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Zephyrhills downtown merchants are against a proposed widening of U.S. 301

ZEPHYRHILLS — Sometimes, Jason Koontz can see the state transportation workers from the window of the Subway he helps run on U.S. 301.

Their surveys of the roadway for a proposed widening project has Koontz, the sandwich shop's assistant manager, feeling uneasy. Koontz says if the project moves forward, changing the traffic pattern on the busy street, his business would suffer.

"Customers will drive by us," he said. "It's going to hurt our business."

Koontz isn't alone in his sentiment. Many residents and business owners in the city are starkly against the Florida Department of Transportation's $80-million proposal, which would eventually turn the downtown stretch of U.S. 301 into a one-way street heading north.

All southbound traffic would be diverted to Sixth Street, which is already a one-way street. Eventually, both streets would be widened to three lanes.

The project, FDOT officials say, is in response to long-term capacity projections for the downtown area.

But opponents say the idea would turn the downtown district, hailed for its ability to draw tourists to shop and eat throughout the year, into a congested speedway that forces people to make U-turns to stop at downtown shops.

The long-term effect? Instead of stopping by specialty stores and restaurants, opponents fear, people will zip through the downtown stretch of U.S. 301 and miss out on what the city's downtown has to offer.

"I think it would turn 301 into a racetrack, and people would just drive through," said City Manager Steve Spina. "Businesses would leave because they'd lose half their customers."

The $80-million project includes a larger stretch of U.S. 301, but the proposal's controversy is limited to the downtown portion. The project is slated to start in 2015.

A recent survey conducted by University of South Florida students solidified about 500 residents' angst about the proposal: About 71 percent of the respondents said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposal, and 79 percent said U.S. 301 should remain a two-way road.

Spina said the city tapped its traffic consulting firm, Kimley-Horn, a few months ago to evaluate FDOT's proposal and find alternatives.

The city is awaiting a response.

Until then, Spina said the city and FDOT are attempting to reach a compromise.

Luis Lopez, a city council member opposed to the proposal, said those compromises include:

• Creating two southbound lanes on U.S. 301 and leaving the one northbound lane alone.

• Turning both of the existing lanes on U.S. 301 into northbound lanes, and widening Sixth Street to three lanes heading south.

The final option? Rejecting the proposal altogether, which FDOT officials say is a possibility.

"If the community doesn't want a project, we will work with the community," said FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson. "If it's widely rejected, we will go to another city."

Lopez said he fears if the U.S. 301 plans come to fruition, Zephyrhills will mirror nearby cities like Lakeland. He said the widening of U.S. 98 in that city led to the closing of local businesses.

"It (U.S. 98) gets wider and wider as you get closer to I-4," he said. "Traffic is terrible."

Marcus Price, a member of Zephyrhills's planning board who runs a sign shop on U.S. 301, said the widening of roads "kills businesses."

"All it does is deliver traffic to big box stores like Wal-Mart and Staples on the north end of town," he said. "I think the city has great alternative. Clean up 301 (with streetscaping efforts) to create a beautiful business district."

Brenda Welcher, executive director of Main Street Zephyr­hills Inc., said she wants the city to explore its options with FDOT with the hopes of keeping the hometown feel intact.

"We certainly don't want a freeway going through Zephyr­hills," she said. "We provide many events throughout the year, like monthly car shows and Festival of Lights. We want people to come to our community and see what it has to offer."

Lopez said he wants the city to work with FDOT to preserve what makes the city of 13,000 special.

"Downtown is like a hometown atmosphere where you can walk around and feel safe," Lopez said, "and we're trying to keep it along those lines."

Camille C. Spencer can be reached at cspencer@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4609.

Zephyrhills downtown merchants are against a proposed widening of U.S. 301 05/30/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 11:58am]

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