LUTZ — The widening of Lutz-Lake Fern Road was supposed to funnel more commuters from Dale Mabry Highway to the new interchange at the Suncoast Parkway.
But after spending close to $10 million to widen a three-quarter-mile stretch of the road, county officials are abandoning the work and say there's no telling when it will resume.
The reason for the abrupt change? The economy. More specifically, a sharp drop in sales taxes used to pay for road construction has forced engineers to reprioritize projects. The Lutz-Lake Fern project was among several in Hillsborough to be halted midstream or sidelined altogether.
"It became very evident we couldn't afford to do it," county spokesman Steve Valdez said.
Widening the remaining 2.5 miles of road from two lanes to four would have cost the county up to $30 million, including land acquisition and costs for medians, sidewalks and drainage.
Valdez said engineers plan to return to the project, but that's not likely to happen until the economy rebounds and community investment sales taxes — the lifeblood of county infrastructure projects — pick back up again.
The remaining leg from just east of the Boulevard of the Roses to Dale Mabry Highway is the least complicated part of the three-phase widening, but it is the longest stretch of highway, making it the most costly, Valdez said.
Phase I involved widening the highway just east and west of the Suncoast Parkway and tying it into the parkway's entrance and exit ramps.
Phase II, completed a few weeks ago, widened a three-quarter-mile segment of Lutz-Lake Fern from just east of the Suncoast Parkway to the Boulevard of the Roses.
Widening that stretch was critical because it directly accesses several housing developments, a couple of golf courses, several day care centers, a horse ranch and three Hillsborough County schools: McKitrick Elementary School, Martinez Middle School and Steinbrenner High School.
Commuters and homeowners have complained for years about traffic near the schools, which are clustered together a few hundred yards east of the Suncoast Parkway.
Just as morning commuters are lining up to enter the parkway, school buses, students and their parents' vehicles are converging at the three-school complex. The result is a snail's-pace parade of brake lights and exhaust fumes.
"We truly thought it was a critical project because not one, not two, but three schools are located there," Valdez said. "The straw that made it fall into the truly critical-project phase was when Steinbrenner (High School) opened two years ago. That's what really did it."
Before the widening, traffic was so heavy that the school district was forced to hire sheriff's deputies before and after classes to direct the convoy of buses and cars. Traffic routinely backed up a half-mile or more on Lutz-Lake Fern.
In addition to adding two lanes and a median, engineers built turning lanes into the school complex, a traffic signal and areas where the cars could stack up. The $9.9 million project was started last summer and lasted about a year.
The result, while not perfect, is a vast improvement over the old highway, says Sonjia Perez, whose son, Ramon, is a sixth-grader at Martinez Middle School.
"They did a good job and they did improve it," she said. "The lights, the turning lanes — they have helped tremendously."
But, Perez said, traffic still backs up, and parents are still forced to set aside as much as 30 minutes to drop off or pick up their children.
Although the schools have agreed to start and end classes at staggered times, there is still a spillover of hundreds of vehicles crowding into the road at the same time.
"During inclement weather it's even worse because none of the students take the bus. They all wait for their parents," she said. "Whoever planned having three schools with one entry way was absolutely crazy."