LUTZ — The Suncoast Parkway's new interchange is scheduled to open Saturday, but traffic on Lutz-Lake Fern Road itself promises to get worse — and soon — before it gets better.
• While the state's $10 million interchange is complete, another $6 million job to widen and improve Lutz-Lake Fern Road below and on either side of the parkway is expected to continue until February.
• The morning of Aug. 25, thousands of students and parents will converge on three schools just east of the parkway, including the brand-new Steinbrenner High School.
• And looming in the background are the county's plans to widen another part of Lutz-Lake Fern Road to four lanes.
"It's been a mess getting to school," said Heritage Harbor resident Suzanne Linnell, who is on the board of the PTA for McKitrick Elementary School. "Lutz-Lake Fern traffic is backed up in the morning and in the afternoon for car line."
Given all that, Hillsborough County officials will hold a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday to give residents an update on their plans for Lutz-Lake Fern Road.
The county plans to widen Lutz-Lake Fern from the end of the Florida Department of Transportation's work near the new interchange east to the Boulevard of the Roses, the entrance to the VillaRosa development.
The county's job is expected to begin in late fall and take about a year to complete. The estimated cost of construction is $4.3 million.
But because of budget constraints, the county has put on hold its plans to widen Lutz-Lake Fern east to N Dale Mabry Highway. The cost of designing, acquiring the land for and building the entire project is estimated at $68 million — money the county doesn't have.
In the short term, county officials are working with the Sheriff's Office and the school district to have deputies and school resource officers help minimize congestion on Lutz-Lake Fern at the start of the school year.
"We're going to have a coordinated effort to see what we can do about that," county public works spokesman Steve Valdez said.
Steinbrenner High is expected to open with about 1,550 students, and administrators plan to send an automated phone call to parents this week saying that they expect a lot of congestion, at least at first.
The hours of the three schools are staggered, with Steinbrenner starting at 7:30 a.m. and ending at 3 p.m. That means Steinbrenner students will arrive about the same time as employees at McKitrick, where the school day starts at 8 a.m. Martinez Middle School's day starts at 9 a.m.
Steinbrenner principal Brenda Grasso said she would encourage parents to have their children ride one of the 19 school buses scheduled to bring students to the new high school, if possible.
"That could help alleviate the traffic congestion," she said.
The school expects to have 360 to 370 juniors who will be allowed to drive to school, though she didn't know how many would. Steinbrenner will not have a senior class its first year.
The work planned for Lutz-Lake Fern should help ease congestion, Linnell said, just not right away.
"Overall," she said, "I think everyone's excited for the end result but realizes that there's going to be some chaos to get there."
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.