NEW PORT RICHEY — Wendy Longman has been operating Windsong Charters for more than a dozen years at U.S. 19 and Marine Parkway, the entrance to Gulf Harbors. Her fleet is up to 54 vessels, including kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, pontoons and the largest, a 34-foot monohull sailboat.
The water is great. The highway leading to her business is not.
"It's just horrible. To the north, to the south, it doesn't matter where it is, it's horrible,'' said Longman, 47, known to most everyone as Capt. Wendy.
As part of the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's effort to re-brand congested U.S. 19, Longman submitted the suggestion Gulf Coast Highway.
"What would sound better than U.S. 19, the most dangerous highway in America?'' she said. "We're trying to focus on the gulf. This highway is how you get to the gulf. It just kind of made sense to me.''
More than 500 people agreed and picked Gulf Coast Highway as the new name for the 20-mile stretch of the north-south highway running through western Pasco County. Just under 2,000 people voted in the contest, and Gulf Coast Highway won in a landslide, said Greg Armstrong, owner of Coldwell Banker F.I. Grey and Son Residential Inc.
"You've got Pacific Highway, Atlantic Highway, and now we've got Gulf Coast Highway, and it will be easy for people to identify where it is,'' said Armstrong, who acknowledged voting for a different name.
The new highway signs won't go up overnight. The cities of Port Richey, New Port Richey and Pasco County all must hold public hearings and approve of the new name before submitting it to the Florida Department of Transportation and eventually, Armstrong said, to the state Cabinet.
The new name is the first step in a large-scale makeover of the highway after a $72 million, six-year project to add turn lanes and rebuild medians to improve road safety. The chamber and the West Pasco Board of Realtors are spearheading a planned not-for-profit organization to beautify the medians with palm trees and other landscaping to be maintained by local businesses. They also want greater Internet speed available to businesses and are hoping the county can obtain a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant to bury overhead utility wires.
Some people, Armstrong said, still favored the U.S. 19 name.
"But even then, they admitted the road has issues and it has bad connotations and it in no way implies we're on the Gulf of Mexico,'' he said.
"We've got to try something different. What we've been doing for 40 years didn't work. We made it into a disaster."