Thursday, June 21, 2018
Transportation

Pasco buries tunnel proposal at U.S. 41 and SR 54

DADE CITY — Transportation planners are burying the idea of tunneling under U.S. 41 to ease traffic congestion at the road’s intersection with State Road 54 in central Pasco.

Even with the conceptual cost dropping $300 million, Pasco’s elected county and city officials, sitting as the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the tunnel was too pricey.

"Clearly, the option and the price is much higher ... I think we should move past that,’’ said Commissioner Jack Mariano, who broached the tunnel idea in January and asked for the cost study.

A month ago, the planning board got sticker shock after it learned that building a 6,000-linear-foot tunnel, including approaches, to take SR 54 beneath U.S. 41 could cost $550 million.

That is more than the $455 million projected cost of the proposed 41-mile Bus Rapid Transit system connecting Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg via buses in dedicated highway lanes. Likewise, a prior state Department of Transportation plan to build a fly-over at SR 54/U.S. 41 had a cost estimate of roughly $160 million.

Thursday, the planning board staff lowered the estimated price of the tunnel, now referred to as a underpass, to $250 million. The expense dropped because the length of the approaches and below-grade highway was reduced to just 2,500 linear feet, based on a design of an underpass in Broward County.

"This is just conceptual,’’ cautioned Ali Atefi, the planning board’s engineer.

It was a concept the board unanimously agreed was too rich.

"Unfortunately, it’s cost prohibitive,’’ said Commissioner Mike Moore.

Studying the proposed tunnel triggered a five-month delay in the board’s consideration of recommendations from a citizens task force on how to improve the bottleneck at the intersection.

The task force spent two years studying the intersection and the entire State Road 54/56 corridor to winnow 18 alternatives to four recommendations. They included: building elevated lanes; at-grade improvements; and its top choice of constructing a network of frontage roads known as a parallel-flow intersection. The task force did not consider the tunnel idea.

Thursday, the transportation board agreed to send the task force proposals to the state DOT for additional study. A time line on a final decision is not yet known, said Atefi, but the county plans a public outreach campaign to gauge public interest in the proposals.

Christie Zimmer of Land O’ Lakes, a member of the task force, lauded the board for abandoning the tunnel plan.

"I’m happy to hear that,’’ she said in an interview. "After we spent two years looking at all the options, to bring that up after the 11th hour was just a waste of time.’’

Building a tunnel in an area known for its preponderance of sinkholes "was a lousy idea to begin with,’’ said Zimmer. "It’s stupid, just hair-brained.’’

The task force’s work began after severe public criticism of a private company’s unsolicited proposal to build an elevated toll road above the SR 54/56 corridor from west Pasco to Zephyrhills. DOT pulled the plug on that plan in 2013 after the company acknowledged it would need public subsidies to make the $2 billion project work.

Separately, DOT had begun studying a flyover at SR 54 and U.S. 41 in Lutz and Land O’ Lakes, but agreed in 2016 to delay its work until the task force completed its recommendations.

Additionally, DOT plans a short-term fix of extending the left-hand turn lanes for traffic on eastbound SR 54 to curb congestion. Approximately 100,000 vehicles pass through the intersection daily, and growth projections indicate the traffic count could more than double by 2040.

The state has budgeted $32 million to begin buying right of way in 2022 for a new interchange at SR 54/U.S. 41.

Reach C.T. Bowen at [email protected] or (813) 435-7306. Follow @CTBowen2

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