NEW PORT RICHEY — The Florida Department of Transportation says an interim fix for the traffic-choked intersection of State Road 54 and U.S. 41 in central Pasco is at least 17 months away.
"I'm committing that I'd like to have this design start as soon as possible,'' said Bill Jones, director of transportation development for DOT's Tampa district office. "We want to make this work.''
A likely scenario, he said, is finding the construction money in the DOT's 2019 fiscal year budget, which begins July 1, 2018.
Jones delivered that time line to county commissioners and elected city officials sitting as the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization last week in New Port Richey.
Who would pay for the improvements and when the work would begin had not been stated publicly before Jones' comments. Commissioner Mike Moore asked for the MPO briefing after the Tampa Bay Times detailed the DOT proposal, which Commissioner Kathryn Starkey first revealed at a Jan. 31 commission workshop.
The DOT has said extending the length of turn lanes at the intersection could ease traffic flow while the state and county devise a long-term solution. The largest improvement, costing an estimated $1.04 million, would lengthen left- and right-turn lanes for eastbound traffic on SR 54 as it approaches the U.S. 41 intersection. The plan would extend the right-turn lane nearly fivefold to 1,050 feet and more than double the length of the two left-hand turn lanes from their current 350 feet.
Lengthening the lanes would allow significantly more vehicles to enter the northbound and southbound traffic queues, freeing up space for through traffic in the three center lanes to approach the traffic signal.
"We all know that's going to make a huge difference,'' Starkey said.
But it is not the final answer. The state and county are seeking a permanent solution to the intersection, which nearly 100,000 vehicles pass through daily and projections call for daily traffic volumes to more than double to 208,000 vehicles over the next 25 years.
Last year, the DOT delayed a proposal for an intersection flyover amid community objections and a request from the county to allow a task force studying the entire State Road 54-56 corridor to complete its work. The proposed flyover, which would carry SR 54 traffic on elevated lanes above the intersection, carried a cost estimate of up to $180 million. The DOT had included no money for the project in its five-year work plan.
The task force will now focus its immediate concerns on the SR 54 intersections at U.S. 41 and at Little Road. After winnowing a list of proposed fixes, the MPO plans a $200,000, nine-month study of the alternatives.
That didn't sit well with MPO members, particularly Commissioner Jack Mariano, who urged the road planners to use the study money for immediate design work on the U.S. 41 interim fix. As of last week, it had not been determined who will finance the project design, estimated to cost $300,000.
"We go study and study and study,'' Mariano said. "Let's go do something.''
The planning money, however, cannot be used for design and construction work, DOT officials said.
And the transportation planners urged the MPO not to lose sight of the required long-term fix for the U.S. 41-SR 54 intersection — the main crossroads in the county's southern tier. Richard Gehring, the county's strategic policy administrator, dubbed it a "Tampa Bay doorway.''
"The issue is the most strategic, dynamic issue you must solve on this corridor,'' Gehring told the MPO. "Suncoast (Parkway) to Bruce B. Downs (Boulevard), you will go gridlock systematically if you don't solve it.''