BROOKSVILLE — A six-lane Interstate 75 from the Florida border south through the Tampa Bay area has popped to the top of the Florida Department of Transportation's priority list.
Included is the stretch through Hernando County.
The widening and other improvements, which local officials didn't anticipate for another decade, are now expected to begin as early as the first quarter of 2014.
Six separate projects, stretching south from Sumter County through Hernando and into Pasco County and totaling $374 million, will finally widen the last remaining four-lane section of I-75 in the northern half of Florida.
County Commissioner Dave Russell announced the news during Tuesday's commission workshop. He said word of the revised schedule was a surprise and good for the area.
Donald Skelton, the DOT's District 7 secretary, notified officials of the information last week. He noted that the projects would have a significant impact on the region.
That includes bringing jobs to the local economy, strengthening regional connectivity, improving freight and people mobility, enhancing public safety, improving emergency evacuation capacity and accommodating current and future traffic growth.
Skelton noted that moving up the projects was possible by "maximizing federal funds, bid saving and cost estimate updates.''
"They're taking federal allocations, combining them with state allocations and targeting specific types of projects,'' said Dennis Dix, Hernando County's transportation coordinator.
Dix said the state sees the widening of I-75 as a top priority and is going to use money that might have been scattered around the state for smaller projects and pool it here to get a top transportation improvement priority completed.
"This is kind of the missing link between the six-lane sections of the interstate,'' he said.
Skelton noted that I-75 is one of the most critical corridors in the state, "providing inter-regional connection vital to our economy.''
As Dix explained it, the interstate is a key trucking route, and a widened highway not only makes the road safer for motorists who use it, but also provides a clearer passage for commerce.
"This is a very cohesive and concentrated effort by the DOT to get the stuff done that matters,'' Dix said.
It is also a plus for the county's efforts to attract new business and jobs. County economic development leaders have long touted the I-75 area as a prime place to beef up infrastructure for potential warehouse-type businesses.
"It definitely offers serious economic development potential,'' Dix said.
Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager, agreed.
"This is really going to help us get into the forefront as a competitive site,'' McHugh said, noting that just recently several large properties with industrial potential along the corridor have emerged from ownership issues and could soon be on the market.
The county is also moving ahead to run water and sewer lines to parts of the corridor to be ready if a business shows interest in property. McHugh said having better road capacity and an improved interchange at State Road 50 and I-75 should help.
"This is very good news,'' he said.
On a nearby, though separate, project, the DOT has set a public hearing for proposed improvements of State Road 50 from Lockhart Road to U.S. 301. The hearing is scheduled from 5 to 7 p.m. Sept. 27 at the Ridge Manor Community Center, 34240 Cortez Blvd.
A widening project for that section of SR 50 is under discussion. The DOT is in the early planning stages, and there are currently no funds allocated for either design or construction, Dix said.
In other business, the commission Tuesday:
• Heard Patrick Maloney of Hernando HMA LLC offer the county a break on the amount that Spring Hill Regional and Brooksville Regional hospitals will charge to care for the county's jail inmates. Over three years, the discount rate on actual treatment cost will rise from 50 percent to 70 percent, Maloney said. He also explained why the hospitals are seeking another intergovernmental transfer agreement with the county. The hospitals, he said, wrote off $90 million in unpaid bills last year. By approving the transfer agreement, the county agrees to pay a charge per Medicaid patient that is higher than the state-assigned charge, thus helping out the hospitals' bottom line. Commissioners are expected to approve the transfer at their meeting next week.
• Approved funding through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service to restore the Peck Sink stormwater project. The county would receive $97,000 and provide another $32,000 in matching money to repair damage done by Tropical Storm Debby. While the county cannot use the money to make changes to the original design, transportation services director Brian Malmberg said the county is making some changes by using other funds. Completion of the project is expected by mid April.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.