ZEPHYRHILLS — Dennis Monaco has been to all the public meetings involving the long-awaited widening of U.S. 301, and Wednesday night's Florida Department of Transportation workshop was no exception.
He has a personal stake. His small "Cracker house" is right on the construction route on the corner of C Avenue and the project highway. His name is even printed on the DOT's aerial photographs to identify his property.
"They'll be driving up right by my bedroom window," he said of construction crews once the work begins.
Monaco was one of about 100 people who turned out for the two-hour public workshop at Alice Hall Community Center in Zephyr Park, where photographs of the project's two alternative routes were set up, as well as detailed shots of the nearby historic district. Twenty DOT staff members were on hand to answer one-on-one questions, and two boxes wrapped with white paper were set up on two tables for people to drop off comment forms.
Even though Monaco might lose a bit of his quarter-acre to the state, he isn't as concerned about the effect the project will have on his own property as he is about his workplace. A salesman for Floors of Distinction at 5045 Gall Blvd., he sees the hazards of the current busy road conditions almost daily.
"I've seen the traffic and it's unbelievable," he said, adding that people trying to make a left into his shop's plaza have a serious challenge. "I've seen people just get discouraged. They give up."
That's why he would like to see the plan for one-way traffic drafted by the state transportation department put into place, rather than the city's alternative.
Monaco appears to be in the minority.
City officials have for years been fighting the approximately 2.3-mile widening project, projected to cost at least $27.5 million. The plan takes a stretch of U.S. 301 through the city's downtown business district and makes it one-way northbound traffic. In a resolution passed unanimously by the City Council on Monday, members further asserted their support of maintaining the two-way "main street." Opponents to the transportation department's plan say converting that stretch of road will impede business by taking away half the traffic. City officials further say it stymies its community redevelopment opportunities particularly in the area between Sixth and Seventh streets.
The city's plan changes the route of U.S. 301 and sweeps it onto Seventh Street, wrapping it up to the current U.S. 301 and Fort King Road intersection.
Both plans bring the widening past the historic Clyde's Cottages on Old Crystal Springs Road, which runs parallel to the route. And the city's plan brings the widened roadway close to the city's historic district. Transportation officials say the buildings could suffer from the effects of construction or increased traffic vibration or accidents.
Several people who attended the two-hour workshop said they preferred the city's plan.
"Our concern is, because we own several properties, is keeping the downtown intact," said Paul Correia, an owner of Sun State Aluminum, which is on Fort King Road just outside the road widening project area. "We would like to have that sort of downtown feel."
Don Edwards, owner of Rapid Revenue Recovery, also objected to the one-way plan. "The impact on the business community could be severe. We're concerned with people if they find themselves in the wrong way, they're going to have to figure out how to turn around after zooming by (on the one-way road)."
Or worse, he said, they might not come back at all.
His wife, Jennifer Clapper, who helps with the business, said while she prefers the city's alternative, she doesn't understand the need for the project at all.
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," she said, adding that while in the winter traffic is certainly busier, she hasn't had any problems on the roads. "I don't understand why anyone wants to mess with the roads. It's beyond my comprehension."
Ming Gao, a DOT planning manager, offered this response: "We have capacity issues here, and we're trying to solve those. That's all."
The Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce recently conducted a "pulse" survey of the community and got overwhelming support of the city's plan. Chamber executive director Vonnie Mikkelsen submitted those results at the meeting.
Eighty participants who either live, work or own a business in Zephyrhills said they support the city's position. In a similar anonymous online survey, 31 of the 33 participants preferred the city's plan, one opposed it and one didn't know how he or she felt about the issue.
As for Monaco, whose home at the corner of C Avenue and Sixth Street will be affected either way, he plans to sell the commercially zoned property after the new road is built.
"It was my retirement home but the town's going to change," he said, shrugging.