range; he is, more accurately, a devotee to this little patch of paradise off Handcart Road.

It might be the range’s proximity to his home in Zephyrhills. It might be the ease of using an electronic key to retrieve a practice bucket from the ball dispenser. Location and convenience are always big sellers.

Most likely, however, it has to do with the red sign affixed to the entrance gate that declares the range home to the Florida Veterans Golf Association, and also that half the ownership team — PGA teaching professional Fred Bender — served, as Nelson did, in Vietnam.

Fred Bender is seated with, from left, Robert Jones, Melvin Blair, Ron Nelson and Jim Murphy standing behind him. (Tom Jackson/Photo)
Fred Bender is seated with, from left, Robert Jones, Melvin Blair, Ron Nelson and Jim Murphy standing behind him.
(Tom Jackson/Photo)

Bender, a Marine, endured in 1968 the four-month siege of Khe Sanh, a U.S. stronghold in the northwest corner of South Vietnam near Laos. Whatever else he took from the experience — bitterly, as people back home turned against the war, U.S. forces abandoned Khe Sanh within months after winning the battle — Bender knew then he always would be the brother of anyone who wore an American military uniform.

On a recent Monday in an air-conditioned corner of the golf center, Bender was surrounded by military kin, fellows such as Nelson who remember vividly their days as young soldiers, sailors and Marines.

Here was Robert Jones, 65, a 24-year Navy man who experienced Vietnam as a 19-year-old orderly transporting other 19-year-olds, amputee patients, between air transports and the U.S. Naval Hospital in Philadelphia.

And here was Jim Murphy, 74, a Marine machinist who spent six years in the Pacific just as Vietnam was beginning to heat up. And here, too, was Melvin Blair, 69, who learned to hit golf balls as a 12-year-old in the north Florida citrus groves where his father picked for a living, then earned four Purple Hearts as an infantryman during a two-year tour in Vietnam.

And, even if those wartime experiences aren’t the sum of who they are, they still shape how they think and how they form their happiest associations.

Put him in a room with 60 random strangers, Bender was saying, and he’ll look for the nearest escape route. But last year, when he screwed up the courage to attend a reunion of Khe Sanh Marines in Savannah, the welcome felt like being surrounded by 300 family members.

Even as he began making plans for the next Marine gathering, “It got me thinking, about what I could do to help get veterans together here,” Bender says.

He thinks, at last, he’s onto something: a veterans’ golf league that tours area courses on a regular schedule, then gathers in the clubhouse to share a meal and whatever is on their minds.

The inaugural event is set, appropriately, for Veterans Day at Silverado Golf and Country Club, off Eiland Boulevard in Zephyrhills. “I just think it would be great to get the guys together on a regular basis,” Bender says, “somewhere other than their usual watering holes.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with watering holes, he says, and here Nelson interjects, “But, you never get to know someone like you do when you play golf.

“It’s four hours together, alone in the outdoors. It’s quiet. You’re playing a game that makes you think. And, you start talking about things that would never come up anywhere else. Stories you’ve never told anyone.”

Nelson, himself, isn’t one to tell stories, even though the one he has to tell is as plain as the scar on his face: a jagged disruption working its way across the bridge of his nose to just below his right eye.

“I picked it up in the A Shau Valley,” he shrugs.

“A Shau?” says the often-wounded Blair. “Man, I get scared just hearing the name.”

Rightly so. A Shau served as a conduit for soldiers and supplies flowing from North Vietnam, and attempts to thwart Hanoi’s operations were costly and largely ineffective. The most infamous of these, in May 1969, involved the taking of an insignificant nob survivors dubbed “Hamburger Hill.”

Nelson, a member of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, came in on a helicopter and left on a stretcher. He survived, but kept the shrapnel in his sinuses; now it rarely comes up in conversation unless the X-ray tech at the dentist’s office is new.

Then, inevitably, it’s, “What the hell is that?!” And, Nelson patiently explains how he came by his souvenir from the Viet Cong.

Jones told of the courage of lads his age, fresh “out of country,” getting used to the idea of facing life without a limb or two, “and not one of them said, ‘I can’t.’ ”

Blair recalled sitting by the mess hall door nearest the bunker after the Tet Offensive, because you never knew when a rocket would come flying through the window. “If that seat was taken,” he says, “I didn’t eat.”

The conscientious Murphy, who’d already given blood that Monday morning, spoke with pride about looking after machine guns that never broke down on his watch.

All that and much, much more, came out of an hour spent in the vicinity of a golf practice range. Imagine an entire day on actual links.

Area veterans don’t have to imagine. They can hook up with Fred Bender and turn a dream of ball-striking camaraderie into a tale-spinning reality. You can visit his web site — PasadenaHillsGolf.com — or catch him at (813) 857-5430.

The same contacts work for potential sponsors. Ring up the man. Send him an email. He survived a siege to make this happen. But, even a Marine capable of creating golf heaven can’t take this hill alone.

Tom Jackson, a resident of New Tampa, is interested in your ideas. To reach him, email .

Published September 21, 2016

MPO keeps elevated road on county transportation plan

A group that spent months successfully fighting a privately built elevated toll road through the heart of Pasco County got a bit of a setback last week. But its members seem to be OK with it … for now.

Jason Amerson, second from left, will fight any elevated road planned to run near his home off State Road 54 in Land O’ Lakes, but won’t challenge the county’s current long-range transportation plan as long as elevated roads don’t come up as a viable option. He was one of the leaders of a local protest group, Pasco Fiasco, that included, from left, Patrick Knight, Brian Narcum and Kristine Narcum.  (File Photo)
Jason Amerson, second from left, will fight any elevated road planned to run near his home off State Road 54 in Land O’ Lakes, but won’t challenge the county’s current long-range transportation plan as long as elevated roads don’t come up as a viable option. He was one of the leaders of a local protest group, Pasco Fiasco, that included, from left, Patrick Knight, Brian Narcum and Kristine Narcum. (File Photo)

Pasco County’s 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan is on its way to both federal and state authorities, highlighting the county’s plan for roads, transit and sidewalks over the next 25 years. And among the various needs the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization included in that transportation plan are elevated roads along the State Road 54/56 corridor.

“We knew the (transportation plan) would still contain the elevated toll road,” said Jason Amerson, a Land O’ Lakes resident who was one of the key players in the elevated toll road protest group, Pasco Fiasco. “It’s not something we are worried about unless they start actively discussing it again at MPO meetings.”

Pasco Fiasco came together last year after some homeowners who live just off State Road 54 learned about a proposal by a private company, International Infrastructure Partners LLC, to build a 33-mile elevated toll road, stretching from U.S. 301 in Zephyrhills to U.S. 19 in New Port Richey. The company had said initially it would fund the estimated $2.2 billion project on its own, but then lost its negotiating power with the Florida Department of Transportation after it requested the state help finance it.

That killed the private project, but an elevated road option remained in the county’s transportation plan. While then Pasco County commissioner Henry Wilson Jr., vowed to help Pasco Fiasco and others against an elevated road down State Road 54 remove such projects from the plan, Wilson was defeated in an open primary election last October by Mike Wells Jr.

“It’s not a simple task getting it removed,” Amerson said. “Probably even a harder task now that Wilson is gone.”

The elevated road remains an option for the county between 2020 and 2040 along the State Road 54/56 corridor as an “alternative improvement.” That could include “premium transit improvements” like toll lanes, overpasses like those used on U.S. 19 in Pinellas County, and elevated lanes.

The elevated road stayed in the plan, but the MPO did make more than 30 other changes to the documents after two months of public hearings. The MPO conducted a 30-day comment period through Nov. 23, as well as public workshops throughout November. It concluded with a public hearing on Dec. 11 where the new transportation plan was adopted unanimously.

Many adjustments to the plan were minor, like name changes of some roads at Bexley Ranch near the Suncoast Parkway, and Mitchell Boulevard near the Little Road area.

But there also were some larger changes as well. They included:

  • Moving up the six-lane expansion of State Road 52 from Interstate 75 to Pasco Road from 2040 to 2019.
  • Delaying another 10 years to 2040 projects like Livingston Avenue from State Road 54 to Collier Parkway, Eiland Boulevard from Handcart to Dean Dairy roads, Curley Road from Wells Road to Clinton Avenue, and Lake Patience Road from Sunlake Boulevard to U.S. 41.
  • Keeping the State Road 56 expansion from Meadow Pointe to U.S. 301 two lanes instead of four by 2019, but possibly expanding it to four lanes by 2030.

That last proposal angered city leaders in Zephyrhills, who wanted four lanes leading into one of its key commercial areas, the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport. Lawmakers like new state representative and former Zephyrhills mayor Danny Burgess said they would work with the city to try and restore funding for a four-lane segment.

The MPO also made a number of changes to Tower Road, which runs primarily east to west in Pasco, just north of State Road 54. They include developer-funded improvements like a two-lane stretch from Bexley Ranch to Ballantrae Boulevard, and an expansion to a two-lane road from U.S. 41 to Ehren Cutoff by 2040, paid for by the county.

The Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Florida Department of Transportation will now review the plan, and work with the county to help implement it.

To read the complete plan, visit Mobility2040Pasco.com.

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MPO keeps elevated toll road on long-range county plan

Pasco County’s 2040 Long-Range Transportation Plan is on its way to both federal and state authorities, highlighting the county’s plan for roads, transit and sidewalks over the next 25 years. And one transportation feature that made the cut? Elevation roads along the State Road 54/56 corridor.

A group of residents successfully fought a proposed private elevated toll road that would’ve stretched from Zephyrhills to New Port Richey earlier this year, but once they stopped that project, they vowed to remove any mention of elevated roads from the transportation plan. Yet, among the more than 30 changes made to the plan after two months of public hearings, none of them included deleting references to an elevated road.

In fact, it remains an option for the county between 2020 and 2040 along the State Road 54/56 corridor as an “alternative improvement.” That could include “premium transit improvements” like toll lanes, overpasses like those used on U.S. 19 in Pinellas County, and elevated lanes, like was proposed by International Infrastructure Partners LLC in 2013 that could’ve cost upward of $2.2 billion or more.

Pasco’s Metropolitan Planning Organization conducted a 30-day comment period through Nov. 23, as well as public workshops throughout November. It concluded with a public hearing on Dec. 11 where the new transportation plan was adopted unanimously.

Many of the changes to the plan were minor, like name changes of some roads at Bexley Ranch near the Suncoast Parkway, and Mitchell Boulevard near the Little Road area. But there also were some larger changes as well, including:

• Moving up the six-lane expansion of State Road 52 from Interstate 75 to Pasco Road from 2040 to 2019.

• Keeping the State Road 56 expansion from Meadow Pointe to U.S. 301 two lanes instead of four by 2019, but possibly expanding it to four lanes by 2030. Zephyrhills city officials are working with state lawmakers to get that timetable moved up.

• Delaying another 10 years to 2040 projects like Livingston Avenue from State Road 54 to Collier Parkway, Eiland Boulevard from Handcart to Dean Dairy roads; Curley Road from Wells Road to Clinton Avenue, and Lake Patience Road from Sunlake Boulevard to U.S. 41.

The MPO also made a number of changes to Tower Road, which runs primarily east to west in Pasco County just north of State Road 54. They include developer-funded improvements like a two-lane stretch from Bexley Ranch to Ballantrae Boulevard, and an expansion to a two-lane road from U.S. 41 to Ehren Cutoff by 2040, paid for by the county.

The Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Transit Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation will now review the plan, and work with the county to help implement it.

To read the complete plan, visit Mobility2040Pasco.com.