The effort to widen the two-lane stretch of State Road 54 from Curley Road to Morris Bridge Road, long beleaguered by population growth and shrinking road-building funds, got a reprieve Thursday when the county's top transportation planners voted to raise its position on a county list of priority projects from No. 26 to within the top 10.
Ted Schrader, a Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization Board member who is also County Commission chairman, said it's time to leverage the project's fruition on the rising political star of state Rep. Will Weatherford, who happens to live in Seven Oaks, minutes away from SR 54.
"Weatherford is about to ascend to become the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and then the speaker (of the House)," Schrader said. "Rep. Weatherford is going to be key."
The county's annually updated list, approved Thursday, sets out a $428-million, five-year funding priority plan for big-ticket road projects that rely on federal money. The top 10 projects remain dominated by interstate improvements, including changes to the SR 56 interchange and widening the highway between the SR 56 and SR 54 exits.
But the SR 54 project, which would expand the 5-mile lifeline to four lanes, would now no longer languish at No. 26. At that low level of priority, the project was only going to see right-of-way purchases begin in late 2010, with no funding for construction within the five-year plan.
State Department of Transportation officials said another public workshop on that stretch of SR 54 is scheduled for Aug. 14 at the Trinity United Methodist Church in Wesley Chapel. The time is not confirmed yet.
Bumping up the project is a crucial step in persuading state legislators to speed up the project.
"They tell us MPO has got to move it up the list," Schrader said.
"They see it way down at No. 26, it's really hard for them to secure the funding."
But political backing is only part of the equation.
On Thursday, the state warned the MPO board that District 7, which includes Hillsborough and Pasco counties, is facing $32-million in budget cuts over the next five years, which would force the postponement of project funding across the district. Specific projects have not been targeted yet, said Lee Royal of DOT.
In other MPO news:
• Schrader said Weatherford met Crystal Springs residents Monday and promised to direct DOT to proceed with the $21.2-million replacement of a bridge on State Road 39 in southeast Pasco County.
• The MPO approved a 10-year transit development plan that showed bus ridership spiking in east Pasco and U.S. 19. Surveys show people are increasingly riding buses more for medical and school commutes, rather than work. But funding problems delay major expansion: for example, the Moon Lake route won't be introduced until 2010, a two-year postponement. A SR 54 cross-county bus connector won't be created until 2011, and a Land O'Lakes route until 2015.
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at email@example.com or (813)909-4613.