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Pasco officials green-light more urban traffic to lure growth

DADE CITY — These days, drivers can leisurely cruise State Road 54 along the southern edge of the county at more than 60 mph. If you count the time sitting at red lights, it averages to a little less than 40 mph, but the drive is still pretty smooth.

It's going to get worse.

County commissioners on Tuesday said they're willing to accept more congestion during the afternoon rush hour — think U.S. 19 south of New Port Richey — with the expectation that future mass transit will help ease the pain for drivers.

The plan is to concentrate development of business and homes in selected regions, making the addition of mass transit more practical.

Here's how it would work.

Developers anywhere in the county now must pay a portion of the costs for road upgrades when what they develop increases traffic.

The county's new approach would allow more development and traffic in west Pasco and along the county's southern edge before the developers or the county would be forced to pay for road upgrades.

Another facet of the county's plan is to remove the added traffic produced by new office, industrial and transit-oriented developments in the selected areas from the formula for judging when a road upgrade is needed.

Pasco growth management chief Richard Gehrin called keeping the same congestion limits on all roads "peanut butter policy" that spread growth everywhere and led to sprawl.

"We are moving away from that," he said. "Part of that was to create higher urban concentration and lower in the rural area."

So what does that mean for the average driver?

Right now during afternoon rush hour on SR 54, it takes roughly 13 minutes to drive the 8 miles from Little Road to the Suncoast Parkway. As the county allows congestion to increase over the next 20 years or so, that travel time might double. Motorists should also expect to be in stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 75 in the afternoon.

Short of upgrading the roads, the county can alleviate the traffic by increasing bus service or by giving buses priority at traffic lights. In the long term, the county could add express bus service or light rail as part of a regional "premium transit" package. It could even add an elevated toll road for those willing to pay to drive fast.

Officials argue it's not as bad as it could be — Pasco isn't Hillsborough, after all. They pointed to several high-traffic areas, such as Dale Mabry Highway north of Interstate 275. That area's congestion is beyond the point of failing. As drivers of that road are well aware, they must suffer through heavy traffic and might have to sit through one or two green lights at an intersection.

Still, commissioners worried that letting the traffic get too bad might scare away major employers such as Raymond James Financial, which recently agreed to build two 100,000-square-foot office buildings in Wesley Chapel.

Raymond James officials told the county they are looking for a pool of workers who can drive to work in less than 40 minutes. When traffic gets worse, that employee pool shrinks.

"Right now, I think we need to focus on keeping this (congestion) level as good of a level as we can to create more jobs," said Commissioner Jack Mariano.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Pasco officials green-light more urban traffic to lure growth 10/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 8:09pm]
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