ZEPHYRHILLS — State officials have agreed to consider the city's plan to keep U.S. 301 a two-way street running through downtown, signaling a possible resolution to the long-running debate over the highway expansion.
In a meeting last week with city leaders, the state Department of Transportation agreed to conduct new studies on the city's proposal, which would keep U.S. 301 as it is and divert additional traffic onto Sixth and Seventh streets.
"While we are not out of the woods yet, (the) meeting was a huge step forward in working with DOT and getting the corridor study changed," City Manager Steve Spina wrote in an e-mail to City Council members.
The city strongly objected to the state's original plan to turn the downtown stretch of U.S. 301 into a one-way street heading north. All southbound traffic would have been diverted to Sixth Street, which is already one-way. Eventually, both streets would have been widened to three lanes.
Local officials and business leaders feared the state's design would turn U.S. 301 into a high-speed thoroughfare, hurting businesses and disrupting the small-town feel.
But the state and federal transportation authorities were open to the city's alternative plan when they met Friday with Zephyrhills Mayor Cliff McDuffie and City Manager Steve Spina.
DOT and the Federal Highway Administration will conduct a "cultural resources assessment" to evaluate the potential impact of the different plans on the Zephyrhills Historical District on Seventh Street, specifically what might happen if traffic increased, as would probably happen with the city's proposal.
The officials will also cooperate on updating the planning, design and engineering study. These evaluations are expected to take roughly 12 to 18 months, according to Spina. The evaluations will cost the state roughly $750,000.
City officials will also revise their community redevelopment plan to adjust to any planned changes.
Spina expressed excitement over the DOT's new level of openness. At the City Council meeting Monday night, Spina said that state officials said that while the city's plan will not give the same level of through traffic, the state will not oppose the alternative design, since the difference in traffic is not significant.