ZEPHYRHILLS — The Florida Department of Transportation announced Thursday it would defer to community leaders and keep Gall Boulevard open to two-way traffic, rather than make the stretch through the city's business district one-way when the highway is widened.
The $54 million, 2 ½ mile street-widening project, intended to alleviate traffic congestion in the area, was stalled several years ago after city leaders asked transportation officials to consider an alternative to the one-way plan. If Gall Boulevard became one-way, it wouldn't be much more than a bypass, with commuters forgoing area businesses.
City officials came up with an idea to change the route of U.S. 301, sweeping it northbound onto Seventh Street so it runs up to the current U.S. 301 and Fort King Road intersection. Under the city's preferred plan, Gall Boulevard remains a two-way, two-lane road rather than the transportation department's proposed one-way, three-lane thoroughfare. Sixth Street will be widened to a three-lane road for southbound traffic.
City and business leaders have been pushing the city's plan, fearing that if they didn't succeed plans to create a vibrant business district would fizzle and established businesses would disappear.
But on Thursday, the worry turned into cheers.
"It finally came to a head," said Mayor Cliff McDuffie, who for years has been lobbying for the city's plan to anybody at the local and state level who would listen. "Oh wow, what a day. (I'm) very elated."
"I told Cliff it's deserving of a victory lap," said Vonnie Mikkelsen, Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce executive director. "We're thrilled."
Todd Vande Berg, the city's director of planning and development, said he was excited to get the "positive" news from the transportation department Thursday morning.
He said it was the community as a whole — from business leaders, to local politicians, to the chamber, to Main Street Zephyrhills and residents — rallying around the city's plan that made the difference.
"It's been a long process, but it was something we felt strongly about and now we can move forward," he said.
Mikkelsen said she, too, was impressed by the community's support.
"When people say 'it doesn't matter, they're going to do what they're going to do,' now I think the community of Zephyrhills proved differently," she said.
Over the years, the transportation department has held a series of workshops and public hearings, most recently in February, so the public could listen, learn and express opinions about the U.S. 301 project. Kris Carson, department spokeswoman, said it was those loud voices that turned things around.
"Based on the comments we received during the entire public hearing process, we did select the Sixth and Seventh Street alternative as the recommended alterative," she said.
It will still be years before the project is completed. The next step is for the Department of Transportation to move forward with the project development and environmental study, finalize it and send it to Federal Highway Administration for approval, likely in June. Design and acquisition of right-of-way will then begin.
As for the city, redeveloping the heart of Zephyrhills can now begin.
"Now we can move full force in our plans," Vande Berg said.