Bowen: Discussions of traffic woes bring little but more meetings

OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times 

Some members of a community task force and the general public panned the idea of elevated lanes carrying State Road 54 traffic over the intersection with U.S. 41 in central Pasco.
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Some members of a community task force and the general public panned the idea of elevated lanes carrying State Road 54 traffic over the intersection with U.S. 41 in central Pasco.
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Please excuse the road fatigue. It's been a triple-header of transportation meetings in Pasco County, and the map lines are getting blurry.

It is 6 p.m. Aug. 21 at Pasco-Hernando State College's Porter Campus, where there is a transportation summit featuring U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, Pasco County Commission Chairman Mike Moore, state Department of Transportation District Secretary David Gwynn and others.

Roughly three-quarters of the 95 chairs are filled, though many are government staff members. The audience asks just 11 questions, via comment cards, and five inquiries focus on red lights.

Panelists point to successes — the ongoing construction of the State Road 56 extension to Zephyrhills and the planned divergent diamond interchange coming to Interstate 75 and SR 56 starting next year — and lament the setbacks, though they run through the regrets without mentioning that Gov. Rick Scott had vetoed $15 million for a new I-75 interchange at Overpass Road. Apparently, bashing the Republican governor isn't considered good form when you're planning on taking another stab at getting the state money.

"We can talk about the past, but that's not going to do any good,'' Moore tells the audience.

Only panelist Hope Allen, president and CEO of the Greater Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, willingly offers an interjection minus political correctness.

"We want our $15 million back for Overpass Road,'' she says.

Moore talks up the potential for Wesley Chapel to be part of the first project picked by the ongoing regional transit feasibility plan. One of the routes links southern Pasco to the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg. Financing hasn't been determined.

"If you think there's a big pile of money out back,'' said Moore, "you're wrong.''

The planned three-hour summit ends 90 minutes early.

• • •

Less than 24 hours later, 26 people sign in for a meeting at the Marriott Residence Inn adjacent to the Suncoast Parkway and SR 56 in Lutz. This is an open house on that same regional transit plan that Moore referenced. Most of those in attendance are consultants, government staffers or others connected to the study. The average Joe clearly is underrepresented. Probably stuck in traffic.

Under this study, 67 proposed projects have been winnowed to five with the 40-mile Wesley Chapel-to-USF-to-Tampa/St. Pete route considered the top performer as measured by the number of people, employment/activity centers and amenities served. To be determined is whether the route will carry buses, rail or another transportation mode. The cost estimates range from $75 million up to $4.8 billion.

Sound familiar? Nine years ago, back when President George W. Bush was still in the White House, the then-Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority was the host at a similar public workshop at a church in Lutz. Transportation officials said then that the Wesley Chapel-to-USF-to-Tampa route was considered the most likely starting point for regional mass transit.

"And here we are 10 years later, talking about the same thing,'' acknowledged Scott Pringle of Jacobs Engineering, which is tasked with recommending the new transit plan by January.

The 2008 plan was derailed by voters defeating a new transportation tax in Hillsborough County. Pinellas voters followed suit in 2014. Pasco's long-range transportation plan incudes an extra 1-cent sales tax for transportation in the next decade. Voter approval will be required.

The few written comments at the open house advocate for adding Brandon into the mix as an activity center, including the CSX rail line in the passenger train plans, expanding the Tampa Bay Ferry service and making sure the picked project connects to U.S. 19 in west Pasco.

Doug Harvey of St. Petersburg traveled to Pasco County for the meeting and noted the sparsity of participants.

"There should be,'' he said, "a better turnout.''

• • •

The focus becomes much narrower two nights later inside the Pasco County Utilities Building, where a task force meets to study the State Road 54/56 corridor. The heavily advertised session draws enough people that they have to bring in extra chairs. About 50 members of the general public join the cadre of consultants and government staffers as well as the 16 members of the community task force.

This is the group assembled after the public meltdown of a private company's pitch to build and operate an elevated toll road linking Trinity to Wesley Chapel. The DOT pulled the plug after the company admitted it needed public subsidies to make the $2 billion idea work, but the need for a long-term traffic solution along the SR 54/56 corridor remains.

"We're playing catch-up all the time with this stuff,'' said Matt Armstrong, Pasco's executive long-range planner, who talked about trying to tie quality-of-life housing and amenities with the transportation network.

There are 11 options under consideration for improving two intersections: SR 54 at Little Road in Trinity and SR 54 at U.S. 41 in central Pasco. But, Little Road is an afterthought. It's obvious the U.S. 41 intersection has everyone's attention. A short-term fix is scheduled to begin next year to extend the turn lanes for eastbound traffic on SR 54.

"Don't think this is going to resolve all your problems. We're still going to have congestion,'' warned Ali Atefi, the transportation engineer for Pasco's Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The disdain for an elevated road above SR 54, even for the portion above the U.S. 41 intersection, is repeated from vocal task force members and the pubic. But nobody endorses an alternative. Who knew you could solve traffic congestion with roadblocks?

Doing nothing means the current 143-second wait for rush-hour motorists to get through the intersection will stretch to longer than six minutes by 2040.

Some of the proposals — a mix of elevated lanes, at-grade intersection improvements or mass transit — will expedite travel time, but include exorbitant right-of-ways cost. In more than three hours, the group dissects just one of the 11 alternatives, and nobody appears too enthused with spending $1 billion for a bus system.

The end result?

They schedule another meeting.

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