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Pasco group picks untried intersection design to ease U.S. 41/SR 54 congestion

By C.T. Bowen
OCTAVIO JONES | Times The intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in central Pasco became the focus of a citizens task force trying to devise long-term traffic solutions along the State Road 54/56 corridor.

LAND O’LAKES – A citizens group says a better way to move vehicles along a congested central Pasco corridor could involve a never-been-tried intersection design that diverts turning traffic onto parallel frontage roads.

The citizens group, known as the Vision 54/56 Task Force, is recommending further study of the so-called parallel flow intersection as a way to ease traffic through the State Road 54 and U.S. 41 bottleneck. The new intersection design emerged as the favorite proposal in a survey of the task force members trying to whittle a list of a dozen possible traffic improvements.

The group also recommended the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization study elevating express toll lanes above the intersection, and a combination fix involving both an overpass and an at-grade intersection providing continuous turn lanes.

Doing nothing, known as the no-build option, also remains in the mix.

Traffic engineer Greg Parsons of Jacksonville, who has trademarked his parallel flow intersection design, told the group his proposal is the only improvement that will curb back-ups at U.S. 41/SR 54.

"Every other alternative is going to be highly congested at the signal,’’ Parsons said.

He spoke during a public comment period of the task force’s Nov. 30 meeting, in part to refute what he said was inaccurate information provided by the group’s consultant. His design would not require $110 million worth of right of way, as the group had been told, and his fee is based on sharing the cost savings from not building a flyover at the intersection as the state Department of Transportation proposed previously.

The parallel flow intersection — essentially a network of frontage roads allowing turning vehicles to bypass the U.S. 41/SR 54 intersection before reconnecting to the main highways — could cost $100 million for right of way and construction.

Parsons said that would entitle him to a fee of $12.8 million based on DOT’s earlier plan of spending $160 million for a flyover.

DOT threw a wrinkle into the idea, however, announcing it would not pay a design fee to Parsons. Chief Assistant County Attorney David Goldstein told the committee members the fee dispute shouldn’t affect their recommendation.

Parsons designed a similar, though not exact duplication, of the parallel flow intersection that has been used in Columbus, Ohio since 2010. It hasn’t been built elsewhere.

Regardless, the idea of at-grade improvements proved more popular than an overpass or an elevated highway along the entire SR 54/56 corridor among the majority of task force members and the audience in attendance.

A handful of residents from the Oakstead and Stonegate developments on the north side of SR 54 objected to an elevated highway as they did in 2013 when DOT received an unsolicited proposal to build a privately operated $2 billion toll road from U.S. 19 to Zephyrhills.

Amid severe community pushback, DOT killed the idea when the private company acknowledged it needed public subsidies for the project to work financially.

Later, the Metropolitan Planning Organization — elected county and city officials — formed the task force to recommend alternative fixes to the corridor. The group narrowed its focus to studying two main SR 54 intersections — U.S. 41 in central Pasco and at Little Road in Trinity.

The MPO is scheduled to receive the recommendation in January and is expected to commission additional community meetings to gauge public interest in the proposed alternatives. The task force is not expected to meet again until next summer.

Approximately 99,000 vehicles pass through the U.S. 41/SR 54 intersection daily, and growth projections call for daily traffic to increase to 208,000 vehicles over the next 25 years. DOT and the county are working on a planned short-term fix to extend turn lanes for eastbound motorists on SR 54, allowing through traffic easier access to the intersection.

That work is projected to be done in 2019 at a cost of less than $1 million.

Separately, the state’s new five-year transportation program includes nearly $32 million to buy right of way for a new interchange at SR 54/U.S. 41 beginning in 2022.